IN NEARLY nine years, Washington has spent well over half a billion dollars trying to discover how to help students, mainly Hispanic-Americans, who have little or no command of English. But after all this time and effort, it does not know very much about how to do this. In fact, it has not really tried very hard to find out.

The government wanted to find out back in 1968. That was when it enacted a law called the Bilingual Education Act, which was supposed to demonstrate the best ways to teach these pupils, many of whom have been falling badly behind in school. But rather than demonstrate much, the government has handed out hundreds of grants to local projects in the hope that, at some point, it would bump into something .

This year, for example, it is helping 425 projects teach reading, math and other subjects in Spanish and 67 other languages and dialects, including Arabic, Cherokee, Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, Pennsylvania Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Tagalog, Yiddish and Yup'ik (an Eskimo tongue). But despite all this activity, there is still no evidence that such bilingual instruction has made much difference in helping the students to learn.

What the government has found is considerable confusion over the program's goals, many misleading claims and a large dose of America's version of the language politics that has been sweeping many nations. Conflicting Approaches

THE ORIGINAL GOAL of the bilingual education program, as it was envisioned by Congress, the courts and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, was to focus on those pupils who were to focus on those pupils who were least able to learn in English. For nine years, HEW's Office of Education has been exploring ways of helping these pupils, concentrating on a technique known as "transitional" bilingual education. The idea is to keep students abreast of math, reading and other subjects in their native tongues while they are taught enough English to transfer to regular classrooms.

But the leaders of the bilingual education movement dislike these "transitional" programs. Instead, they have pressed Washington to place equal maintaining their native languages and cultures. In these "maintenance" programs, students continue to learn partly in their mother groups even if they are fluent in English. This second approach to bilingual and bicultural education has raised profound social, political, education and other issues about the nature of American society, most of which have received little serious attention.

There has been no absence of sweeping claims about the value of bilingual education. Manuel D. Flerro, president of El Congreso, the Hispanic-Americans' umbrella Washington lobbying group, called the program a "demonstrated success" in a letter to President Ford in 1975. But in fact, Fierro and other supporters of bilingual education acknowledge the absence of any serious evidence to support these claims.

Jose A. Cardenas, a leading adviser to HEW and to many others on this subject, typically remarks, "I think you cannot find proof at this time about the success of bilingual education." John C. Molina, director of bilingual education in the U.S. Office of Education, says, "We have wasted a lot of time, and we've got to have some answers. We must know that bilingual education does indeed provide equal educational opportunity."

"I think it's the case that children in some existing transitional bilingual programs may not be getting as good a quality education as they might receive in a regular school program," says Rudolph C. Troike, an anthropologist and a strong supporter of bilingual education who is director of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a national research and consulting firm. Mixed Results

AN INTERIM REPORT from the first national "impact" study of bilingual projects, issued in April by the Office of Education, leaves matters as uncertain as ever.

The study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research, examined 38 projects for Hispanic-American students in their fourth or fifth year of operation. It found that pupils in the bilingual projects, which average an additional cost of $376 a year more per pupil, actually were doing worse in learning English than comparison students of Hispanic descent in regular classrooms. In math, the bilingual project students were doing better. But compared with national norms, both groups were in the bottom fifth of the nation in English and the bottom third in math.

Advocates of bilingual-bicultural education have argued that such instruction would have important psychological benefits for minority students, making them feel more accepted. But the impact study found that the bilingual project pupils' attitudes toward school were scarcely any different from those of Hispanic students not taught bilingually.

The impact study also examined results from some classrooms where children did show unusually large gains in achievement and in their attitudes toward school. But the gains could not be attributed to bilingual instruction. Some unusually large achievement classrooms, as were some unusually large improvements in attitudes toward school. But the two gains were not related, the report stated.

Yet these uncertain results do not mean that the transitional bilingaul technique itself is a failure. They may mean rather that bilingual projects have been poorly run, that qualified teachers and adequate curricula have been in short supply, and that little serious attention has been paid to project evaluations and even less to controlled research on individual projects. Carrots and Sticks

THE BILINGUAL Education Act is only one of a number of federal programs aiding bilingual education. Since the early 1960s, a substantial portion of Cuban Refugee Program has supported bilingual instruction in Miami, which was officially declared a bilingual city in 1973; about $3.5 million of the nearly $10 million of such funds for the Dade County (Miami) schools in 1975, for example, went for bilingual education.

