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California Steps Up Focus on English-Language Learners

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 31, 2012 4 min read
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California’s schools chief has assigned a team of experts to focus exclusively on the needs of California’s estimated 1.5 million English-language learners as the state embarks on numerous initiatives to improve the achievement of students who are learning English in public schools.

Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, an education professor at San Diego State University who has specialized in training teachers to work with English learners, joined the California Department of Education late last month to direct its newly formed English Learner Support Division.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson tapped Ms. Cadiero-Kaplan to lead the division that he formed six months ago after educators, advocates, and staff members in the state department of education said the achievement of ELLs was among the most pressing education issues facing the state.

The division is made up of about 30 staff members and marks the first time in more than a decade that California—with the largest number of English learners in the nation—has had a single unit overseeing the range of programs and services used by ELLs, including migrant education and federal Title III funds. After the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998—which put strict limits on bilingual education—staff members with responsibilities related to English-learners were scattered through the state agency.

As part of the department’s renewed focus on ELLs, Mr. Torlakson also created an “English Learner Integrated Action Team,” which is charged with developing a statewide strategic plan for English-learners, Ms. Cadiero-Kaplan said. She will be a member of that team.

“People are going to be seeing a great deal of work across the entire department of education to not only recognize the needs of English learners, but to develop policies and actions that help ensure that we are providing the best supports for districts and for students,” Ms. Cadiero-Kaplan said. “My vision and focus is that we have to do what is right for our students.”

New Standards

Nearly every state’s department of education has staff members dedicated to the oversight of Title III funds and other programs that serve English learners. The five other states with the biggest ELL populations—Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois—also have units within their education agencies that focus on English learners. What may set California’s new division apart is its high-level placement within the state agency and its role in overseeing all efforts related to English learners, according to experts in the ELL field.

“It’s a smart, good investment given the significant population in the state,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate with WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research group. “And developing a strategic plan for the state makes a lot of sense. It provides a real opportunity to set policy priorities for English learners rather than always being reactive.”

Chief among the team’s responsibilities will be updating the state’s current English-language-development standards to be aligned with the common academic standards in English/language arts and mathematics that California and 45 other states have adopted. That work will happen on a tight deadline, Ms. Cadiero-Kaplan said, with focus groups convening next month, experts writing the standards by June, the public commenting on them over the summer months, and final approval from the state board of education slated for November.

The English-learner support team also is responsible for overseeing the state’s new “seal of biliteracy” program, which allows students who demonstrate fluency in English and a second language to earn a special distinction on their diplomas and high school transcripts. The seal is intended for all students, not just those who are learning English.

Local educators who work with English learners say having an ELL chief at the state education department could not come at a better time.

“The field has been waiting for this for a long time,” said Yee Wan, a member of the board of directors for the National Association for Bilingual Education, who is also the coordinator of multilingual programs in the Santa Clara County Office of Education in the Bay Area. “There are so many huge issues right now, especially with the common standards, that having this leadership and this team in place will ensure that the issues unique to English learners are addressed head on.”

Advocates for ELLs also see potential for this student population to be given primary consideration in all education policy decisions.

“You need to have somebody’s voice in high-level policy conversations who will say, ‘What will this mean for English learners?’” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a nonprofit group that advocates for English learners and is the main proponent of the biliteracy seal. “Without someone having the responsibility to ask that question, the needs of English learners many times don’t get raised and are an afterthought.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as California Officials Step Up Focus on ELL Students

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