California: Bill Renews Debate Over Helping English Learners

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Sep 2 14:28:26 UTC 2006,1,6889616.story?coll=la-news-politics-california

Bill Renews Debate Over Helping English Learners
The legislation would provide tools to help students. But critics say it
would cause 'segregated' learning.

By Carla Rivera
Times Staff Writer, September 1, 2006

Glendale teacher Rebecca Quintero spent a recent morning encouraging her
fourth-graders to write about the joys of summer for an English
assignment. But some of her Spanish, Armenian, Korean and Tagalog speakers
were confused at how to begin and their textbook offered limited guidance.
What Quintero needed, she said, was a fourth-grade book that would support
students with varying degrees of English proficiency. "It would be
incredible if all teachers had this so that we don't have to always use
supplemental materials," said Quintero, in her classroom at Columbus
Elementary School.

In the debate over how best to teach English to immigrant students,
teachers like Quintero and others say they are struggling to meet academic
standards with too few tools. These educators argue that current
approaches to language development have failed the state's 1.6 million
English learners, leaving them lagging behind native English speakers on
test scores and the state's new high school exit exam. Legislation
approved by the state Senate on Thursday, by Sen. Martha Escutia
(D-Whittier), would instruct textbook publishers to provide additional
reading and writing support for English learners and give school districts
discretion in purchasing the materials. The bill, SB 1769, which was
approved by the Assembly last Friday, could reach the governor's desk

While the legislation has gained wide support, it has also become a symbol
of the fierce philosophical clash over English instruction in California,
with many opponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, insisting that
the option would lead to lower standards and segregation of students based
on English ability. The debate echoes the angst provoked by Proposition
227, which passed in 1998 and mandates that all students learn to read and
write in English. Whichever course the state takes will have profound
implications for students who fail to boost their language skills and also
for California's future economic and social health, educators and others
say. Research shows that immigrants who improve their English have higher
earnings, more job opportunities and pay more taxes.

Inadequate English skills limit the potential for economic
competitiveness, productivity and the quality of life, according to a
recent national report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The
question facing California policy makers: What is the fastest, most
efficient way to improve student language skills to meet more demanding
expectations? "Most kids who start out in the elementary system will
transition to English-only courses pretty fast so it's not a question of
whether they will learn English," said Arturo Gonzalez, a research fellow
with the Public Policy Institute of California. "It's about learning the
content of subject matter like history, math or grammar that will make
them competitive with their peers a couple of years down the line. What's
the most effective approach to speed up English learning and the
acquisition of other topics? That's really the policy question and
challenge to California education."

There is little research that offers guidance. A recent five-year study on
the effects of Proposition 227, commissioned by the state Legislature,
found no evidence that either bilingual education or full English
immersion is more effective. The study, by the American Institutes for
Research and the education group WestEd, found quality of instruction
plays a more important role. It also found a persistent achievement gap
between English learners and native English speakers in most subject
areas. Although the gaps have not widened despite an increase in the
percentage of English learners, the study's results argue for allowing
school districts more options, said co-author Tom Parrish. "Now that we
have an outcome standard that we agree on and a single criterion to which
schools are being held accountable with clear consequences, I would argue
that we should give schools some latitude about how they are going to get
there," Parrish said.

Other critics say the state is ignoring proven best practices. "People
lack the understanding of what it means to learn a language," said Norm
Gold, an educational consultant who formerly worked as bilingual
compliance manager for the California Department of Education. "They
believe it's all wrapped up in learning to read and are so focused on
English language arts standards that they can't see that kids need to
build their comprehension to gain fluency." Many educators though this is
not universal say they want textbooks that combine reading and writing
exercises that are the core of English class with added instruction on
language development for students with fewer skills. Textbook publishers
have indicated they could accommodate such a request, supporters said, and
such a text, written to California's high academic standards, would
probably become a national model, they add.

The state recently adopted standards that will govern textbook materials
for elementary and middle school students from 2008 through 2014. They
call for 2 1/2 hours a day of English geared to all students, plus an
additional hour of instruction for English learners. But that additional
support is not as effective as it could be because the materials used are
not aligned to students' reading and writing exercises, many teachers
complain. Learning is also hampered by teachers' varying degrees of

"Right now, teachers have to fill in the gaps and there's an inconsistency
across classrooms," said Columbus Principal Kelly King. "I understand the
fear at the state level about lower expectations, but I think there needs
to be more trust in the safety net they've put in place. We have statewide
academic standards, No Child Left Behind, the exit exam, so that we can't
go back to pre-227 days." Columbus, named a California Distinguished
School in 2004, was used last month as a backdrop by state Supt. of Public
Instruction Jack O'Connell to announce standardized test scores, and he
expressed concern over the achievement gap. But King said she did not get
a chance to discuss the plight of English learners with the schools chief.
In 2006 scores, 19% of English learners at Columbus were proficient in
English language arts compared with 46% of students school-wide.

Just under half of the students are English learners and 70% of those are
native Armenian speakers, who must adapt to an entirely different
alphabet. There are also students like 10-year-old Jeison Morales, who
arrived recently from Mexico having not attended school at all. According
to a 2005 Public Policy Institute report, California schools contain
nearly 40% of the nation's English learners. But on the issue of
curriculum, other states with large immigrant populations have not
necessarily followed its lead. New York, Florida and Texas, for example,
do not mandate a set curriculum and give school districts leeway as long
as students meet state standards. California officials argue that English
learners do best using the same curriculum as other students and that
anything less would dilute the learning experience for everyone. Roger
Magyar, executive director of the California Board of Education, said the
newly adopted curriculum should help teachers fill in the gaps.

"One problem is that we have a lot of teachers who are not trained to use
the materials," Magyar said. "Especially in schools where there are large
numbers of low-income kids, teachers lack experience or are not
credentialed, so the problem in many cases is not the curriculum but the
pedagogy." Schwarzenegger, an immigrant who came to the country knowing
little English, offered personal testimony in a recent letter to state
Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland) opposing SB 1769: "I cannot," he said,
"endorse any effort which may lead to the creation of separate curricula
and textbooks that will isolate these students within our public schools.
This sort of segregated learning is not only detrimental to the language
learning process it would have a divisive impact on our children,
classrooms, schools, teachers and our larger society. It undermines the
principle of inclusiveness that inspires so many entrepreneurial and
hard-working immigrants to pursue the American dream."

Many educators agree, and it is notable that while SB 1769 won endorsement
by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the superintendent of the
Los Angeles Unified School District and his staff support the state's
position. "I don't think any state policies have hampered us in our work
with English learners," said Michael Romero, director of reading
instruction for L.A. Unified. "With the last adoption the state board
should be congratulated for putting some outstanding tools in front of


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