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Education Opinion

Justice for English Language Learners

By Patricia Dickenson — January 17, 2012 7 min read
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Note: Patricia Dickenson, a former elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, is guest posting this week. Dr. Dickenson is a member of ASCD’s Emerging Leaders Program.

This past Monday we celebrated the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King. His work has changed the ideologies, laws, and social structure of America. Dr. King’s courage as a relentless leader and his exceptional power of speech has inspired many to challenge the status quo and peacefully work toward dismantling social inequalities. In the spirit of Dr. King, I would like to use this platform to discuss inequities in education. I want to thank Rick Hess and ASCD for giving me this opportunity.

Projections suggest that English language learners will comprise over 40 percent of elementary and secondary students by 2030. The fact that too many schools are struggling to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) because of “subgroups” of English language learners does not mean this particular group of students are holding the school back; rather, I argue it is the system that is preventing this group of students from moving forward.

Stringent policies have financial rewards as districts and schools receive extra funding for each English language learner (Title III) but funding does not equate to quality education. For example, one of the previous schools I worked at placed seventh and eighth grade ELL students in a seventh grade English class. The teacher was instructed to use seventh grade core curriculum and ELD support; thus, eighth grade students were not given access to grade level core curriculum. Bilingual aids were also being used to pull-out ELL students rather than push-in and provide students with support to access content. These types of scenarios create a Catch-22 for schools and districts that place ELL students in remediation courses but at the same time hold them accountable to a state exam in which they were not adequately prepared.

In California, the road to English proficiency is not an easy path. Some would argue that the policies in place have created a division of English language learners unable to exit English learner programs especially if they do not do so during elementary school years. In fact, 68 percent of the 7th- to 12th grade students taking the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) in 2003 reported having been in California schools 7 years or more.

In California, students are labeled English language learners based on a home language survey. If parents respond to questions with a language other than English, state law requires public schools to assess English proficiency. If the student does not test in the top two of five levels of proficiency, they are classified as an English language learner. The process of “reclassification” from limited English proficiency to fluent English proficiency includes meeting the following criteria: basic score of at least 325 on the California Standards Test; Early Advanced or Advanced levels in reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills (CELDT test); approval from the teacher; and grades of at least a C. Although the purpose is to ensure students can be successful in English academic programs designed for native speakers, the reality is many ELL students are prevented from entering mainstream classes.

I began my teaching career in South Central, Los Angeles at a very ethnically diverse elementary school with more than three-fourths of the students being English language learners, of Latino descent, and whose primary language was Spanish. Over the past decade I have worked at elementary, middle, and high schools with a majority of Latino English language learners. This blog is not a passive recording of my thoughts, nor is it a journal. This is a call to action!

In my experience, ELL students do not receive the same education as their English-only peers. That is not to say that ELL teachers are providing an inequitable learning experience; on the contrary, there are some amazing ELL teachers who have proven the achievement gap is all but an illusion. But the reality is most ELL teachers are predominately new to the profession and lack training to work with this particular group of students. In addition, the issue of educating ELLs in the state of California extends beyond language. Richard Fry from the Pew Hispanic Center found that in California, Hispanics are more socioeconomically disadvantaged, qualify for free and reduced lunch, and attend more segregated schools than white students. Teachers, schools, and most importantly students need resources to address such disparities. More often than not if it is not covered on the test it is not addressed in the classroom. Although there has been much discussion about the importance of assimilating immigrants and mastering English, this is a much more complicated task that is truly unique for each school, district, and learner.

Since the majority of English language learners are found in middle and high schools, it is important to address what occurs during this time frame. The transition from elementary to middle school can have a profound effect on English language learners. Students move from class to class and are often assigned to courses based on their achievement. The placement of students based on ability is referred to as tracking. In middle school, students who are assigned to low achieving groups often stay within those groups throughout the high school years.

English language learners are traditionally tracked according to their linguistic proficiency rather than content ability. I’ve known students who were advanced in mathematics but placed in remediation mathematics courses based on their English scores. This needs to change, as in 2000, only 2 percent of Latinos held jobs in science and engineering. Although some may argue that limited English proficiency may lead to a lack of confidence in science and math, I believe tracking is the culprit. We are leaving behind students who could pursue advanced degrees in mathematics and science once they enter a classroom that fails to challenge their thinking and promote cognitive growth. Although some may argue that English fluency is vital for student success, track placement was found to be a better predictor of English learners academic performance than proficiency in English.

When it comes to course placement, students’ results on state exams are heavily weighted. For example, at one California high school, students’ results on the state exam were three times the weight as teacher recommendations and course grades. Students’ self-conception undoubtedly suffers as a result of placement in remediation courses and eventually these students may drop out. So when I read that of every 100 Latino students, many of whom are ELLs, only 61 will graduate high school, 31 of those who graduate will complete some postsecondary education, and only 10 will graduate with a bachelor’s degree, I am not surprised, but troubled.

Why is the road to English proficiency so difficult to master? There is no doubt that the needs of English language learners are extremely vast. Newly arrived English language learners need support acquiring basic interpersonal communication skills, whereas long term ELL students need support acquiring academic literacy skills. However, more often than not classrooms for ELL students seem to be a catch all for a range of students and abilities. In secondary school this problem is amplified as the majority of English language learners now fall within the long-term ELL category: students who have attended schools in the USA for seven or more years and are identified as still needing language support services. However, despite state legislation for English language learners, and No Child Left Behind, a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows the achievement gap between Hispanic and white students has not changed in the past twenty years.

What we know from different schools around the United States is successful ELL programs take into consideration school and community culture, teacher professional development, quality of teaching, intensity of instruction, and most importantly students’ needs. What works in a migrant community in Northern California may not necessarily work in an urban school district in New York. Whether the program includes team teaching, thematically organized curriculum, or dual language support, instruction must be tailored to meet the diverse needs of learners from a cultural, cognitive, and emotional perspective. Too often tests, tracking, and a diluted curriculum impose an oppressive learning environment that fails to connect with students, give a sense of purpose, and foster a love of learning.

Stay connected tomorrow as I address policies and practices for an equitable learning environment.

--Patricia Dickenson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.