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Readers Weigh in on RTI and English-Learners

Readers have posted thoughtful critiques of a story I wrote about the implementation of "response to intervention" with English-language learners in the Chula Vista Elementary School District in California that edweek.org published on Friday.

Chula Vista educators believe that response to intervention, an approach to providing extra help to struggling students with the aim of reducing referrals to special education, has helped to dramatically increase test scores for ELLs in the school district.

I didn't cite in the article the numbers for the climb in test scores. In 2009, 47 percent of English-learners in the district scored "proficient" or above on California's English/language arts test, up from 20 percent in 2004. In 2009, 60 percent of English-learners scored proficient or above in math, up from 31 percent in 2004. The achievement gap between ELLs and all students in the district remained about the same for much of that time period, but narrowed from last year to this year. For example, the gap between the percentage of ELLs and all students scoring proficient or above in math decreased from 14 percentage points to 8 percentage points from 2008 to 2009.

Stephen D. Krashen, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, suggests in a comment that Chula Vista may have some English-language learners in programs who should not be in the category. He's certainly right that test scores of ELLs aren't very meaningful unless we also have information about how a school district identifies students as ELLs and what criteria it uses to move students out of the category. In California, district officials have discretion to create their own criteria for deeming students fluent in the language, and thus the criteria can differ between school districts or from school year to school year in the same school district.

The reader who calls himself or herself "Curious" makes an observation that the story is missing information about the school district's regular program for English-language development. I write in my article that "teaching language through academic content" is a big part of schooling in the district, but I don't give details about the training educators who work with ELLs have received or say much about specific lessons ELLs get in English-language development in Chula Vista.

California requires any of its teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms to have received training to work them. I should have mentioned that in the story.

The two schools in Chula Vista I visited set aside blocks of time each day for ELLs to receive lessons in English-language development. The point I was trying to make in the article is that Chula Vista educators have worked hard to improve regular classroom instruction for ELLs through response to intervention. For some background information about RTI and ELLs, refer to a research brief published by the Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English-Language Learners.

This isn't the last you'll hear about RTI and ELLs. At a session about ELLs at a conference of the National Title I Association last week, U.S. Department of Education officials were pitching a Power Point presentation they've posted on how to use various streams of federal funds for response to intervention. The presentation tells how money from Title III, the section of the No Child Left Behind Act authorizing money for English-language-acquisition programs, can be used for the educational approach.

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