California leads effort to boost English learner success

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.”

Mistaken proficiency

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.”

Filed under: Curriculum, Data, High-Needs Students, Legislation, State Education Policy

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15 Responses to “California leads effort to boost English learner success”

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  1. Manuel on Sep 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm09/26/2012 1:09 pm

    • 000

    Ah, yes, just because the state passed a law outlawing bilingual education does not mean that there will be no need for bilingual education 14 years after its passage. Ron Unz claimed that ten years after passage of 227 there would be no English learners. Where is Ron Unz these days?

    The fact that there may be some bilingual classrooms out there (how many, I wonder?) does not mean that all those ELs are “not learning English” because they are stuck in those classrooms. It is because all those resources which were supposed to be mandatory (or were they “preferred?”) never materialized, as others have pointed out.

    LAUSD, for example, threw out all vestiges of bilingual education. Some schools kept some bilingual classrooms, but I don’t even hear through the grapevine that they exist. Given that kids have to score well in the CLEDT as well as in the CST at levels where a good chunk of the English-speakers have trouble is simply preposterous.

    Also, why in the world would anybody assume that just because you have fluency you also have literacy? Have we forgotten about the many illiterates out there who speak perfect English? That’s why newspapers are still written at a 4th-grade English level (or so I was once told).

    So, yeah, until “the system” is changed, we will continue to have this problem.

  2. CarolineSF on Sep 24, 2012 at 3:39 pm09/24/2012 3:39 pm

    • 000

    I think that last is true for any family without college experience, in our crazy higher education system, el.

    By the way, it just struck me how very ironic it is that all this discussion is about difficulties with English. The original discussion left it unclear whether the subject was students whose native language is not English who fail to learn English, or students whose native language is not English who do learn English but still don’t do well academically. (The latter is the case.) Based on other commentary that I’m seeing elsewhere, that confusion isn’t limited to this forum. We ALL need to communicate more clearly.

  3. el on Sep 24, 2012 at 11:17 am09/24/2012 11:17 am

    • 000

    On a slight tangent, whatever finance scheme they come up with, I suspect it makes sense to allocate extra resources to any student who has ever been classified as low income or ELL. For example, you can imagine that even if the family is making more money or the student has passed the CELDT, that the student will still need a lot more counseling support to navigate academic planning and college entrance than a student from a family who already has college experience.


    • Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm09/25/2012 12:30 pm

      • 000

      Now you’re talking, el. Low-income kids of all language groups — and most obviously our English-language learners — need excellent and sufficient counseling and tutorial support to navigate schoolwork successfully, to accomplish academic planning in a timely manner and to work through the labyrinth of college entrance. And when they get to college, they need support in order to manage the ups and downs of life and to stay there to completion. It’s a huge task, but if it’s financed and undertaken, it works.

  4. el on Sep 24, 2012 at 10:59 am09/24/2012 10:59 am

    • 000

    One of the things that wasn’t intrinsically obvious to me is that ELL households are frequently not literate in any language – thus, merely translating the flyers home into spanish often wasn’t sufficient. The families might speak spanish, but they didn’t necessarily read it well. No wonder they didn’t come to the events we thought we had invited them to.

    My sense is that in general we have taken for granted that the problem for ELL students is only related to acquiring a new language and transferring their old academic skills into the new language, when in fact that’s only a portion of the kids we’re working with. Many of them have no literacy or academic skills in any language, and we need to build that from scratch in whatever way is effective.

  5. CarolineSF on Sep 24, 2012 at 10:55 am09/24/2012 10:55 am

    • 000

    Yes, I agree, @Navigio. My issues with this entire discussion are that it needs to be clarified in all forums that the finding is not that ELL students are not learning English.

    To be clear, ELL students are learning English, period paragraph.

    The issue is that ELL students are too often not achieving academic success. Non-ELL students from disadvantaged demographics also fail to achieve academic success, so there’s that issue to consider too.

    And yet the ability to speak two languages fluently is an advantage that may transcend a certain degree of book-learning success, in my opinion.

