Federal Reporter's Notebook

Spellings: English-Learners Need More Help

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 06, 2005 3 min read
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The nation needs to “pick up the pace” in helping English-language learners do well in school, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said last week in a speech at a conference here for teachers and administrators who work with such students.

“English-language learners are the fastest-growing student population in the United States,” Ms. Spellings told the 1,200 attendees at a luncheon during the Education Department-sponsored conference, held Nov. 30 through Dec. 2.

She noted that by 2025, one in four students in U.S. classrooms is expected to be an English-language learner. “Our education system is in a race to keep up with these students. We have to pick up the pace,” she said.

The secretary reiterated the goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that “we will close the achievement gap by 2014.” She said that the implementation of high standards and accountability called for in the law are paying off in advancing that goal.

Ms. Spellings said that many reading strategies that have been found to work with children in general also work for English-language learners. But she added that more research needs to be done on how best to teach such students.

“We haven’t fully cracked the code for English-language learners,” she said. “We need to develop a more focused, research-based strategy for these students—and we better do it soon.”

Educators said in interviews between sessions that the No Child Left Behind Act, which will be 4 years old next month, is not realistic in some of its requirements for English-language learners, such as the mandate that the achievement gap between students who are learning English and other students be closed completely.

“As long as you continue to get large groups of immigrants at the lowest proficiency level, the scores won’t make the leaps to close the gaps,” said Carol Bass, the supervisor of programs for English-language learners for the 66,000-student Prince William County, Va., school system.

But educators also said that the law has given them more power within their school districts to improve education for English-language learners.

Estee Lopez, the director of English-language learners and instructional services for the 12,000-student New Rochelle, N.Y., district, said she opposes the federal law’s requirement that English-language learners take state standardized tests in English, rather than in their native languages, three years after they enroll in U.S. schools.

It’s not fair, she said, for schools to be penalized if the test scores for such students prevent the schools from meeting the goals for adequate yearly progress that states have set to comply with the law.

“The research tells us it takes five to seven years for an English-language learner to be able to compete somewhat effectively with a native speaker of English,” Ms. Lopez said.

At the same time, she said, the law has spurred improvements in her state, such as the development of standards for English-language learners and creation of better assessments, such as a new test for measuring English proficiency, that help educators better determine how such students are progressing.

Jesus DeLeon, the director of federal projects for the Caldwell, Idaho, school district, said that the NCLB law has had an overall positive affect on the English-language learners in his district.

“Not only are they getting more attention, but they are getting better instruction,” he said. Nearly 1,000 of the district’s 5,800 students are English-language learners.

“While it should have happened all along,” Mr. DeLeon said, the district’s administrators are now placing a high priority on training regular classroom teachers—not just teachers of English as a second language—on the best ways to work with English-language learners.

Kathleen Leos, the director of the Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition, which sponsored the conference, said federal officials are considering making a change in only one of the law’s requirements affecting English-language learners.

She wouldn’t speculate on what the change would be or when it would be announced, except to say that it would affect only students who are recent arrivals to the United States.

English-language learners must take their states’ standardized mathematics tests—in English or their native languages—during their first year in the country, but they have the option of taking an English-proficiency test instead of a standardized state reading test during that first year. Test scores for newcomers aren’t counted in the federal accountability system, however, until students have been in the United States for at least a year.

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