Under the Emergency School Aid Act, nearly $29 million was spent nationally on 120 bilingual education projects from 1973 through 1975. Additional funds for bilingual education are being spent under the large Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title I program for disadvantaged children, under the Right-to-Read program, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and under other federal efforts. Although no precise total is available for federal spending in this area, at the current rate of expansion it could well reach the billion-dollar mark in a few years.

In addition to this financial carrot, the government has been wielding a stick. HEW's Office for Civil Rights has listed 334 school districts which may have to start bilingual-bicultural classes for students with English language deficiencies for face a potential loss of all their federal school aid. For not only is there no reliable evidence to show whether such instruction wuld make any difference in the student's learning, but neither is there any federal legal requirement for schools to provide bilingual or bicultural education.

The authority for the agency's position stems from a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars national-origin discrimination by recipients of federal funds. In May, 1970, the Office for Civil Rights issued a memorandum defining language as basic to national origin and requiring schools to take "affirmative steps" to correct the English lanuage deficiency of many minority children in order to provide them with equal educational opportunity.

Nearly four years later, in January, 1974, the Supreme Court upheld the agency's position in Lau v. Nichols, a San Francisco case involving about 1,800 Chinese-speaking students who had received neither the special English instruction given to other Chinese speakers nor any other special instruction.

Legal services attorneys from San Francisco's Chinatown originally brought the Lau suit on constitutional grounds, but both the federal district court and the appeals court rejected their contention that the pupils had a contitutional right to any special instruction. When the case reached the Supreme Court, th Justice Department entered the suit, arguing that San Francisco was inviolation of the 1970 Office for Civil Rights memorandum. A unanimous high court affirmed that federally funded scools must "rectify the language deficiency' in order to open instruction to students who had 'linguistic deficiencies.'" No longer was "sink or swim" a permissible attitude. No longer could schools provide equal opportunity merely by offering these pupils equal services.

But the court neither required bilingual education as the remedy nor favored it over other approaches, and its ruling did not deal at all with bicultural instruction. It left the remedy to the school district, stating: "Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry is one choice. Giving instruction to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others."

After the Lau decision, however, the Office for Civil Rights assembled a task force of bilingual-bicultural education advocates. The members drew up what are known as the 'Lau Remedies," which were approved by the civil rights office and the Office of Education and issued in the summer of 1975. These "remedies" declare that, if school districts found in violation of Lau have 20 or more students from any non-English language group, they must provide bilingual-bicultural education for the bulk of the affected students - unless the school districts can prove that another approach would be "affeective." Paul McRill, coordinator of bilingual programs for the Seattle school system, which has signed a Lau agreement with the Office for Civil Rights covering 13 of that city's 50 language groups, asks the obvious question: "How can you prove something is equally as good as something else which nobody has proved the worth of? You came to a logical dead end on that one immediately." Language Preservation

ANOTHER fundamental question is whether the bilingual programs are reaching the target students.

Definitions of eligible children under both congressional and Office for Civil Rights policies are broad enough to include many pupils who actually are proficient in English, though they may also speak another language. Students have been admitted to bilingual programs based on their surnames, Census Bureau data and other grounds which do not necessarily measure their ability to speak, understand, read and write English.

The interim "impact" study, in fact, reported that teachers judged 70 per cent of ther pupils to be dominant in English, not Spanish, for test-taking purposes. While such teacher judgements may not always be accurate, it is obvious that using limited funds for children who are able to learn English takes these resources from pupils who cannot learn in English and who therefore are most in need.

It is also clear that bilingual-bicultural advocates want to provide such instruction to students who are proficient in English, even though the issue has been left ambiguous in the Bilingual Education Act. In fact, the interim study reported that 86 per cent of the bilingual project directors interviewed had a policy of keeping students in such classes after they could learn in English. The report were implementing a Spanish maintenance bilingual project."

Similarly, the General Accounting Office found that the majority of students in many bilingual projects were more proficient in English than in Spanish. And a group of Hospanic-American educators reported in 1974 that "a very large percentage - 87 per cent - of the programs surveyed considered their programs to be a language maintenance program rather than a transitional program.

