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This past week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Arizona did not violate federal laws that require schools to help students who do not speak, read or write English. Despite the federal mandates, these kids often fail to do well in school. And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, that raises a much bigger question.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: So, why haven't schools figured out the best way to teach English to non-English-speaking students? That's the question.
Ms. NANCY ROWE: Well, you know, the research certainly has in the past shown that dual-language programs are the most effective.
SANCHEZ: Nancy Rowe oversees instruction for English-language learners in Nebraska. She swears that building on a child's native language, rather than discarding it, has proven to be the best way to help kids make the transition to English. But that's neither here nor there because the actual programs schools use have less to do with research than with politics and funding.
In Nebraska, for example, Rowe says school districts cannot find dual-language teachers or pay for dual-language programs, so the state has no choice but to allow them to use whatever they can afford, even discredited methods like sink or swim.
Ms. ROWE: In small schools, sink or swim may actually occur. Nebraska is a very rural state. But to me, sink or swim would be like saying: to teach children to read, we're just going to throw them into an environment, but we never have to instruct on how to read.
SANCHEZ: Again, based on the evidence, says Rowe, dual language or bilingual instruction is the answer.
Ms. ROWE: A dual-language program allows both English, and in the case of Nebraska, Spanish, speakers to learn both languages together.
SANCHEZ: Like many parts of the nation, the non-English-speaking population in Nebraska has exploded, creating enormous problems for schools that have really struggled to keep these kids from falling behind in science, math, history, while they learn English. And that's the key, experts say, that they learn English so that they can function.
The politically-charged question, though, is should the goal be to teach a child English as quickly as possible or should a child learn English more gradually while maintaining his native language so that he grows up bilingual?
Mr. ROB TOONKEL (U.S. English): There's nothing wrong with having a kid - being bilingual.
SANCHEZ: That's Rob Toonkel of U.S. English. It opposes any program that delays a child's transition to English-only classrooms.
Mr. TOONKEL: The problem with the old form of bilingual education was that it said the kids will become English proficient at some point. It didn't say three years or five years or seven years.
SANCHEZ: Which means these kids are often stuck in so-called dual language or bilingual maintenance programs indefinitely, says Toonkel. Another problem, he says, is that schools have gotten little or no guidance - not from the states, not from the federal government or the courts. All the courts have said is schools must take appropriate action to help students overcome language barriers.
The result, says Toonkel, is a hodgepodge of ineffective, poorly-funded programs and poor academic results. Low test scores, low graduation rates and high dropout rates, especially among Spanish-speaking students.
Mr. TOONKEL: You're seeing it in places in the South and the Midwest suddenly going, okay, we have to look at these programs and figure out what's best for us because we have a lot of people moving here.
SANCHEZ: Right now, the little guidance states are getting from the federal government is wrapped up in No Child Left Behind, the sweeping eight-year-old law that evaluates schools based on students' academic progress and test scores.
James Crawford, a longtime proponent of bilingual education and president of the Institute for Language and Education, says No Child Left Behind poses another hurdle for kids who don't know English.
Mr. JAMES CRAWFORD (President, Institute for Language and Education): What No Child Left Behind does is attach very high stakes to tests that are given primarily in English.
SANCHEZ: Crawford says schools are throwing kids into English-only classrooms too quickly.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Because the schools are so worried about the consequences of not making adequate yearly progress for English-language learners.
SANCHEZ: In other words, says Crawford, instead of adopting proven programs that help non-English-speaking students do well in school, we're back to sink or swim.
Mr. CRAWFORD: It's ironic that as more and more research comes in showing the benefits of bilingual education, we are seeing a political trend toward minimizing the use of bilingual education.
Mr. CRAWFORD: It's tied up with the immigration debates. It's also a reflection of the kind of culture wars that we've had.
SANCHEZ: And as long as that's the case, Crawford says, politics will trump the research and continue to put over five million students classified as English-language learners at risk.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.