Article published in The San Francisco Chronicle
In a mainstream class at Typical Elementary, third-graders Maria and Jose listen to the teacher explain Thanksgiving, draw a turkey, study vocabulary words, look at a Mayflower picture, sing a Thanksgiving song, and act out Indians feasting with Pilgrims. An aide may help in English or Spanish; they’ll spend 30 minutes a day studying English with other “English learners.”
Maria will be proficient in English by fifth grade and go on to earn a high school diploma. Jose will remain an English learner into middle school, where he’ll drift away from the mainstream. He’ll take low-level high school classes, give up and drop out. While Maria is in community college planning a nursing career, Jose will be working on his uncle’s mow-and-blow crew.
Forty percent of English learners who started California schools as kindergartners won’t be proficient in English by seventh grade, according to a study by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Others reach even grimmer numbers: More than 60 percent aren’t proficient after 10 years in California schools, estimates a state-commissioned study on Proposition 227’s effects by two nonprofit research groups, the American Institutes for Research and WestEd.
California is losing the talents of an enormous number of young people. Some elementary schools have figured out how to educate students so that Maria and Jose are prepared to succeed. Most haven’t. A huge achievement gap — 256 points on the Academic Performance Index for English learners — separates successful elementary schools from those where those students lag far behind in academic skills, concludes an EdSource (www.edsource.org) study released recently.
What counts isn’t whether students are taught in Spanish or English, but whether they’re taught well.
“The education of English learners has been defined by the bilingual versus English-only debate,” says Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford education professor and principal investigator for the EdSource study, “Similar English Learner Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better?”
Some schools do better because they develop a coherent, standards-based curriculum, use data to improve teaching, set high and measurable objectives, and provide competent teachers with up-to-date instructional materials. English learners do well in these schools. So do native English speakers.
While English learners also benefit from extra attention from teachers and aides, they benefit most from attending a school that’s organized to improve the achievement of all students. In short: It’s the teaching, stupid.
One in 4 California students — and 1 in 3 elementary students — is classified as an English learner. About 85 percent come from Spanish-speaking families; a similar percentage come from low-income families. The vast majority are born in the United States or come before kindergarten, and most start school with some English skills. Since Prop. 227 passed in 1998, the percentage of English learners in bilingual classes has fallen to 7 percent.
Although nearly half of English learners score in the “early advanced” or “advanced” range on the California English Language Development Test, less than 10 percent are reclassified as “fluent English proficient” each year.
I researched reclassification for a Lexington Institute (www.lexingtoninstitute.org) report, “How Good is Good Enough? Moving California’s English Learners to English Proficiency.” It was clear that some districts and schools monitor students’ progress closely and try to move students from English learner status as soon as they’re ready. Glendale Unified, near Los Angeles, doubled the state average with a 19.7 percent reclassification rate. Others didn’t consider reclassification important: In Alvord Unified in Riverside County, only 1 percent of English learners reached fluent English proficient status in 2005-06.
But many students don’t qualify for reclassification because their academic skills are below average.
If English learners don’t catch up by the end of elementary school, they usually don’t catch up later, warns Robert Linquanti, a WestEd researcher and co-author of the Prop. 227 follow-up study. When he meets with school administrators, Linquanti asks them how many of their students who’ve been enrolled since kindergarten go on to middle school as English learners. “How many go on to be reclassified? How well do they do?” When he shows them the data on student failure, they’re “horrified,” he says. He’s made administrators cry.
Starting in middle school, English learners may take separate English classes and sometimes social studies, science and math classes designed for students with limited English proficiency. Expectations are low. Many get stuck on an English learner track to nowhere.
The dropout rate is enormous. In Los Angeles Unified, only 29 percent of ninth-grade English learners are still enrolled by 12th grade.
Some of these students arrived in the United States too late to learn English and catch up with their classmates, but most are long-term students.
It’s not hopeless for English learners who arrive in elementary school, EdSource found. Researchers compared schools with similar demographics: Most students come from low-income families.
A few English learner teaching techniques correlate with higher scores. Students do better if they receive English-language instruction from a specialist teacher rather than the classroom teacher. Students learn more math if their teacher uses English learner strategies and an aide helps in the student’s home language.
What really distinguishes schools on the high side of the achievement gap, however, is a commitment to effective teaching for all students.
Not surprisingly, successful schools have more experienced and certified teachers; principals report a higher percentage of teachers understand their subjects, know how to link standards to teaching, collaborate well with colleagues and are excited about teaching. These schools are more likely to have up-to-date textbooks.
At high-achieving schools, principals analyze test data from multiple sources to improve instruction and learning. They track struggling students to offer more help when needed.
These schools implement a coherent curriculum linked to state standards. Teachers work together to ensure consistent instruction.
High expectations correlate with high scores. When “the principal communicates a clear vision for the school, sets high standards for student learning, and makes expectations clear to teachers for meeting academic achievement goals, the school is more likely to be high achieving,” the study says. Schools that work for English learners and others make measurable student achievement a priority.
Putting a priority on achievement leads to achievement.
“It sounds like, duh,” says Trish Williams, director of EdSource.
But it’s harder to do than it sounds.
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