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Reform for English Language Learners

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 AYP.

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 successful.

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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