The “blueprint” for reforming federal education laws released last week by the Obama Administration appears to have met with the expected proportions, relatively even, of praise and criticism. But its absence of many critical specifics has muted this response to what has been the Administration’s most anticipated K-12 education policy statement to date. Once again, it appears, the White House has tasked Congress with drafting the details that will ultimately determine the plan’s success or failure.
“There are way too many perverse incentives” under current federal education laws, Education Secretary Arne Duncan complained during recent testimony to the House of Representatives. One prominent example is the federal “bounty-style” funding currently in place, which sends education dollars to schools based on the number of English learners, but then disappears after schools successfully teach these children English and reclassify them as proficient.
In most of the nation’s largest school districts receiving funding under this formula, fewer than 10 percent of English learners successfully achieve English proficiency and are transitioned into mainstream classes each year. Put differently, in states with large populations of English learners, like California, Illinois and Texas, it is still taking public schools more than 10 years, on average, to transition English learners to proficiency in English.
One controversial element of the blueprint would “implement a system to evaluate the effectiveness of language instruction programs.” Currently, any such evaluations are left to states. Throughout the past 20 years, the more federal education officials have gotten directly involved in how schools teach English learners, the worse the results.
Perhaps the best example of this was the bilingual education competitive grant program run by the federal Department of Education that was cancelled when No Child Left Behind took effect. Federal grantmakers funded programs demonstrating only minimal gains in teaching English year after year, and even this progress was frequently muddied by the selective reporting of test scores. It would be difficult to describe charging these same officials with new responsibilities for evaluating the effectiveness of language instruction problems as anything but a step backward.
The new blueprint reinforces many important aspects of current law. It maintains current flexibility allowing schools to offer students whatever language instructional programs they consider best, including sheltered English immersion, dual-language, or transitional bilingual education. But it also notes that schools that fail to demonstrate adequate progress will lose flexibility and must work with state officials to improve.
It should come as welcome news to the five million English learners in U.S. schools that this blueprint stands in sharp contrast to the bilingual education programs in place in the Chicago Public Schools, where Secretary Duncan presided as chief executive for over seven years. Using a transitional bilingual education model required by state law, English learners in Chicago typically remain in bilingual education for three or four years. But less than a third of them ever demonstrate the English proficiency skills to properly transition out of the programs. And among even those that do, most fail to meet English reading standards two years later. Chicago’s example makes it clear that better results, and better accountability for results, are critical.
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