As ESL students lag behind, Rhode Island cities look to fine-tune instruction

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 8 14:32:51 UTC 2009

As ESL students lag behind, Rhode Island cities look to fine-tune instruction

01:00 AM EST on Wednesday, January 7, 2009

By Linda Borg

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — In spite of all the rhetoric about the surge of illegal
immigrants, the number of students who speak little or no English has
decreased in Rhode Island over the past five years. State and local
education officials couldn't explain why those numbers are declining,
but some educators wondered whether Governor Carcieri's crackdown on
illegal immigrants, combined with the state's abysmal job market, has
contributed to the reduction.  Central Falls had about 1,000 students
enrolled in English as a Second Language classes seven years ago; now,
it has 600 students who fit that category. In Providence, the number
has declined slightly over the past five years, from 16 percent to 14
percent of the total student population.

Nationally, however, this population has more than doubled over the
past 10 years, especially in the Southeast, where 13 states saw a
growth of more than 200 percent.  But Peter McWalters, Rhode Island's
commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said those numbers
should not obscure very real performance gaps between English language
learners and their fluent peers. According to a national study by
Education Week, an education policy magazine, only 13.8 percent of
English language learners in Rhode Island scored proficient on a state
math test compared with more than 50 percent of all students
statewide. In reading, 11.3 percent of English language learners are
proficient versus slightly more than 60 percent of all students

Nationally, only 9.6 percent of ESL fourth- and eighth-graders scored
proficient or higher in math on a nationwide test and 5.6 percent
scored proficient in English. Across the United States, 25 percent of
all English language learners are failing to make progress toward
English-language proficiency.

In Rhode Island, McWalters said, "We're not in agreement that these
kids are worth it because we are torn between a culture that's says,
'We don't want you,' and one that wants them to come here. We have to
decide that these kids are worth it and that it is necessary to pay
the bill."

That said, Pawtucket and Central Falls are teaming up to teach middle
and high school teachers how to think like ESL instructors.

"It's making them all ESL teachers," said Patricia Morris, the
director of English as a Second Language in Central Falls. "They
understand that they have to teach language skills as well as content
— math or science."

Meanwhile, Rhode Island College has agreed to offer ESL certification
at a reduced cost to teachers in Pawtucket and Central Falls. As
Morris said, "We're trying to expand our pool of qualified

But she suggested there is an inherent flaw in a system that measures
students by a standard that she claims is impossible for them to meet.

"If an ESL student could meet the standard," she said, "then they
would no longer be classified as ESL. A student must take the math
test regardless of how long they've been in this country. This is what
drives ESL teachers crazy."

English language learners are not a monolithic group, however. Nearly
two-thirds are second- or third-generation Americans, with at least
one parent born in the United States.

As a state, Rhode Island acknowledges that raising student achievement
does call for a one-size-fits-all solution. In Providence, some
children arrive in high school with little or no formal education in
their native language, much less English. Other students have
witnessed horrific violence and spent much of their childhood in
refugee camps.

"We are not endorsing a bilingual program for everyone," McWalters
said. "What we are endorsing is a more sophisticated way to teach"
English language learners.

The good news, he said, is that the leaders of urban districts such as
Providence and Central Falls are looking for guidance in this area. In
fact, the Department of Education has been working with urban school
districts to fine-tune ESL instruction so it meets the needs of
individual students.

As McWalters put it, "We are way beyond resistance. Providence School
Superintendent Tom Brady is looking for help. Central Falls
Superintendent Fran Gallo is leading it. The question is: Do we have
the money and horsepower to do it?"

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