Article published in Investors Business Daily
From California to Connecticut, immigrant children who entered public school unable to read, write, or speak much English are beginning to gain literacy, thanks in part to an extra push the federal No Child Left Behind Act has given their school systems.
Recent data released in California showed that 43 percent of English learners scored at the “early advanced” or “advanced” levels on the state’s 2003 English Language Development Test. That was up from 34 percent in 2002 and 25 percent in 2001. In Sacramento, where 50 percent of English learners rose to the early advanced or advanced levels, spokeswoman Maria Lopez said that by throwing the spotlight on underprivileged subgroups like English learners, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has made a positive difference.
“It keeps it on the front burner that when they mean ‘no child left behind’ it means just that – no child left behind,” she told the Sacramento Bee. “That is especially true in urban districts where there are a lot of newcomers to the English language.”
A Council of the Great City Schools study of 61 urban systems in 37 states provided tentative evidence Hispanic children are benefiting from a more focused approach. Looking at data through spring 2003, researchers found that 60 percent of the fourth grades tested in those cities narrowed the gap in reading achievement between white and Hispanic students. In Connecticut, the contingent of English learners taking the state’s tests has almost doubled since 2000, in keeping with the NCLB requirements for inclusive testing. While the usual experience is that average scores sag when participation rises, state officials point out that academic proficiency has been increasing faster in the low-income cities where many English learners reside than in the rest of the state.
By linking a substantial increase in federal dollars to student achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act represents a new way of doing education business. This is particularly true for English learners. “It is important to note that Florida, like every other state in the nation, had previously not assessed reading, writing and comprehension [for English learners’ progress toward fluency] in grades K-3,” stated an NCLB document the state submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
In the past 6 years, both California and Connecticut have adopted laws emphasizing early English fluency acquisition for immigrant children, although in California compliance with Proposition 227 has been uneven and often slow.
Even Illinois, which has balked at reforming bilingual education, recently reported major gains by Latino grade-schoolers on reading and math tests. While Chicago has some of the nation’s worst bilingual programs, state schools chief Robert Schiller credited NCLB with holding schools accountable for achievement by minority-group children.
All this represents progress toward meeting one of modern education’s largest challenges. During the 1990s, more immigrants came to the United States than in any previous decade, pushing the number of public-school children with limited proficiency in English well above 4 million – an increase of 105 percent since 1990-91.
NCLB requires federally aided schools to seek testing gains for children in all disadvantaged subgroups, English learners being one. However, the big question is whether this impetus for reform can survive the election-year assault being mounted on it by the National Education Association. The leaders of the nation’s largest teachers union seek to water down testing in favor of vague “multiple measures” of educational progress. Having already endorsed Democrat John Kerry, NEA leaders recently announced that they have entered a partnership with the anti-Bush advocacy group MoveOn.org to challenge the 2002 law. For the more than 4 million English learners, and their parents, the stakes are high.
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