Can New/Revised Rules for English Language Learners Improve Student Outcomes? or Does Change Begin in Schools and Classrooms? How Do We Encourage “Bottom Up” Reform?

Until now I don’t think I’ve agreed with an editorial in the NY Post since Dorothy Schiff sold the paper to Rudolf Murdoch.

A NY Post editorial includes comments made by Chancellor Farina’s newly appointed, and returnee from retirement, chief for “English-language learners,” Milady Baez, the Post writes,

[The Department] plans to help schools with kids struggling because of poor English by “increasing bilingual program options for ELLs,” “strategically using ELL density enrollment data,” “collaborating with a broad range of partners,” “strengthening the specialized skill sets necessary to effectively address the academic and linguistic needs of the diverse ELL population,” etc.

The problem is the Department leaders of programs for English language learners could have written the same sentences in 2004 or 1994 or 1984.

The Post reports a 2011 study,

• Of English learners who were in first grade in 2003, 36 percent failed the English proficiency test seven years in a row.
•  Only 30 percent passed within three years. The average kid took more than five.
•  Almost 70 percent of kids who failed for six or more years were born in America — meaning US citizens, not immigrants.

And, the editorial concludes,

In New York, we even reward schools for this failure, because they get money for each foreign-language speaker they have. In any language, that should be a recipe for change — not more of the same.

The unanimous 1974 Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision required school districts to provide specialized instruction to children deficit in English skills, the court wrote,

The failure of the San Francisco school system to provide English language instruction to … students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak English, or to provide them with other adequate instructional procedures, denies them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the public educational program, quoting Senator Humphey [the court averred[,

“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.”

For forty years New York City, and more recently New York State have struggled with the issue of how you adequately provide the particular type of education to children whose primary language is not English.

Under the wave of 1970-2002 reform, fully empowered community school districts, in the poorest districts with the least unsuccessful students; jobs came before education. In a South Bronx school district the superintendent told the principals they must create at least one bilingual class on every grade in every school. When a principal complained he didn’t have enough kids the superintendent snapped back, “OK, but the school board has teachers who need jobs, form the classes”

The Supreme Court decision rather than providing targeted instruction for English language learners simply was a vehicle to provide jobs.

The battle over whether to create bilingual classes or English as a Second Language (ESL) echoed across the city – with bilingual classes as the default unless the parent opted out. While I’m sure there are “highly effective” bi-lingual teachers; unfortunately we don;t see expected gains in classrooms.

New York State responded to the Lau decision by doing what the state does, they wrote dense regulations that required school districts to develop a system to identify English language learners, required minutes of instruction related to the level of the student’s English competency, and a system deciding whether the student had “scored out” of the program – compliance rules. The thirty year old rules are referred to as “Part 154.” (See regs here).

For the last three years the state and a “committee of practitioners” have been dueling over revisions to the rules, and, finally, made a number of changes. (See revised regs here and excellent power point here).

While the changes to the regulations are an improvement they are far, far from a solution – they are still compliance rules written by lawyers.

If a school used the correct procedures for identifying English language learners, provided the appropriate minutes of instruction and the other rules all is fine – the regulations ignore student progress; a prime example of “…the operation was a success but the patient died.”

The number of children who qualify for English language learners services continues to increase and increase rapidly outside of New York City.

NYC: 151,000
Brentwood: 5.100
Buffalo: 4.100
Rochester: 3,500
Yonkers: 3,000

That’s right; the city with the second largest numbers of ELLs is Brentwood on Long Island. School districts outside of New York City are struggling with increasing numbers of students who require ELL instruction.

Complying with state regulations cost additional dollars – hiring appropriately certified teachers, class sizes, training, materials, etc., who pays the additional costs? The state funding formula does not provide additional dollars for English language learners (New York City does provide additional funding per student). As Commissioner King explained, school districts will have to make difficult choices – it may be necessary to dump popular programs, maybe an advanced placement class or a sports team to create English language learner classes and services. In the era of the 2% property tax cap these will be difficult and potentially politically toxic decisions.

