Education Secretary William J. Bennett praised the impressive educational achievements of Asian Americans yesterday and cited their experience as support for his proposal to restructure the country's bilingual education programs.

In a speech prepared for delivery to a Vietnamese organization in Orange County, Calif., Bennett said that giving local school districts greater flexibility in teaching Asian immigrants "should enable Asian-American students to get more and better English language instruction."

He also raised the issue of discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions, vowing to take action if he finds "concrete evidence" that students have been denied admission because the schools have "unofficial quotas" limiting the number of Asian Americans.

A Census Bureau study found that Asian Americans are more likely to finish high school and college than are white students. And on national standardized tests, Bennett said, a study showed that 27 percent of recent young refugees from Southeast Asia scored in the 90th percentile on math achievement, a proportion nearly three times higher than the national average.

"It is in the area of education that Asian Americans have made their most spectacular gains and have taught us the most profound lessons," Bennett said in the prepared text. He dismissed "fashionable theories" that explain this success through environmental factors, such as class, and instead stressed the importance of values.

"The virtues which characterize the Asian-American community, and account for its success -- hard work, self-discipline, perseverance, industry, respect for family, for learning and for country -- are not confined to Asian Americans alone," said Bennett. "They are in fact traditional American virtues."

He also said Asian immigrants may be working hard to succeed because of their appreciation for freedom in this country, which many Americans take for granted.

Bennett contended that in their struggle to learn English, Asian immigrants would benefit by the changes he is promoting. Bennett's proposal would allow school districts to choose or design their own bilingual education program, rather than requiring them to teach students in their native languages until they become proficient in English.

Bennett has contended that the old program has been a failure, but Hispanic leaders and others say impressive gains have been made under that system.