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Study Finds ELL Students Languishing in Calif. Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 07, 2010 6 min read
Ana Ieng teaches English-language development to students from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, China, and Vietnam at El Monte High School in El Monte, Calif.

A portrait of long-term English-language learners in 40 California school districts shows that the specific needs of such students are largely being ignored, a statewide coalition of education and civil rights groups contends in a new report.

Based on survey data, the study by Californians Together found that 59 percent of English-language learners in secondary schools in the districts had been in U.S. schools for more than six years without reaching a sufficient level of English proficiency to be reclassified as fluent. It also found that few school districts had programs or formal approaches designed especially for the long-term English-language learners.

So many English-learners have retained that classification for so long in California in part, the report argues, because many haven’t been placed in an English-language-development program at all or haven’t been given school curricula and materials designed for ELLs. When they’ve received special help to learn English, it says, it’s often been through inconsistent programming.

The report charges that California, the state with the largest number of ELLs in the nation, is “silent in policy” on the existence of long-term English-language learners and doesn’t have a plan for them.

California Department of Education officials dispute that charge.

“We do have structures in place to address long-term English-learners,” Carlos Rivera, the manager of the language-policy and leadership office for the state education department, said in an interview late last month.

Bigger Hurdles

He explained that California has regional centers that provide technical assistance to school districts where English-language learners aren’t making sufficient academic progress. Through that process, which is part of the state’s compliance system, educators are told to analyze data for students who have been ELLs for six or more years to figure out what may not be working for them and fix the problem, he said.

Mr. Rivera said that the longer that students are in the school system, the harder it can be for them to show proficiency in English. The reason, he said, is that academic standards become more rigorous as the students move up through the grades.

Phil Lafontaine, the director of the English-learner and curriculum-support division for the state, acknowledged that California does not break out data for long-term ELLs on a statewide level.

Some of the few researchers in the country who focus on the subgroup of long-term English-language learners said they hope the report will not only raise awareness about how many students are long-term ELLs, but also spur policymakers and administrators to address the issue systemically.

“While the report is about California, it could very easily be about the whole country,” said Yvonne S. Freeman, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas at Brownsville, who has co-written a book on strategies for teaching long-term ELLs.

“These students are constantly overlooked because they do speak English without an accent,” she said. “In the long run, they are lacking academic literacy. They don’t always understand what the teacher says because the teacher is speaking the academic language that they lack.”

Few Formal Programs

“The onus is on the elementary schools in particular,” wrote Margarita Calderón, a professor emerita of education and educational research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in an e-mail message. “They are the long-term-ELL factories. Middle and high schools simply fold their hands.”

Ms. Calderón has written a book, Preventing Long-Term English Learners: Transforming Schools to Meet Core Standards, scheduled to be released by Corwin Press in the fall.

While the Californians Together study found that few districts had formal programs to address the particular needs of long-term ells, the report highlights information from some that do.

One of those districts, the Ventura Unified School District, where about 2,600 of 17,300 students are English-language learners, improved support for long-term ELLs through the state’s compliance process.

Jennifer W. Robles, the director of bilingual education programs, said in an interview the district was found to be out of compliance under the state’s accountability system for how it serves ELLs. The district had to prepare a master plan for the education of ELLs, she explained, and it is now in its second year of having stepped-up offerings to benefit English-language learners.

Two years ago, the district offered only two levels of English-language-development, or ELD, classes. The ELLs who were no longer at the beginning or intermediate level of English proficiency primarily attended mainstream classes with teachers who had some training in how to work with them.

With the revision of the program, the district expanded two levels of ELD classes to four, changed the curriculum, and made the ELD classes self-contained.

The Californians Together report also gives recommendations for a model secondary education program for long-term ELLs. They include having classes designed for such students that focus on the language of school, what researchers call “academic English.” Such students also need to explicitly be taught language and literacy across all the content areas, the report says.

The report also suggests that long-term ELLs should be enrolled in a course to develop language skills in their native languages.

A Pilot Study

In support of those recommendations, the report cites one of the few research studies that have articulated common characteristics of long-term ELLs. That study, which also examined a pilot program targeting such students, was commissioned by the New York City Department of Education and conducted by Kate Menken, an assistant professor of linguistics for the City University of New York, and Tatyana Kleyn, an assistant professor of bilingual education and teaching English to speakers of other languages, or TESOL, at CUNY.

Ms. Menken and Ms. Kleyn found promising results with the pilot program that they implemented with long-term ELLs at two high schools in New York City. Results from 28 ELLs in the special program were compared with outcomes for 14 ELLs at a control school. In the intervention, long-term ELLs were taught English as a second language separate from new arrivals, learned literacy across all subjects, and took a class in Spanish literacy.

Status Unknown

On average, students at both treatment schools scored higher in reading comprehension in English and Spanish at the end of the school year than their peers in the control school. They also made more gains in English over the course of the school year than those in the control school.

The report says that even long-term English-learners themselves often aren’t aware that they still are identified as ELLs. “The majority of long-term English-learners wants to go to college, and are unaware that their academic skills, record, and courses are not preparing them to reach that goal,” it says.

Said Laurie Olsen, the author of the Californians Together report and one of the first researchers in the country to draw attention to this group of students, “Even though people know they are there, there hasn’t been a response.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Study Finds ELL Students Languishing in California Schools

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