Senator Barack Obama raised eyebrows last month when he told a Georgia audience not to worry “about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.” But these comments, and the strong reaction that followed, did little to focus attention on the critical fact that we as a nation are doing a poor job assimilating non-native speakers into the English-speaking American mainstream.
In fact, the majority of our English learners are not even immigrants. Today, more than two-thirds of the more than five million English Learners in our schools belong to their families’ second or third generation to live in this country.
In many cases, they’re being held back by school policies which relegate them to Spanish-speaking (or even Chinese-speaking) classrooms. Such segregation is especially harmful in the lower primary grades, when the development of a child’s brain provides a cognitive window making second-language learning easiest and most effective.
Success rates in such segregated classrooms are very low, as recent statistics indicate. In Illinois, which has a state law mandating bilingual education, fewer than ten percent of English learners acquire enough English skills each year to be deemed proficient and to move successfully into English classrooms. In several other states with the largest English-learner populations, such as California and Texas, annual success rates are also below ten percent.
This means that it will take many of them more than ten years to become proficient in English – and many will drop out before they graduate. A majority of 10th grade English learners in California have been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten or first grade.
Florida, on the other hand, where 11 percent of all students are English learners, has consistently had a reclassification rate over three times higher than California or Illinois.
Why the gap? “State-mandated classification, selective testing and tracking inadvertently create new forms of segregation that trap English Learner students,” declared a 2007 California High School Exit Exam report. “Linguistic tracking can limit education choices, access to quality academic programs and opportunity to advance beyond high school.”
Proficiency in English is the most essential factor toward assimilation into American society, culture and economy. Research shows it is the key to higher earning, success in education, even to living a healthier life.
Students who begin school as English learners, but then are able to become proficient, frequently outperform other students in school. They regularly surpass native English speakers on standardized tests, including English tests.
Data from California’s state graduation exams reveal that reclassified students had higher pass rates than any other group — 88.8 percent of them passed the state English exam as 10th graders, and 85.4 percent passed the math test. Meanwhile, only 82.7 percent of English natives passed the English test, and 79.1 percent passed in math. English learners who remained behind fared far worse.
Such success is far from guaranteed. But providing students with the tools to achieve it must remain a priority, so that our nation’s five million English learners have the opportunity to share in this success.
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