for English Language Learners
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.
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
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,
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.