The United States Supreme Court, in the 1974 Lau v Nichols decision required that the school district take “affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency” of non-English speaking Chinese students in San Francisco.
Basic English skills are at the very core of what these public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education. We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.
“Where inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin-minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students.”
“Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.”
In response to this decision as well as local community struggles and advocacy, states around the nation crafted laws that provided specialized educational instruction for students who were not fully language competent in English.
New York State created “Part 154,” a section of the regulations of state education department that required the identification of English language learners and specialized instruction.
Thirty years after the regulations were put in place and in spite of detailed regulations English language learners are not doing well, especially those that enter school as early adolescents and teenagers. Problems come from two sources: there have been problems of inadequate implementation and inattention to the needs of English language learners but also, experienced, diligent and committed bilingual and other ELL practitioners have learned from their work with ELLs that these regulations can be improved in line with their deep experience and knowledge of how to best serve their students.
“Clearly the services are poor, and the best indication of that are the student outcomes,” John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner,
“As a measure of the problem,” he said, “in 2010 only 7 percent of the city’s English language learners were found to have graduated on time and ready for college and careers” Learning from the practices of the existing schools and programs that have strong ELL student outcomes is critical to enhancing and strengthening the regulations to better serve students and improve outcomes for more ELLs.
At the November meeting of the Board of Regents a review and possible revision of Part 154 was on the agenda and the discussion of a rambling position paper was postponed to the December meeting,
In particular the Department will seek comment on the provisions of the Regulations pertaining to:
How students are identified as English language learners and subsequently exited from services;
The duration, intensity and types of instruction and support services provided to students in English as a Second language and bilingual education programs;
Credit accumulation options and graduation requirements for English language learners;
Parent notifications and options in terms of services and programs for their children who are English language learners;
Certification and in-service professional development requirements for staff; and
District planning and reporting requirements.
In engaging with stakeholders, Department staff will encourage stakeholders to provide responses to the following questions:
· How well do former ELLs students perform after achieving proficiency? How do they perform in middle school? How do they perform in high school?
· What is the quality of the State’s bilingual and ESL programs: What works? Which practices are effective?
· What are the educational needs of Long Term LEP/ELs? How can the State address those needs?
· For students with disabilities (SWD) who are ELLs, how does each disability affect the results on exams?
· What are the educational needs of Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE)?
The Department is calling for an in depth look at programs for English language learners, and, the stakeholders are rightfully suspicious. In the Governor’s office the watchwords are “mandate relief,” a euphemism for finding less expensive ways of providing services or eliminating services altogether.
Is the Department planning to make changes in the regulations that are actually cost cutting measures, another approach to mandate relief?
After five months of intensive meeting a task force made up of sixty plus representatives of the stakeholders agreed upon regulations to implement the controversial principal-teacher evaluation law. The Commissioner ignored the recommendations and imposed sections that were inflammatory. With three negative votes the Regents approved the changes; the state teacher union challenged the provisions in court and were sustained. The Commissioner and the Regents are appealing the decision effectively halting any local negotiations, required under the law.
The Department proposed changes in the law that established services for children with disabilities – eliminating School Psychologists from Committees on Special Education (CSE). At hearings around the state over 200 individuals and organizations testified and over 700 comments were submitted, almost all opposing the changes. Hours before the Regents vote, when it was clear the Regents would not approve the changes, a face saving change was made – however, School Psychologists were removed at triennial and re-evaluation meetings.
If regulations are not producing results, if English language learners are graduating at levels strikingly below other students, if the regulations are not producing anticipated outcomes isn’t it the responsibility of the Department to offer suggestions, plans, upgrades? How can we ensure that the enhancements to the regulations are driven by what data has shown us works, by the experiences of the practitioners in the schools who have succeeded and “beaten the odds” with these students? Do we have the courage to do what is right for students while resisting attempts to eliminate services based on ideological conviction (like the old bilingual vs. ESL debates from the 20th century) rather than pedagogical practice and research evidence or an existing budget shortfall?
Does the Department already have the changes written and simply is using the façade of public hearing/comment as a cover for changes they have already decided upon?
Is it possible for the Regents to lead courageously in this conversation? Courageous leadership will support positive enhancements in Part 154 while maintaining a base-line of support for all ELL students and answer budget concerns without trampling the civil rights of some of the most vulnerable students in this state.