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Evidence Is Limited on Charters’ Effect on ELL Achievement

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 11, 2009 6 min read
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The question of whether charter schools do a good job of educating English-language learners is being debated in Massachusetts, as legislators consider two proposals that would expand the number of such schools.

The discussion highlights the incomplete picture educators and researchers there and nationwide have of how charter schools, compared with regular public schools, are serving ELLs.

Whether charter schools do a better job than regular schools in closing the achievement gap between English-learners and students who already have a command of the language is expected to be a thread in testimony at a hearing scheduled for Sept. 17 before the state’s joint education committee. The hearing is on a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to increase the number of charter schools. The issue arose during a July hearing by that committee on a proposal by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to convert low-performing schools within some public school districts to charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent.

The governor and state lawmakers could also be bowing to pressure to satisfy requirements for receiving federal economic-stimulus funds. Federal officials have made clear they are more likely to award Race to the Top money to states without charter school caps.

In a slide presentation on his proposal, Gov. Patrick says: “In 2008, 70 percent of English-language learners and 40 percent of low-income students in the class of 2010 failed to meet [Massachusetts] graduation requirements.”

Lawyers from the Somerville, Mass.-based Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., or META, an advocacy group for English-learners, seized on what they interpreted as an implication by the Democrat that an increase in charter schools would help ELLs. The organization is circulating a brief arguing that Massachusetts charter schools have not proved they are educating those students better than regular public schools.

The brief shows that ELLs are greatly underrepresented in the state’s charter schools, and that those who do attend them have generally been in the United States at least four years. The authors equate time in the United States with an increased level of proficiency and surmise that ELLs at charter schools tend to be easier to educate than those in regular schools.

META found mixed results for the academic performance of English-learners in Massachusetts charter schools. For instance, in 2008, those enrolled at Lawrence Family Development Charter School and Community Day Charter School, also in Lawrence, outperformed their counterparts in the Lawrence public schools. At the same time, ELLs at the Lowell Community Charter School, in Lowell, did worse on state tests than their counterparts in the local district.

“The bottom line is if you want to address the endemic problem of bad ELL education in the state, there is no reason to think charter schools would be an important part of what you want to do,” said Roger L. Rice, the executive director of META.

Addressing Achievement

The organization is also making recommendations on how Gov. Patrick’s proposal could be improved to strengthen the education of English-learners in charter schools.

The proposal says new charters must have recruitment plans aimed at attracting student subgroups, including ELLs, in the population areas around those schools. But the META brief points out that while English-learners are included, new charter schools might pick other subgroups cited and still be able to avoid enrolling and serving ELLs.

Mr. Rice expressed concern that legislators might think they’ve addressed the low academic achievement of ELLs by supporting an increase in charter schools.

But Paul Reville, the state secretary of education and a Patrick appointee, said the governor’s expansion plan isn’t the only way the state would improve its programs

and policies for ELLs. He pointed to a task force charged with making recommendations this fall to the state school board on ways to close student-achievement gaps. The task force has a subcommittee on ELLs, Mr. Reville said.

The secretary said he hasn’t seen evidence that charter schools overall serve English-learners better than regular public schools. But he said the proposal to ease the charter school cap would have a positive impact on their schooling.

“Where there are ELLs [in neighborhoods], this proposal focuses in on them,” he said, “and insists the school looks like the neighborhood that it’s in, and that the provider has a track record of working effectively with them.”

Eileen De Los Reyes, the assistant superintendent for English-language learners for the Boston district, said charters in Massachusetts haven’t documented their superiority in educating ELLs.

About 11,000 of the Boston district’s 56,000 students are ELLs, and a study released in April showed the achievement gap between them and native English speakers had widened at all grade levels from 2003 to 2006.

Since being hired in April, Ms. De Los Reyes has centralized the identification and registration of English-learners and is revamping the scheduling system so that they are placed with teachers trained to work with them. She added 28 new English-as-a-second-language teachers this school year to the 86 already in the school system.

In some ways, it may be easierfor a charter school to adopt policies to address the needs of ELLs than it is for a large urban district, said Ralph L. Carrero, the superintendent and director of the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, a K-8 school where about half the 600 students are learning English.

“We are a one-school district; thus, we are able to focus a little more rather than a public school district with 13,000 students,” Mr. Carrero said. He believes the ELLs at his school are outperforming those in the Lawrence system partly because the charter school requires every teacher to take four courses on working with such students.

Mr. Carrero acknowledged that his school doesn’t get many students with “zero English skills.”

National Picture

At least one national study of charter schools, released in June, examines how well ELLs perform in charter schools and regular schools.

Researchers at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that students on average have no more academic-achievement growth in charter schools than their peers in regular public schools. But the study did find that English-learners in charter schools on average outperform those in regular schools. The same held true for students living in poverty.

In California, ELLs who attend charter schools do significantly better in both reading and math

compared with their peers in regular schools. English-learners in charter schools also do significantly better in reading in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and in math in Georgia. In Missouri, such students in charter schools do significantly worse than their peers in regular public schools.

The study found that ELLs in Massachusetts do not perform better in charter schools than in regular public schools.

Margaret E. Raymond, the director of the Stanford center and the study’s lead author, noted that since Missouri is the only state out of 15 examined that showed a significant negative effect on achievement for English-learners attending charter schools, “it appears charter schools serve ELLs better than traditional schools do.”

But she said the study doesn’t provide insight into the kinds of ELLs attending charter schools.

Mr. Rice said, too, that METS’s brief provides an “incomplete snapshot.”

“Take a kid in Lawrence Family Development Charter School who has been in the United States for more than five years. Massachusetts will tell you the [test] score,” he said. “What we don’t know is: Was that kid in that school from kindergarten to grade 5, or did the parents put him in the school right before the test?”

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Evidence Is Limited On Charters’ Effect On ELL Achievement

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