  6. CarolineSF on Sep 24, 2012 at 7:32 am09/24/2012 7:32 am

    • 000

    Yes, because I think the issue is the academic challenge, not the fact that these students haven’t learned English:

    “…some of these kids, while socially fluent, lack academic fluency (and often literacy) in not only english, but in their mother language as well…”

    I think a lot of the public misunderstands this entire discussion to believe that these students aren’t learning English, though. The setbacks to their academic development caused by the need to learn English and the time that they were hampered by limited English are the issue. But they are learning English. This is an area where there’s widespread misunderstanding and people start ranting about kids’ not learning to speak and understand English (and, as usual, blaming teachers).

    The bilingual skills that I describe hearing in the kids at the former McAteer High School — and that one will observe talking to low-income kids in high-need immigrant communities anywhere — ARE an academic skill in themselves, I do have to note. If I were given the choice of testing poorly but speaking two languages fluently, I wonder which I’d choose…


    • navigio on Sep 24, 2012 at 10:22 am09/24/2012 10:22 am

      • 000

      Yes, I agree. I didnt mean to imply that. Not only do I agree that people misunderstand whether kids are actually learning english (something the LTEL designation is only going to reinforce), but my point with that statement was that I also think people mistakenly believe that just because those kids have a mother tongue, that they must have academic command (and more importantly, literacy) of that non-english language, even if they are not able to display that command for english. The report not only points out that this is not necessarily the case, but even claims that our ELL policies cause this.
      And believe me, I am a huge proponent of multi-lingualism (in fact there is an area near me where I’ve heard the phenomenon you describe in 3 languages). I agree that this is an important academic skill in and of itself. But if we have aspects of a system that actually cause middle school aged kids to not be able to read in any language, then that seems like a problem. Ideally, we’d be able to achieve both, imho anyway.

  7. CarolineSF on Sep 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm09/22/2012 6:26 pm

    • 000

    I have to question some fine points here, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time around students from ESL households.

    When the report says ACADEMICALLY fluent, I assume it means “academically capable” and/or speaking the type of English that an educated person speaks, and doing well on tests. I’ve never seen one of those students who didn’t learn to speak fluent English rapidly. It may be street English, but it’s fluent English. My SFUSD-educated kids have gone through school with many ELL kids from various cultures, and they all learned English.

    As one anecdotal example that I used to observe with interest: The high school near my house in San Francisco was formerly McAteer, which for reasons I don’t know was a “ghetto school” from the time it opened, around 1970. It was known as the school for the roughest kids in the city. SFUSD closed it in 2002* on the recommendation of the court monitor who used to oversee the district, due to low achievement. The nearby shopkeepers practically barred the doors when school let out. But I used to hear those tough-looking kids around after school switching back and forth from rapid English to rapid Spanish or Samoan in a way that most Americans could only envy.

    So it seems to me that the report is saying that the students don’t do well on literacy tests or in English language arts in school, not that they’re not learning English.

    *The site now houses the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and the Academy of Arts and Sciences.


    • Kathryn Baron on Sep 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm09/23/2012 12:08 pm

      • 000

      Yes, Caroline, academic fluency refers to the ability to read, understand and analyze a social studies text or an essay on the CST English language arts exam. What Spiegel-Coleman and Olsen found is that when teachers hear English learners having conversations in English with their friends, they assume that these students are able to be mainstreamed, but often, they’re not. They don’t yet have fluency is the language of research or expository reading and writing. Part of the reason for this, according to the research, is that they’re not exposed enough to academic language in social studies and science because those subjects aren’t testing as much by schools as are math and English language arts. Also, until this current state board of education was selected, previous boards declined to approve requests from EL advocates to provide English language development curriculum materials to supplement the regular curriculum for English learners. The current board has indicated that it is very willing to do this, especially with the coming implementation of common core.

      • navigio on Sep 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm09/23/2012 9:41 pm

        • 000

        According to one of these reports, the tragedy of this particular problem is that some of these kids, while socially fluent, lack academic fluency (and often literacy) in not only english, but in their mother language as well. Thats kind of scary. They are already in middle school!

