[lg policy] US: Reform for English Language Learners

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 24 15:58:17 UTC 2012

Reform for English Language Learners
By Patricia Dickenson on January 19, 2012 8:00 AM

Note: Patricia Dickenson, a former elementary school teacher in Los
Angeles, is guest posting this week. Dr. Dickenson is a member of
ASCD's Emerging Leaders Program.

In my first post, I addressed educational drawbacks that English
language learners may encounter in schools. In today's post I would
like to address how schools and districts can be more resourceful in
closing the achievement gap. Experts believe the way schools support,
assess, and track could be pivotal in meeting the needs of this
diverse group of students.

Spend Money on Books, not Tests

According to Jim Cummins, an expert on bilingual education, students
take at least 5 to 7 years to acquire a language; however, schools are
mandated to test after their first year. Stephen Krashen, a prominent
U.S. scholar in second language acquisition, recently spoke to a
Korean audience about English language acquisition. "Instead, if you
invest time and money spent on tests to quality books and building
libraries, students will naturally score [well] on English tests as
they get to...develop language competency naturally through reading."

I echo Krashen's sentiments and would advise schools and districts to
use funding spent on testing ELLs to investing in books. If students
are not given sufficient time to master a language and are continually
met with poor achievement on standardized tests, they will be more
likely to attribute their performance to intelligence rather than
effort. This may explain why 68 percent of ELLs in California are
"long-term" ELLs unable to exit the program.

The National Education Association (NEA) also supports the idea of
extending the time for immigrant English language learners to master
English from one year to three years prior to counting the results for

Solution: Schools and districts should create formative tests that
reflect the skills necessary to master English. Assessments should
mirror course curriculum and be used by teachers to inform their
practice. Standardized testing should be postponed until ELLs have
been in the system for three years, and the resources should instead
be invested in expanding access to books and language tutoring.

Change Language Policy

The idea that our children will be competing at an international level
not only for employment, but entrance into universities and colleges,
has put a spotlight on our education system. We know that we are
behind global leaders such as Finland, South Korea, Canada, and now
Shanghai. These global peers promote learning more than one language
at an early age, but this is not always the case in American's public
schools. In 2008, one-quarter of U.S. elementary schools offered some
form of language instruction--down from one-third 11 years earlier.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated in order to "prosper
economically and to improve relations with other countries Americans
need to read, speak and understand other languages." Duncan also
contends that our education system is the reason why Americans are not
learning other languages. There is a plethora of research to support
the benefits of learning more than one language, from higher cognitive
achievement and problem-solving skills to greater creativity and
affinity for languages.

Ironically, multilingual schools are emerging and being sought out by
parents in more affluent and educated areas as a means to give their
children an edge or sense of culture. For example, in the area where I
reside, two of the most affluent and sought after public schools have
Spanish classes starting in kindergarten. Yet students in neighboring
low poverty areas do not begin language instruction until high school
despite the fact that a large percentage of these students are native
Spanish speakers.

Many non-native English students enter a system that does not value
their home language. This not only sends the wrong message to ELL
students, but also denies English-only students an opportunity to
learn a second language. We should shape our system to capitalize on
students' wealth of knowledge. The very fact that many schools do not
begin second language instruction until high school is missing a rare
window to offer the students an opportunity to become conversant or
fluent in other languages as well as develop positive attitudes toward
people who speak another language.

What is notable is that schools around the country are changing the
way their districts view language policy. In Flagstaff, Arizona, a
student's home language is used as an additive approach to
instruction. The school is ethnically mixed with about 41 percent
Hispanic, 31 percent White, and 27 percent American Indian and is
thriving despite the fact that more than half of their students are
eligible for free and reduced lunch. In Naperville, Illinois, where 76
percent of the residents are Caucasian with an average family income
of over $100,000, the school district is expanding their dual language
program through the high school.

Solution: Districts should find ways to integrate native English
speakers with ELLs from the onset of schooling rather than isolating
in ELL tracks. Not only will this approach allow ELL students to feel
part of the school community, but it will encourage students to learn
new languages together. Second language instruction should begin in
elementary school through songs, music, and games and build gradually
over the years. We are missing an excellent opportunity here to
incorporate students into our teaching practices. Having ELLs pair off
or be put into teams to teach their home language to someone not
proficient in that language could only help schools and foster a team
mentality rather than a social hierarchy.

Minimize Disparities

Linda Darling-Hammond put a spotlight on the difference between
affluent and impoverished schools throughout the United States.
Disparities exist not only when it comes to per-pupil spending but
teacher salary and school resources as well. Teachers at
low-performing and low-income schools are aware that they are paid
less and receive fewer resources despite the fact that their children
need and deserve the same opportunities (and even more) to be

These teachers are also under a tremendous amount of pressure to
improve test scores and raise achievement. According to
Darling-Hammond, "More than 70 percent of black and Latino students
attend predominately minority schools, and nearly 40 percent attend
intensely segregated schools, where more than 90 percent of students
are minority and most are poor." In Kentucky, Hispanic students are
less likely to be in segregated schools even in large urban cities,
and this difference is making a difference. In 2010, graduation rates
for Hispanics was about 79 percent compared to 81 percent of whites.

Solution: The issue of school segregation and language policy needs to
be revisited by state and school leaders. A Call to Action should
include a national council on education to examine education reform
and support the whole child. Since data suggests the gap begins well
before kindergarten, preschool coops are an economical solution to
diminish inequities in school readiness.

In my final post tomorrow I will share my experiences as a teacher in
South Central, Los Angeles and explore what teachers of English
language learners can do within the classroom.

--Patricia Dickenson


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