The Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, Lau v Nichols (1974), school districts across the nation were directed to address the issue of the “inability to speak and understand the English language,” the court wrote,
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.
Any ability grouping or tracking system employed by the school system to deal with the special language skill needs of national origin-minority group children must be designed to meet such language skill needs as soon as possible and must not operate as an educational dead end or permanent track …
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.
After a few years hassling with advocates New York State created Part 154 of state regulations , a dense set of regulations setting forth identification procedures, number of minutes of specialized instruction per week and employing teachers with appropriate certification – Part 154 was a compliance document.
For decades educating English language learners was a New York City-only problem, and, the city closely monitored the schools across the city.
The “issue” was not without political disagreements. Were bilingual classes segregating and dead ends? Were English language learner (ESL) classes more effective than bilingual classes? Were bilingual classes essential to retain student cultural identity, or, were bilingual classes simply job opportunities for bilingual teachers? Politicians, advocates, school boards lined up on one side or another, researchers supported and opposed one approach or another, the arguments, at times, were vociferous, and, disagreements exist today.
Over the last decade new immigrants entered cities across the state, from the “Big Five” to mid-size cities on Long Island (Brentwood, Hempstead) as well as upstate. The education of new immigrants was no longer a New York City only issue.
The regulations, Part 154, were essentially unchanged for thirty years as the “practitioners” disagreed over how the regulations should be changed, finally, in 2014, the state revised the regulations. Among the changes: prohibiting “pull-out” models and requiring more bilingual classes, a model that requires hiring more teachers, as well as, a new Common Core aligned assessment test, a new NYSESLAT test. (NYSELAT = New York State English Language Learner Assessment Test). (Peruse links to the new NYSESLAT test and associated documents here and many resources for teachers from the Engage NY site here ).
The new Part 154 regulations present another political issue: the regs require the creation of bilingual classes and the state funding formula does not provide additional dollars. Last year as the new regs were rolled out a member of the Regents, reflecting the worries of school districts raised the question of the costs, another unfunded mandate, ex-Commissioner King responded, “The districts can cut Advanced Placement Classes …,” not exactly the most politic of replies.
In the fall of 2014 undocumented minors began to arrive, mostly on Long Island, and, some school districts were not assigning students to classes, claiming the students could not document their addresses, or lacked a birth certificate, or lacked a legal parent or guardian. Students were refused registration or assigned to sit in auditorium for weeks at a time. In December the Department issued emergency regulations directing school districts to admit the students,
o Clear and uniform requirements, which comply with federal and State laws and guidance on the enrollment of students, particularly for unaccompanied minors and undocumented youths;
o Enrollment requirements whereby districts must accept additional forms of proof beyond the highly restrictive forms listed in the enrollment instructions/materials of school districts under review to date.
Reluctantly school districts admitted the students, although in some instances the result was sharp increases in class size and a scramble to hire properly licensed bilingual teachers.
English language learners is a compliance word, all new students whose home language is not English must take the LAB-R within ten days of registration and all student identified are required to receive specialized instruction and are tested each spring using the NYSESLAT, students are tested each spring until they “score out” on the NYSESLAT or receive 3.0 or higher on the state ELA exam, or, pass the English Regents – the testing process is time -consuming, teachers are removed from their normal instructional duties to test each and every ELL student.
The new Part 154 also introduced the new Common Core-aligned NYSELSAT exam – the exam covers reading, writing, speaking and listening and is untimed; it can take hours to administer the test to each student. (Read an interesting critique of the exam here) and a superb scholarly article that is highly critical of the test here)
To further complicate the issue the term “English language learner” incorporates a wide range of students:
* Unaccompanied minors who are living with relatives or strangers and may face serious social and emotional issues.
* Students with interrupted education (SIFE), arrivals may have not been in school for years, or, perhaps, have never attended school in their native country.
* Students who are illiterate in their native language.
*Students whose native language is an indigenous language. (Students from Central America who do not speak or understand Spanish or students from West Africa who speak tribal languages)
* Students who suffered from traumatic conditions in their native country.
Unfortunately in most schools and school districts Part 154 simply means compliance, does the student have a properly licensed teacher, is the student receiving the appropriate minutes of specialized instruction per week. The instruction might be in a bilingual class, or, in an integrated classroom with two teachers, one of whom possess a bilingual, ESL license or extension, or in a self-contained ESL classroom. In their second year in the country students must take the state exams, regardless of their lack of English skills. The feds recently denied the state request to delay the exam for two years after admittance to the program.
Graduation data for ELLs is poor, and “college and career readiness” data very poor. Of course the state “judges” ELLs using the same metrics at all other students. After a student “scores out” of an ELL program school districts are required to provide “transitional” supports.
Some ELL students “score out” in a few years, others, called “ever-Ls” never score out. To expect that new immigrants will achieve at grade level after a year is ludicrous, researchers agree that the average student takes 5 -7 years to master English yet we “punish” schools and teachers.
See Graduation rate data by district and by school here.
Too many schools and school districts are crippled by limited budgets, internal bickering on school boards and gubernatorial politics that see charters and receivership as an “answer” to complex problems.
New immigrant students with limited English skills must take state exams; the result, lower scores for the schools and districts. The students are faced with the dual task of learning English and learning content.
The state intends to use the new NYSESLAT exam, which assesses student progress in learning English, to assess the teachers of these students. The decision ignores the wide diversity among students who are learning English. Emergent learners of English learn at different rates. A student who is illiterate in his/her native language will take a substantially longer period of time to learn English than a student who was in school at grade level in his native nation.
As Regent Brown stated at the last Regents Meeting, “We should not use test designed to assess students to assess teachers.”
To use the NYSESLAT to assess teachers, to “punish” teachers who choose to teach immigrant students will only discourage teachers from teaching the neediest students