[lg policy] Nebraska: How Should We Teach English-Language Learners?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 6 13:37:06 UTC 2009

Sunday, July 05, 2009

How Should We Teach English-Language Learners?

  Also listen to this discussion here

This highlights the underlying problem with this issue - education for
ELLs is more about politics than research.


by Claudio Sanchez | NPR

Weekend Edition Sunday, June 28, 2009 · Last week, the Supreme Court
ruled that the state of Arizona has not violated federal laws that
require schools to help students who do not speak, read or write
English. Despite the federal mandates, these kids often fail to do
well in school. So why haven't schools figured out the best way to
teach English to non-English-speaking students?

"The research certainly has in the past shown dual language programs
to be the most effective," says Nancy Rowch.

Rowch oversees instruction for English-language learners in Nebraska.
She swears that building on a child's native language, rather than
discarding it, has proven to be the best way to help kids make the
transition to English — but that's neither here nor there, because the
actual programs that schools use have less to do with research than
with politics and funding.

'Sink or Swim'

In Nebraska, for example, Rowch says school districts cannot find dual
language teachers or pay for dual language programs, so the state has
no choice but to allow them to use whatever they can afford, even
discredited methods like "sink or swim."

"In small schools, sink or swim may actually occur. Nebraska is a very
rural state, but to me, sink or swim is like saying, 'To teach
children to read, we're just going to throw them into an environment
but we never instruct them how to read,' " says Rowch.

Again, based on the evidence, she says, dual language or bilingual
instruction is the answer.

"A dual language program allows both English, and in the case of
Nebraska, Spanish, speakers to learn both languages together," Rowch

As in many parts of the nation, the non-English-speaking population in
Nebraska has exploded, creating enormous problems for schools that
have really struggled to keep these kids from falling behind in
science, math or history while they learn English. And that's key,
experts say: that they learn English so they can function.

Dual Language Programs

The politically charged question is whether the goal should be to
teach a child English as quickly as possible or let him learn English
more gradually while maintaining his native language so that he grows
up bilingual.

"There's nothing wrong with a kid being bilingual," says Rob Toonkel
of U.S. English. The group opposes any program that delays a child's
transition to English-only classrooms.

"The problem with the old bilingual ed was that it didn't have a goal.
It said kids would become English proficient at some point — not [in]
three years or five years or seven years," Toonkel says.

It means these kids are often stuck in so-called dual language or
bilingual maintenance programs indefinitely, says Toonkel. Another
problem, he says, is that schools have gotten little or no guidance
from states, the federal government or the courts.

All the courts have said is that "schools must take appropriate action
to help students overcome language barriers," Toonkel says.

The result, he saysl: a hodgepodge of ineffective, poorly funded
programs and poor academic results. Low test scores, low graduation
rates and high dropout rates, especially among Spanish-speaking

"You're seeing it in places in the South and Midwest suddenly going
'OK, we have to look at these programs and figure out what's best
because we have a lot of people moving here," Toonkel says.

No Child Left Behind

Right now, the little guidance states are getting from the federal
government is wrapped up in No Child Left Behind, the sweeping
eight-year-old law that evaluates schools based on students' academic
progress and test scores.

James Crawford, a longtime proponent of bilingual education and
president of the Institute for Language and Education, says NCLB poses
another hurdle for kids who don't know English.

"What NCLB does is attach very high stakes to tests that are given
primarily in English," Crawford says. Consequently, schools are
throwing kids into English-only classrooms too quickly, because they
"are so worried about the consequences of not making adequate yearly
progress for English-language learners," he says.

In other words, says Crawford, instead of adopting proven programs
that help non-English-speaking students do well in school, we're back
to sink or swim.

"It's ironic that as more research comes showing the benefits of
bilingual ed, we're seeing a political trend toward minimizing the use
of bilingual ed," Crawford says. Why? "It's tied up with the
immigration debate. It's also a reflection of the kind of culture wars
we've had."

As long as that's the case, Crawford says, politics will trump the
research and continue to put more than 5 million students classified
as English-language learners at risk.

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