California leads effort to boost English learner success
September 21, 2012 | By Kathryn Baron | 15 Comments
UPDATE: Sept. 21, 2012: Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 2193 into law.
Anyone who studied French all through high school and still ended up hiring an avocado (avocat) instead of an attorney (avocat) understands that learning a foreign language is complicated, and isn’t a strong suit for U.S. schools. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same is true when it comes to bilingual education. About 59 percent of California’s English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long-term English learners, meaning they’ve been in school here for more than six years, yet are not academically fluent.
Alarmed by those statistics, dozens of California school districts have been developing courses to end this educational stagnation. These efforts are showing promise and progress, according to a new report, and have propelled California to the forefront of a new nationwide movement.
Secondary School Courses Designed to Address the Language Needs and Academic Gaps of Long Term English Learners, released Thursday by the advocacy group Californians Together, profiles how four districts have taken different approaches to solving this problem. The ideas, advice and information were culled from a forum Californians Together organized with educators from 24 districts that were piloting programs. The goal was to start a statewide network for districts and teachers to exchange information and ideas. Until then, they had mostly been working in isolation.
“California is breaking new ground here for the nation,” said Laurie Olsen, a longtime researcher on bilingual education and author of the report. “It’s not like there was a lot of stuff out there,” she added, referring to a dearth of curriculum and instructional materials.
Olsen also wrote the 2010 predecessor to this study, Reparable Harm, which provided the first in-depth look at the numbers of long-term English learners and galvanized many school districts to take action.
Ventura Unified School District redesigned its program when it saw data showing that 79 percent of its high school English learners were long-term English learners. Students take English language development classes focused on quickly moving them up the levels of proficiency, along with specialized high school English courses that meet the requirements for the University of California and California State University.
A key part of the district’s program has included a major investment in professional development for all classroom teachers, administrators and counselors that includes student feedback. After just a couple of years, the new curriculum is making headway. The number of long-term English learners testing in the proficient range and above on the English language arts section of the California Standards Test (CST) nearly tripled at one school, from 8.7 percent to 25 percent, and increased from 11.3 percent to 17.5 percent at another high school.
“These are the very students who have been far below basic and below basic,” emphasized Olsen. “So the fact that you’re seeing movement at all is encouraging.”
As with many problems in education, there’s no single reason why so many students were left languishing in classrooms, unable to participate or even comprehend. One common misstep is that when students get to the point where they speak enough English to get by, they’re assumed to be fluent and are placed in mainstream classes with no support.
Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, speculates on another set of factors that occurred at the same time and created a vacuum of instruction.
One was passage of Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure that limited bilingual education in California. Second, and more damaging, said Spiegel-Coleman, was the narrowing of the curriculum to diminish science and social studies while increasing the time spent on math and English language arts, with the adoption of a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
“That really had no support for English learners in it,” said Spiegel-Coleman, “and so the kids that we see now in secondary school are the result of that. The combination of the two was like a perfect storm.”
In that scenario, long-term English learners became invisible; they were the kids who sat at the back of the classroom, never participated in discussions and moved quietly from year to year.
Many districts took action following the publication of Reparable Harm, but it has been scattered and fragmented. A bill on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would bring some consistency and transparency to the issue. AB 2193, by Assemblymember Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), would create a single definition of long-term English learners and require school districts to keep track of these students and report their numbers every year to the State Department of Education. The bill also would require districts to identify students at risk of becoming long-term English learners, and provide quick intervention for both groups.
There isn’t good data on what happens to these students. How many give up and drop out of school? Olsen said her research found that many dream of attending college and aren’t giving up. “What is surprising to me is how many of them hang in the school even though they’re failing their subjects and even though they’re not earning credits for graduation,” said Olsen. “It’s a group that by and large carries with them fairly high hopes of their families and communities that they’re the ones that are going to make it in U.S. society.”