State Board to vote on Common Core for English learners

Up to now, California schools have placed a greater emphasis on teaching the state’s 1.5 million English learners the parts of a sentence rather than the meaning of a sentence.  That focus on syntax over significance is in for a massive overhaul if, as expected, the State Board of Education votes tomorrow to approve new English Language Development standards aligned to Common Core state standards in reading and writing.

“The old standards are very much geared toward vocabulary and grammar,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University Education Professor and head of a $2 million English Language Learner Initiative funded by the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation.  “This doesn’t ignore them [English learners], it takes a different approach.  What you get is a different flavor in terms of how language is used in the classroom to exchange ideas and negotiate meaning.”

Stanford Education Professor Kenji Hakuta. Photo by L.A. Cicero for Stanford University.

California is a lead state in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two state collaboratives developing new exams aligned with Common Core’s academic content standards.  A little over a year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 124, by Felipe Fuentes [D-Sylmar], that requires the Department of Education to update the English language development (ELD) standards based on Common Core and to develop an implementation plan.

The new standards require more sophisticated uses of language by students, said Robert Linquanti, who runs an English learner project at WestEd, an education research organization, and is working on the ELD standards with the State Ed Department.  “There are fewer, clearer and higher standards that are calling out what kids need to do,” he said.  These include:

  • Comprehending and understanding complex texts
  • Discerning the speaker’s point of view
  • Being able to build on others’ ideas or articulate their own ideas
  • Make arguments using evidence from textbooks and other readings
  • Being able to use language persuasively

For the new ELD standards to be successful, they must be implemented in tandem with the Common Core academic standards rather than in isolation. “There can’t be one driving the other,” explained Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, director of the State Department of Education’s English Learner Support Division.  ELD teachers and regular classroom teachers will need to work collaboratively to develop lesson plans that make complex language comprehensible for students who are proficient in English when it comes to playing with friends, but still have difficulty grasping nuance and texture of textbooks or expository writing. ELD teachers “won’t have to know science,” but would want to familiarize themselves with the science textbook, said Cadiero-Kaplan.  At the same time, elementary and secondary school teachers would need professional development and resources to work with the English learners in their classes.

Source: California Department of Education. Click to enlarge.

“While the kids are learning English, you really also need to give them content,” said Hakuta in an article last month for Stanford News.  He said research has shown that all things being equal, English learners “are significantly behind the the majority of the kids, even kids who are comparable in socioeconomic status. So it’s just the language gap.”

Hakuta’s Initiative is developing free resources and curricula for teachers, because it’s still not clear how schools will be able to fund high quality professional development at a time when teachers are having to give up their training days and take furloughs to cover budget cuts. The State Department of Education is creating two professional development modules focused on the English Language Development Standards, and Cadiero-Kaplan said they hope to beat their September 2013 goal for having them done.

Common Core standards are expected to be fully implemented in time for the 2014-15 school year.  But some districts are already phasing them in.  Santa Ana Unified started piloting lessons over the summer and expects to have them in place throughout the district this academic year. Superintendent Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana spoke about the district’s progress at an Education Writers Association seminar in Los  Angeles last month.  It’s been challenging going it alone, said the superintendent, but she said it’s already succeeding at getting teachers more engaged.  Melendez de Santa Ana recalled one teacher who said to her, “For the first time, I feel like I’m practicing my craft.”


Filed under: Common Core, High-Needs Students, Hot Topics, Testing and Accountability

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7 Responses to “State Board to vote on Common Core for English learners”

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  1. Therese LF on Nov 8, 2012 at 7:32 pm11/8/2012 7:32 pm

    • 000

    correction… I mean “…and/or immigrant students…”

  2. Therese LF on Nov 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm11/8/2012 7:31 pm

    • 000

    Will ELD and/or students be required to pass an “English Standards Proficiency” test before they advance to the next grade? Who/what determines proficiency for that student at that time? In 1-2 sentences, please define what is meant by “basic proficiency in English”?

  3. el on Nov 7, 2012 at 8:31 am11/7/2012 8:31 am

    • 000

    Often the discussion of English learners seems to assume that we’re dealing with a population that is literate in the home language and learning another, but it seems to me that a substantial percentage of California’s English learners come from households that are not literate in any language. It changes the problem somewhat, from one of translating to one of building language skills from scratch.


    • Manuel on Nov 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm11/7/2012 12:13 pm

      • 000

      I am no idea if the current practice is to assume literacy in the home language, but it seems to me this is completely inappropriate in the lower grades (K-5?) where students are learning to become literate.

      BTW, I am aware that it takes several years to achieve equivalence in “academic” English. If the new emphasis is on “communication,” which is, by definition, “colloquial English” what will this do to the achievement in the ELA tests which will, presumably, still be focused on “academic” English? Or will our intrepid educational leaders be paying attention to this too?

      • el on Nov 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm11/7/2012 2:38 pm

        • 000

        When the parents are not literate in the home language, it means the kids are not read to, and messages home are often not understood, even if translated.

  4. Gary Ravani on Nov 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm11/6/2012 2:07 pm

    • 000

    “I asked Coleman whether teachers like those in California, many of whom come from our lowest-achieving college student ranks,”

    There is not now, and never has been, a shred of evidence to support that statement.

    And speaking of support, where is the support in terms of actual research that substantiates the use of our current standards, or the CCSS for that matter, in improving student learning?

    “This way to the egress” and the band-wagon is right over there.

  5. Eric Premack on Nov 6, 2012 at 9:59 am11/6/2012 9:59 am

    • 000

    Holding English learners to the very ambitious Common Core Standards seems a very noble goal, but perhaps entirely unrealistic.

    Common Core Standards guru David Coleman led and engaging presentation regarding the Common Core at last spring’s New Schools Summit. He gave a sample lesson of sorts, focusing on a deep and close reading of a brief text. A recording of his session is online (see the second recording entitled “At the Core of the Common Core”):

    I asked Coleman whether teachers like those in California, many of whom come from our lowest-achieving college student ranks, would be able to teach at the level expected by the Common Core. Coleman deflected by asserting that teaching at this level is “beautifully simple” and left me deeply concerned about what looks like a huge disconnect between expectations/aspirations and reality.

    I earnestly hope that my concern here is misplaced, but the practical disconnect here appears massive–especially in the context of a state where 20+ percent of the students are English learners and schools lack funds for essential staff training, instructional content/materials, etc. It would be interesting to engage California’s policy makers in an honest and frank dialogue over whether shifting to the federal Common Core and related Smarter-Balanced assessments is really a practical shift for California.

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