The Fog of English Learner Education
Dr. Bill Conrad
621 Fuller Avenue
San Jose, CA
If school districts in Santa Clara County (SCC) really cared about teaching their English Learners (Els) English and keeping them on track for success in college and career, they would jettison the current system of perpetual language immersion and flawed instruction. Data visualized for the recently completed Santa Clara County Academic Olympics demonstrate that the best SCC districts can do in preparing 11th grade English Learners for success in college English is about one quarter meeting or exceeding ELA standards in 2017, with most school districts in the single digits. San Jose Unified School District, for example, can only manage to get 6% of their 11th grade Els meeting or exceeding ELA standards in 2017 and only 3% in Mathematics!
Why do English Learners perform so poorly in both ELA and Math? School districts in SCC employ a system of teaching English that prolongs the learning of English for EL students from 6 to 8 years using the soft racist rationale of preserving native language and culture. “Dual Immersion” classes provide the opportunity for already entitled White students to learn Spanish while extending English Language learning by Els for up to 8 years. While it is admirable for school districts to promote bilingualism, it is truly a second-tier purpose that mainly does a disservice to the majority minority group in San Jose – the Hispanics at the expense of quality language instruction for numerous other second language groups.
The primary purpose of schools is to prepare all students for success in college and career. For English Learners this means learning both social and academic English as quickly as possible in order to stay on track for success in English Language Arts and Mathematics. This imperative should create a sense of urgency on the part of principals, District leaders and teachers rather than the current relaxed pursuit of all manner of “culturally sensitive” approaches to language learning within the suffocating fog of English Learner education.
The current zeitgeist for English Learner education is quite complicated and bureaucratic and built upon the notion that it will take at least 6 years for English Learners to gain enough English to be academically successful. If your system includes “dual immersion” classes where students hear their native language 75% of the time, where other EL students engage in only 30 minutes of daily English Language Development classes, and where regular classroom teachers use a self-selected potpourri of instructional strategies for EL students, of course it will take up to 8 years for our EL students to learn English!
We need to think differently about the acquisition of English Language by ELs. School districts in SCC should develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate a rigorous and intensive plan for ensuring that all EL students achieve English Language fluency within two years or less while participating in a 12-month intensive program with continuous access to grade level academic content. SCC might look to Canada where they have adopted a powerful system to support language acquisition and academic achievement by their ELs. In this system, English Learners maintain close contact with grade level academic content while they intensively learn English. Canadian EL students acquire English at a rate twice as fast as in the United States. The new plan for SCC could also include the incorporation of successful technology solutions for learning English such as Rosetta Stone. It is not impossible to imagine our EL students being able to acquire English in a short time.
There is good news in the data showing that students who have been Reclassified-Fluent English Proficient (RFEP) are successful in achieving grade level standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Data from the Academic Olympics demonstrate that 11th grade RFEP students perform comparably or outperform the overall student population for ELA within SCC school districts. There is hope! However, only a small percentage of EL students are reclassified annually. Only about 15% of EL students in Santa Clara County are reclassified annually which would ultimately meet the extended 6-8-year goal of reclassifying all EL students.
With lackadaisical District EL professional practices, a low reclassification rate is not surprising. Complicating the issue, is the byzantine and overly bureaucratic process required for reclassifying EL students. An EL student must be Houdini in order to extricate themselves from the English Language system to become Reclassified-Fluent English Proficient. Students must meet high criteria for English Language proficiency including:
- Achieve high levels of performance on 4 language proficiency criteria;
- Perform academically at the same level as their peers;
- Gain teacher approval; and
- Gain parent approval
Based upon the prolonged system for supporting EL students in acquiring English as well as the convoluted process for reclassifying EL students, one would think that the system is set up to guarantee ongoing federal funding and the protection of jobs. School district diversion in supporting English language acquisition by parents; failure to allocate federal and local resources in support of English Learner students; and lack of rigor in the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of English Language acquisition programs contribute to poor English Language acquisition and academic achievement by our English Learners.
The families and community must continue to hold school and district professionals accountable for the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of high quality and research-based programs designed to support our English Learners. We cannot depend upon the opaque State accountability dashboard. We need to see and monitor easy to understand data on both professional practices, EL student outcomes, and evaluation findings. I have requested this information from the San Jose Unified School District. I hope that you will step up as well. You can learn more at the School Improvement Big Picture Web site.
Our English Learners and their families expect that our school districts ensure that our ELs learn English and stay on track for success in college and career without the need for remediation. We do not have the luxury of giving ourselves 8 years to achieve this vision. We must demand that our district leaders and teachers emerge from the fog of English Learner Education and begin to act with urgency in support of our English Learners and their families.