Bilingual backers, in fact, believe that anything short of such maintenance programs, as Prof. Josue M. Gonzales of Southern Methodist University puts it, "helps maintain the outdated 'melting pot' sydrome which discourages cultural pluralism in American society." They believe that is is the federal government's responsibility to finance and promote the teaching of ethnic languages and histories while the students also learn the common English language and the common national history.

This philosophy, which might be called "affirmative ethnicity," not only has been evident in Bilingual Education Act projects but also in civil rights enforcement.For example, HEW's Office for Civil Rights has told schoold districts that it is "acceptable" to correct students' English deficiencies by also maintaining their native languages and cultures. And in San Francisco, a consent decree has resulted in a court order to implement a language and cultural maintenance program.

Beyond the fact that money spent for these purposes takes limited resources from children who are most in need, the maintenance movement has raised many profound issues.

Separating students temporarily in basic skills classes in the native language until they can learn in English, for example, can be justified on both compensatory education and civil rights grounds. But keeping students and teacher segregated to maintain the native langauge and culture cannot be so justified, and the evidence indicates that most maintenance efforst are highly segregated. This is distressing observers both inside and outside and bilingual movement.

Prof. William G. Milan of Columbia University's Teachers College, who directed one of the nine "Lau Centers" set up by HEW to help school districts comply with the Supreme Court ruling, comments:

"What is truly alarming about maintenance bilingual education in the public school system is that it is often used as an instrument of segregation in disguise, and that it much too often sets as its primary goal the preservation of the mother tongue at the expense of a good quality education that will enable the members of the marked [language minority] group to complete in a unmarked [English-speaking] job market."

Political scientist Gary Orfield of the University of IIlinois, who has concentrated on civil issues and particulary on integration, says of maintenance programs: "There must be sober investigation of the possibility that this method may increase community segregation and generate the kind of bitter linguistic politics that often overwhelm Canada, Bleguim, India, Cyprus, and many other societies." Orfield is not suggesting that a Quebec-style movement toward political secession might develop among Hispanic-Americans in this country. What he means by "bitter linguistic politics" is that "language could become a major point of cleavage in state and local politics in many areas, in educational institutions, in job qualifications and in general social relations."

Others are concerned about the effects within groups, about the prospect of promoting ethnic conformity rather than diversity. Jose A. Vasquez of the National Institute of Education, for example, complains about Spanish-speaking teachers discriminating against children who speak a different vaiety of Spanish. Bilingaul officials have told federally sponsored curriculum centers to use Mexican Spanish in the materials they develop.

A dramatic example of intra-group divisions comes from Chicago, where a voluntary, state-funded bilingual program triggered a bitter battle in the Greek-American community, the largest in the nation.

The battle pitted second-generation and third-generation Greek-Americans, whose children were not scheduled to be in the program, against newer arrivals. Parents opposing the bilingual program in the Lincoln Square neighborhood boycotted the local school for four days in October, 1973. Police had to break up a heated conflict among Greek-Americans at a local school council meeting. Some Greek-Americans ended up moving from the neighborhood.

"The strain became so tremendous that former friends and acquaintances found that better together was uncomfortable and often found that getting together was uncomfortable and often abrasive," wrote Matha S. Alexakos in the draft of a doctoral dissertation on the battle "People tended to greet each other with stony silences or open insults, and in some cases children of former friends no longer together." Bilingual Cities?

AN IRONY of the drive for maintenance programs is that, if they were to succeed, they would be just as likely to help erode native languages and cultures in this country as to nourish them. If students with English difficulties were to become well educated in English as well as in their native tongues, most probably would find English the more useful language in our 96 per cent English-speaking society, and there would likely be a steady attrition in use of the native tongue. That has been the pattern in this country and elsewhere.

Prof. Joshua A. Fishman of Yeshiva University, perhaps the preeminent U.S. scholar on the sociology of language, comments that "research has conclusively demonstrated - in the U.S.A., in Ireland, in Wales, in Israel, in Scotland, in Freisland, and elsewhere - that the school is a rather unreliable and frequently in other directions, i.e., toward the 'wider' language of market place, of industry, of government and of scholarshop."

