Article published in Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
In 1998, California voted to replace bilingual education with English-language immersion. Although English learners have since made enormous strides, the state has had some of the nation’s lowest rates in reclassifying English learners as English-proficient.
Last year, only 9.6 percent of California’s English learners were reclassified — a success rate only slightly higher than it was nine years ago.
But some schools have made progress. Last year, California’s third largest school district, Long Beach Unified, redesignated 15.2 percent of its English learners.
So what’s making the difference?
The answer, despite what many would assume, has little to do with class size, spending or neighborhood poverty.
If we compare the most recent scores from the California English Language Development Test to district-specific data on per-pupil spending, average class size, and the number of students receiving subsidized meals (a widely accepted measure of student-body affluence), the results suggest that these common scapegoats aren’t the problem.
In San Jose, for example, per-pupil spending significantly exceeds the state average. The district also has smaller classes and fewer low-income students than the average California school.
In other words, conventional wisdom says that San Jose should be thriving. But San Jose’s test results and reclassification rates have dragged down the state average. Last year, San Jose had a transition rate of only 8.2 percent.
By contrast, when Los Angeles is compared to the California average, per pupil spending is higher, classes are larger, and significantly more students are from low-income households. Conventional wisdom says these students should be trailing behind.
Nonetheless, on both the language development exam and with reclassification, LA’s progress has been impressive. In the 2003-2004 school year, only 4.2 percent of LA’s English learners were reclassified as proficient. By last year, that rate had improved dramatically — to 9.5 percent.
One of the principle reasons for this improvement is LA’s emphasis on early English fluency. Across California, districts that focus on teaching English at a young age seem to find the most success with reclassification.
“There are parts of our city where you can walk out and only hear a student’s primary language,” reports Jesús Limón, director of the language acquisition branch of LA Unified, “(so) for some of these kids, the only time they speak English is when they’re in school.”
California school districts are allowed to create their own policies for transitioning English learners into mainstream English classes. Consequently, other districts would be wise to follow LA’s lead.
David White is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
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