        It is also worth noting that while 60% of 10th grade LTELs test high enough on the CELDT, only 3% do on the CST. Not only is that a function of the CST being a higher bar, but also that these kids are to some extent, no longer english learners in the strict sense of the word (although, as mentioned above, they do bear the legacy of the failures specific to that program).

        I do find it odd that the story mentions a focus on secondary remedies when clearly the failure is happening in those first six years. I hope that (and now an LTEL classification) is not an indication we are giving up and expecting this to continue to be the norm.

        Read the linked report (reparable harm). Even if you dont agree with the remedies, the discussion is thought-provoking. I am glad it does make it clear that these kids share traits and needs with not only other types of english learners, but also non english learners. That is the big piece I think we are missing in our policies. Not only for those LTELs, but also our english only kids in similar situations.

  8. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 21, 2012 at 5:01 pm09/21/2012 5:01 pm

    • 000

    I have lived in California since 1970 and that we are till having this “conversation” is incredible. There are
    more successful strategies for teaching English as a Second language than there are people in this state. If the known strategies are used effectively, if the student is encouraged, counseled and followed by an educator or counselor, if the kid is not held back by the system awaiting some fake reclassification, kids will make good progress.

    There are many public school students from families where English is not the mother tongue and the children become proficient in English, do well in school and go on to college and professional life. They usually end up being bilingual citizens and sometimes they even become the Mayor of Los Angeles.

    Too often the determining factor in this transition from “other” to English is the decision of the kid to get into mainstream English language classes rather than sheltered or ESL or EL classes. Personal motivation
    drives the choice. When that is lacking, or when the school sets up barriers to such risk-taking transfers, there are usually other things in play — past personal history of low achievement, consequent disinterest in academics, lack of positive intervention by responsible adults. That’s when throw-away kids become
    classified as long-term English learners.

  9. Marian Devincenzi on Sep 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm09/21/2012 4:34 pm

    • 000

    What I have to say does not directly apply to this article. My favorite reading teacher is Mary Pecci, author of the Pecci Readers. ( Before she had finished her series, a teacher in Mexico was using her PrePrimers to teach his students to read. (I do not know how old his students were at the time.) Per Ms. Pecci, he wrote her stating how excited he was that his students were learning to speak English with her readers.

    The PrePrimers are meant for kindergarten and the Primer and 1-1 Reader are meant for first grade. Please spread the word!

    Sincerely yours,

    Marian Devincenzi

  10. Rob Manwaring on Sep 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm09/21/2012 1:04 pm

    • 000

    Identifying long term English learners is a great first step, and congrats to those who made this change happen. The next step is to align the state’s finance system and accountability system to create incentives to help students transition to fluency prior to them becoming long term English learners. On the finance side, this means transitioning to a weighted student funding model that provide significantly more resources to districts to support these students, but having that funding phase out so that districts and not rewarded by allowing students to become long term English learners. Similarly, in the accountability system, all of the incentives are to never reclassify an EL student. Getting a student to the language development level and proficiency level to be reclassified should be rewarded in an accountability system, not punished as is currently the case.

  11. Ann on Sep 21, 2012 at 7:29 am09/21/2012 7:29 am

    • 000

    “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.” What evidence is there behind these assertions? The California English Language Development Test, given yearly to all ELL students in the state has shown that students in elementary school, including those in “bi-lingual classrooms” (yes, they exist all over the state regardless of what advocates say) are not progressing in English. Not surprisingly we see the strong correlates to their slow progress in English Language Arts and mathematics as their English reading skills suffer. Anticipating those who will jump this thread, if one was able to find the scores of the Spanish Language Standardized tests buried in the archives which were still given to students in “bilingual classrooms” until the money really became tight, those scores were nothing to be proud of either. To compare learning a new language with adapting to the supposed language of the country in which you live is weak, at best. Those of us in schools see how much Spanglish is spoken all around the campus on a daily basis from the front office to the classroom, to the playground. Learning a language requires practice in that language. Our ELLs are denied that practice by design.

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