Transitional programs, of course, would have the same effort, only soone and more surely. This obviously is a premature concern at this time, given the absence of evidence that bilingual programs produce students who are well educated either in English or in the native language. But some scholars within the movement have been warning that only strenuous efforts to reinforce cultural and language "pluralism" in the wider community can protect the ethnic language and culture from erosion. Concepts of such societal "pluralism" range widely.

Troike, of the Center for Applied Linguistics, for example, sees community pluralism "to some extent emerging naturally in things like TV programs and newspapers. The city I grew up in, Brownsville, Tex., has been a comfortable place for this all along - newspapers in English and Spanish, radion programs in English and Spanish. I don't necessarily see it being legislated, and certainly not imposed."

Fishman goes somewhat further, including a need for ethnic groups to see native language "in their own local economics . . . " El Congreso's Manuel Fierro asks, "what's the matter with Miami?", indicating that he would become more than one or two officially bilingual cities. SMU's Gonzales has suggested to Congress that this country soon might have to consider to Congress that this country soon might have to consider making Spanish an official second language, just as Canada since 1969 has required all government services to be available in both French and English. Jobs and Power

SOME OBSERVERS doubt that Hispanic-Americans are that committed to protecting their language and cultures, seeing them as more determined to increase their economic and political power and prestige.

"What bilingual education is, more than anything else, I believe, is a jobs program," says A. Bruce Gaarder, former chief of the Office of Educational's modern foreign language section. "I say this painfully, because I am one who has organized a legue for the defense of the Spanish lanuage. But it's a jobs program. It's fought for because it's a way of giving jobs and recognition and status to Spanish speakers, who traditionally have been at the lowest end of the socioeconomic pole. It's at that level that they fight for it and are going to keep on fighting for it."

In a 1975 study for the Office of Education, the Rand Corp. reported: "There might be cheaper and more effective ways to meet the needs at which bilingual education programs aim. But the political test is potency - the ability of the claimant to win large-scale support from Congress and thereby the political respect, however reluctant, of school districts that formerly could ignore their demands. Forcing the districts to teach in Spanish is a test of that potency and thereby contributes to the transcending aim - increasing the social self-respect and political power of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, children and adults alike."

For some Hispanic-American leaders, bilingual education has been an important vehicle for increasing their group's share of federal aid and attention compared with that going to blacks. "We were very much excluded" from civil rights programs, Fierro explains, adding: "As long as we get out 80 per cent [of Bilingual Education Act Funds], the others can have their 20 per cent - and the blacks can't get this money."

There is no question that bilingual-bicultural education policy has been governed in large measure by the Hispanic-American quest for more political and economic perhaps the largest federally funded expression in this country of the ethnic political wave that has swept the globe over the past 20 years or so.

As MIT political scientist Harold D. Isaacs put it in "Idols of the Tribe": "We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive in gathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds - tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is great clustering into separateness that will, it is thought, improve, assure or extend each group's power of place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat or hostility of others. This is obvously no new condition, only the lastest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which, after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb, Isaac and Ishmeal clash and part in panic and retreat once more to their caves." Costs and Benefits

THE ISSUE is not the unquestioned importance of ethnicity in individuals' lives, any more than it is the unquestioned importance of religion in individuals' lives. Nor is the issue the right or the desirability of groups to maintain their languages and cultures. The question is the federal role. Is it a federal responsibility to finance and promote attachments to ethnic languages and cultures? Why?

Bilingual-bicultural supporters have offered a variety of reasons. Many advance claims of historical justice for groups that were conquered or that have suffered from severe discrimination in American society.

Other advocates believe that maintenance programs would improve the general academic performance of students from these groups. This view rests on psychological benefits, on making students feel greater pride and acceptance and thereby increasing their eagerness to learn. Despite the scarcity of research evidence to support this view, it is a strongly held article of faith among many bilingual-bicultural supporters.

Still others do not necessarily rely on claims to historical justice or on beliefs about general education benefits. Thye support federal financing of maintence programs in large part for the "enrichment" they believe these would provide to the society and to protect ethnic languages andcultures from erosion.

The question is whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential costs. Would the result be more harmony or more discord in American society.?