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5 Takeaways on Educating California's English Learners

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By Devin Corrigan

What can states and districts do to improve opportunities and outcomes for English Learners (ELs)?

The question is asked and answered often; just this past fall, the U.S. Department of Education released a sprawling toolkit to help states and districts "better understand and meet their obligations" to ELs, and another recent report recommended longer school days.

An ambitious collaboration has offered a new set of answers for the California context.  Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California's Students Learning English, a brief by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), deftly synthesizes a flood of findings from three university-district research partnerships spread across nine school districts: Corning, Fairfield-Suisun, Firebaugh-Las Deltas, Los Angeles, Napa, Sanger, Tahoe-Truckee, Ukiah, and a large unnamed urban district.

One would be hard-pressed to pinpoint a better place and time for this work.  California has the highest density of English Learner (EL) enrollment in the country, and according to the Migration Policy Institute, nearly one in four students in the K-12 population are ELs (the national ratio is about one in nine).  Of the 25 districts nationwide with the largest EL populations, eight are in California—including the Los Angeles Unified School District, which tops the list.

The authors also point out that their findings come at a crucial moment.  If passed next November, the California Multilingual Education Act would largely repeal Proposition 227, which has placed heavy restrictions on non-English instruction since its passage in 1998.  ELs will also see changes in content and assessment with the arrival of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and California English language development (ELD) standards, and increased resources courtesy of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).  Finally, the month-old Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), successor to No Child Left Behind, presents opportunities and challenges for state EL education policies.

What can be done to take advantage of this "moment of immense opportunity" for ELs?  The authors conclude that California needs to overhaul a "blunt" and inconsistent system of classification and reclassification, improve the collection and use of relevant EL data, and expand educational opportunities for ELs.

Here are my five takeaways:

Research-practice partnerships on the rise? It is thrilling to see partnerships between universities and school districts yielding rich findings on ELs through mixed methods research, and "meta-collaborating" as separate partnerships join forces to disseminate findings.  So-called research-practice partnerships (RPPs) seem to be enjoying some momentum, and I hope it lasts.  The urgency generated by the current policy environment in California is a perfect argument for the quick turnaround and targeted, practical approach that RPPs promise.  Improvements in data collection may result, as well; for example, the authors make several practical data suggestions, notably the monitoring of any student who was ever classified as an EL (a practice that will be expanded under ESSA), and conducting longitudinal analyses of EL outcomes so as not to miss top-performing ELs who have reclassified.

Diversity of ELs has policy implications.  There is an increasing appreciation for the diversity of ELs as a group.  The size of EL populations and the breakdown of subgroups (newcomers, long-term ELs, ELs with special education identification, ELs with poor-quality prior schooling, ELs from different linguistic and national origin backgrounds, etc.) from district to district vary tremendously, and smart policies will address that diversity.  During a presentation on this brief, co-author Ilana Umansky of the University of Oregon offered an "elephant in the room" example, challenging the audience to think about how to close achievement gaps between Chinese-origin and Latino-origin ELs.

"Blunt" classification processes need sharpening.  Classification and reclassification processes determine two critical moments for ELs: initial designation as ELs (establishing eligibility for language support services), and reclassification as students ready for mainstream academic programs.  Unfortunately, these processes are rife with inconsistencies and inefficiencies, resulting in designations that are inaccurate or untimely.  To do away with this "blunt" system, the authors suggest determining classification and reclassification solely from English proficiency criteria, excluding presently used criteria such as grades, parent/teacher consultations, or state standards tests.  With these processes standardized across the state, more accurate distinctions would be made between EL and non-EL students—or so the argument goes.  Those changes represent a dramatic shift that may or may not come to pass, but one aspect is more certain: classification and reclassification criteria will soon be standardized across all states, thanks to ESSA. 

Keep an eye on November.  If it passes, the California Multilingual Education Act could have major implications for how ELs are educated in the state (most ELs are currently enrolled in English immersion programs).  In one large, urban district, enrollment in dual immersion and bilingual programs led to medium- to long-term gains in academic performance, English proficiency, and reclassification rates, a finding supported by other recent studies.  Passage of the act may herald a pronounced shift away from all-English instruction.

Reconciling language and content instruction persists as a major challenge.  Educators must reconcile the need of ELs to receive both language and content instruction.  Easier said than done.  The authors point out that in the tension between the two, content is the one at risk for neglect.  Currently, teachers don't have good enough tools to provide high level content to students whose English skills are still low.  The authors state, "More research needs to be done to identify the most effective ways of accomplishing this...possibilities might include providing targeted professional development on integrating language and content instruction and lengthening ELs' school day or academic year."  In other words, we don't yet have the system we need.

Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California's Students Learning English offers a digestible overview of essential recent research on the education of ELs in California—no small feat, given the scale of the projects and the dense findings they yielded.  Furthermore, the authors present a convincing case that the policy environment for EL education is changing.  What can states and districts do to improve opportunities and outcomes for ELs?  The question inspires vigorous debate, but few would argue that the time to strike is while the iron is hot.

 

Devin Corrigan is an 'On California' research assistant and a recent MA graduate of the International Comparative Education program at Stanford University. 

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