The core questions are not confronted in state regulations: what is working, why is it working, can successful practices be transferred to other schools?

And, BTW, there are a number of highly successful schools.

Twenty-five years ago the International High School at La Guardia College was opened – a high school that only admitted students who were in the country four or fewer years: the principal, Eric Nadelstern was innovative, irascible and a thorn in the skin of the bureaucracy. The state approved his plans to assess students by portfolio instead of regents exams; he worked with the union to create a different kind of teacher transfer program and created a model for peer evaluation. The number of International High Schools increased, the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a 401(c) not-for-profit supports the increasing number of schools – fifteen in New York City and a number of others across the country. The student results are at or above the results for all students (See student results here).

Newcomer High School in Queens accepts students “new to the nation” and receives superb marks under the department’s rigid accountability rules (See School Progress Report here)

What can we learn?

* School leadership and school district supports are crucial … only alchemists can change dross to gold and you can’t change mediocrity to model leadership – collections of college credits do not a school leader make, and, I’ve yet to meet an alchemist. There is an alarming shortage of effective school leaders.

* Sadly, colleges accept almost anyone into education programs; too many students attain certifications that do not have the skills. – the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) may be forcing sweeping changes in teacher preparation, there will be considerable pushback.

* Collaboration: school leader to school leader, school leader to staff, collaboration among staff members, among students, a top to bottom collaborative environment. The vast majority of schools are top down management models and teachers primarily work alone in classrooms only occasionally interacting with colleagues.

How many school leaders tell a teacher, watch me, I’m going to teach a mini-lesson in your class … and we can talk about it. How many school leaders are capable of engaging teachers and staffs in meaningful discussions about practice? (See Charlotte Danielson, Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations)

How many schools are designed to facilitate teacher collaboration – teachers working together, discussing actual kids, jointly creating lessons and rubrics, seeing student work from other teachers’ classrooms, watching colleagues teach classes and engaging in discussions, etc.?

Press releases, memoranda, ukases, “programs,” rarely change what happens within schools and classrooms: to change outcomes for children with limited or absent English skills schools have to change practice not simply comply with the rules. Skilled teachers, skilled teachers working with other skilled teachers, “cultural awareness,” socio-emotional supports for children and caregivers, change is complex and difficult, we inherently look at calls for change as punishment.

In spite of the clarion calls from Gracie Mansion and Tweed change starts in schools and classrooms, I don’t see a commitment to change schools, only pleas to hug more, which is not a bad thing; however, hugs alone don’t make kids better speakers of English or writers or readers or mathematicians, or, maybe more importantly, better coders (See www. code.org)

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3 responses to “Can New/Revised Rules for English Language Learners Improve Student Outcomes? or Does Change Begin in Schools and Classrooms? How Do We Encourage “Bottom Up” Reform?

  1. Thanks for the kind mention.

    The last thing we and our ELL kids need is to reignite the fires of the 1970’s and debate anew which language the teacher should be speaking. If the teacher is getting all of the air time, then students aren’t learning.

    ELL teachers need to be learning facilitators, creating opportunities for students to use English and their native languages as much as possible throughout the school day. Bringing back failed programs and strategies, along with those responsible for them in the first place, will not ensure that more ELL students are successful in the future.

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  2. ELL is not a mystery subject area– a newly discovered concept or secret stashed with the pirates of the Caribbean. IT is a world known– widely used– fully credible process. The ’70’s” ushered in a monstrous attack on the school system– and really is not the ‘model’ of anything. If there are students who NEED ELL services, let us focus on getting those services delivered.

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  3. The LAB test in my high school was administered by the foreign language (including ESL) department to all students with Hispanic-sounding last names.  Many of these students spoke only English but had such poor skills that they “qualified” for ESL. Paul Feingold

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