Hispanic students make up 82% of the over 1 million English learners (ELs) in the California public schools, but data from standardized test scores show that these students are struggling to achieve the same level of academic success as their native-English-speaking peers. Their needs are being met by a hodgepodge of programs, bilingual and English-only, according to Sarah Garland (at left) of California Watch, who wrote a series of stories this week on the achievement gap and how best to educate this bilingual (mainly Spanish speaking) population.
Neither of these programs has proved to be effective in narrowing the achievement gap, but it's not because of a lack of desire or knowledge on the part of the schools (officials at the California Department of Education (CDE) published a book last year detailing research-based approaches for improving the educational outcomes for ELs--the book sold out overnight); however, steep budget cuts already in reading programs and special programs for the English learners, such as the English Language Acquisition Program, make it almost impossible for school districts to meet the needs of this population (the federal stimulus allowed districts to hire additional teachers for two years but these funds are no longer available).
Looking more closely at the California Standards Test (CST) data, in 2nd grade, 42% of ELs scored proficient or above in Language Arts; however, by 5th grade, the number is almost halved (24%) and by middle school, the numbers take a deep slide ( 7th grade- 14%, 8th grade 11%, 11th grade 6%). The gap widens even more in other areas of the curriculum: in 8th grade science, only 25% of ELs are proficient (compared to 69% of native English speakers) and in social studies, only 12% (compared to 57%). There has been some improvement since 2003 (double the % of students are now performing at proficient or above in 4th grade Language Arts) but on a national test, National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 12% of Hispanic fourth-graders in California were proficient in reading in 2009, which places them behind every state in the nation except for Utah and Minnesota. In addition, a 2010 report by Californians Together, a nonprofit advocacy group, finds more than half of ELs in high school are “long-term English learners” meaning they have been in school for six years without learning English.
The ability to read fluently by third grade is a key benchmark for future academic success: research by the Annie E Casey Foundation has shown students missing this benchmark are at high risk of dropping out of school.
In an interview with California Watch, Patricia Gandara, at left, an educational psychologist at UCLA, and co-director of The Civil Rights Project, said research shows Latino children as young as 18 months old have significant gaps in their preparation for learning, tied to poverty and disadvantage, and 85% of these students are U.S. citizens, not immigrants themselves, as is the common perception of ELs.
Another misconception is that students lack knowledge of academic content --so they may end up having to retake a chemistry class, when in fact they need help with the language, not the content. Bilingual programs are on the decline since the passing of Proposition 227, a voter initiative to teach English only in schools.
Gandara said students in bilingual programs often go to schools with higher concentrations of poverty, which is linked to lower test scores; these programs have struggled because of a reduction in the number of qualified bilingual educators (in 2006, 556 teachers were certified to teach bilingual education, compared with 440 last year).
However, according to Linda Espinosa, at left, a CDE consultant, University of Missouri-Columbia researcher, and former bilingual school principal, there is no evidence that either bilingual or English-only programs improve the educational outcomes of ELs.
In the schools that have shown gains for its EL population (for example, Geddes Elementary & Baldwin Park Elementary in Baldwin Park Unified School District, and Think College Now in Oakland Unified School District), what works is whether schools gather data and track student performance on an ongoing basis, maintain a rigorous curriculum, and whether teachers are trained to help ELs connect their learning with what they already know in their own language. Espinosa says learning to read in English is easier for children who come to school as good readers in their native language. “For children who have low levels of early reading skills in their home language, we have to help them. It doesn’t just transfer automatically. It is the huge job of education.”
Written for California's Children by Elizabeth J Carlyle.