Bilingual education advocates celebrate first new policy for English language learners in 20 years

September 10, 2017

The California State Board of Education has adopted a policy guiding the education of the state's 1.2 million English learners.

Martha Hernandez, who began her career as a bilingual educator in California in 1976, remembers a time when knowing a language other than English was not considered an asset. It was difficult to advocate for students learning to speak English and often programs did not provide enough math and reading intervention for those students.

But that’s all changing now.

After years of reform and advocacy efforts, bilingual education activists across California celebrated the adoption of California’s first new language policy in more than two decades — the English Learner Roadmap.

The roadmap, unanimously adopted by the State Board of Education in July, is an online resource for school districts that will help guide curriculum, instruction and standards for the 1.4 million English learners in the state’s public schools. The roadmap does not replace the English language development standards or state standards; it is intended to supplement them and inform policy about English learners.

The change is significant because the roadmap removes old regulations that guided how schools and districts developed bilingual programs. It’s also designed to help schools meet requirements for teaching English learners that are mandated by federal and state education laws. Advocates said it’s a historic step among other hard-fought changes to reshape how California educates English learners.

“Nothing happened overnight,” said Hernandez, assistant superintendent of educational services in the Fillmore Unified School District in Ventura County. “We really did not rest, we kept advocating,” she said. “We didn’t think it was going to take 20 years, but it did, and we finally see the tipping point and we are so thrilled on behalf of the students in our schools.”

The State Board of Education also directed the California Department of Education to create documents that can be shared statewide to guide implementation and supplement the roadmap. The documents will include case studies of effective practices and strategies to educate English learners. The roadmap also reflects current research on English learners pre-K to 12.

But one of the most celebrated aspects of the roadmap is not what it adds, but what it removes.

The digital document replaces outdated language from Proposition 227, the old law that mandates that all English learners be taught in English-only classrooms unless a parent signed a waiver allowing them to enroll in a bilingual program. In place of those deleted guidelines, the roadmap explains new requirements under Proposition 58, the initiative approved by California voters last November that allows public schools to teach English learners through multiple bilingual language programs.

While the English Learner roadmap was not a result of Proposition 58, it was informed by it. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the State Board of Education had already assembled a team of educators from throughout California to create the roadmap before the ballot initiative was passed. However, the timing lined up perfectly, said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of organizations that advocate for English learners. The first English Learner Roadmap meeting was held the day after the Proposition 58 vote, she said. Coleman said everyone in the room knew that meant the roadmap needed to convey aspects of Proposition 58.

“It really informed the committee about the priorities,” Coleman said. “It really made a big impression.”

The new law requires school districts and county offices to seek parent and community input when developing programs and to create those programs if enough parents in a grade or school request them. The roadmap provides information on how districts and schools should navigate that process. It also includes information on how to describe programs and consistently record and track parent requests for new bilingual programs. In addition, it contains guidelines for districts that “determine it’s not possible to establish a (new language program),” and states that districts must explain the reasons to parents, teachers and school leaders.

The roadmap and its guidance document will also include information on how to better incorporate the Local Control Funding Formula — California’s system that shifts financial decisions to local districts and directs more money for high-needs students, such as English learners. Coleman said they also hope it is used to inform decisions in California’s plan to comply with the federal requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that governs how California can spend about $2.5 billion in federal funding, and requires the state to focus spending on specific student groups, including English learners.

While the roadmap itself won’t close the achievement gap between English learners and their English-speaking peers, advocates said it is one of several recent changes that can significantly improve the quality of education English learners receive. Most notably, the English Language Arts/ English Language Development framework, which serves a blueprint for implementing state content standards was adopted in 2014. The framework emphasizes incorporating language development in all core subjects so English learners receive the same quality of instruction as their English-speaking peers.

Laurie Olsen, a longtime researcher and expert on English learners who directs the Sobrato Early Academic Language Initiative, said the roadmap follows the lead of the framework, which was a “major step forward.” It is significant because it is comprehensive, reflects academic standards, curriculum instruction and accountability from early education through high school, and is designed to eliminate confusion about best practices for educating English learners, said Olsen, who also co-chairs the group that developed the English learner roadmap.

Kenji Hakuta, lead writer and co-chair of the group that developed the English learner roadmap, said the roadmap reinforces the shared responsibility of all teachers for the academic success of English learners.

“In a state like California it doesn’t make sense to say these are the educators responsible for English learners and these are the teachers for everyone else,” said Hakuta, professor emeritus in education at Stanford University.

Schools and districts are obligated to help English learners become fluent in English, but in a way that helps build their understanding of other subjects, such as math and science, he said.

Vickie Ramos Harris, the associate director of education policy for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that advocates for equal opportunities in education, said some districts have excellent programs that help English learners, but others have fallen short. “We want to make sure we are intentional about where we start programs and that kids who need them the most are prioritized,” she said.

Hernandez expressed confidence that the roadmap would lead California forward because it “sets a high bar” for educating students, she said. “It is the end of an era but also the beginning of an era where we look at effective programs. It marks the (new) beginning of our work.”

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