If school districts in Santa Clara County really cared about teaching their English learners English and keeping them on track for success in college and their careers, they would jettison the current system of perpetual language immersion and flawed instruction.
Data visualized for the recently completed Santa Clara County Academic Olympics demonstrate that the best local districts can do in preparing 11th grade English learners for success in college English is about one quarter meeting or exceeding state standards in 2017, with most districts in the single digits. San Jose Unified School District, for example, can only manage to get 6 percent of their 11th grade English learners meeting or exceeding state standards in 2017 and only 3 percent in mathematics.
Why do English learners perform so poorly in both English and math? School districts in this county employ a system of teaching English that prolongs language learning from six to eight years using the soft rationale of preserving native language and culture.
“Dual immersion” classes provide the opportunity for already entitled white students to learn Spanish while extending English learning for students who are learning it as a second language for up to eight years. While it is admirable for school districts to promote bilingualism, it is truly a second-tier approach that mainly does a disservice to the majority minority group in San Jose—Hispanics pupils—at the expense of quality language instruction for numerous other second-language groups.
The primary purpose of schools is to prepare all students for success in college and career. For English learners, this means learning both social and academic English as quickly as possible in order to stay on track for success in English language arts and mathematics. This imperative should create a sense of urgency on the part of principals, district leaders and teachers rather than the current relaxed pursuit of all manner of “culturally sensitive” approaches to language learning within the suffocating fog of English learner education.
The current zeitgeist for English learner education is quite complicated and bureaucratic and built upon the notion that it will take at least six years for English learners to gain enough English to be academically successful.
If your system includes “dual immersion” classes where students hear their native language 75 percent of the time, where other English-as-a-second-language students engage in only 30 minutes of daily English development classes, and where regular classroom teachers use a self-selected potpourri of instructional strategies for English-learning students, then you can expect that it will take up to eight years for our English-learning students to learn English.
We need to think differently about the acquisition of English by students who learn it as their second language. School districts in Santa Clara County should develop, implement, monitor and evaluate a rigorous and intensive plan for ensuring that all English-learning students achieve fluency within two years or less while participating in a 12-month intensive program with continuous access to grade level academic content.
Santa Clara County might look to Canada where they have adopted a powerful system to support language acquisition and academic achievement. In this system, English learners maintain close contact with grade level academic content while they intensively learn their new language. Canadian English-learning students acquire the language at a rate twice as fast as in the United States. The new plan for South Bay schools could also include the incorporation of successful technology solutions for learning English such as Rosetta Stone. It is not impossible to imagine our English-learning students being able to acquire the language in a short time.
Good news: the data show that students who have been reclassified as fluent or proficient are more successful in achieving grade level standards in both math and English. Data from the Academic Olympics demonstrate that students in grades five, eight and 11 who achieve fluency perform comparably, or even outperform the overall student population within Santa Clara County school districts.
There is hope!
However, only a small percentage of English-learning students are reclassified annually. Only about 15 percent of English learning students in the county are reclassified each year, which would ultimately meet the extended six-to-eight-year goal of making all of them achieve fluency or proficiency.
With lackadaisical district English-learning professional practices, a low reclassification rate is unsurprising. Complicating the issue is the byzantine and overly bureaucratic process required for reclassifying students. An English-learning student would have to be Houdini in order to extricate themselves from the system to become classified as proficient. Students have to meet high criteria for fluency, or proficiency. Under the current standards, they must:
- Achieve high levels of performance on four language proficiency criteria
- Perform academically at the same level as their peers
- Gain teacher approval
- Gain parent approval
Based upon the prolonged system for supporting English-learning students in acquiring the new language as well as the convoluted process for reclassifying them as at least proficient, one would think that the system is set up to guarantee ongoing federal funding and the protection of jobs.
School district diversion in supporting English language acquisition by parents; failure to allocate federal and local resources in support of English-learning students; and lack of rigor in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programs contribute to poor language acquisition and academic achievement.
The families and community must continue to hold school and district professionals accountable for the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of high quality and research-based programs designed to support our English learners. We cannot depend upon the opaque state accountability dashboard. We need to see and monitor easy to understand data on both professional practices, student outcomes and evaluation findings. I have requested this information from the San Jose Unified. I hope that you will step up as well. You can learn more at the School Improvement Big Picture Web site.
Our English learners and their families expect that our school districts ensure that our students actually learn English and stay on track for success in college and career without the need for remediation. We do not have the luxury of giving ourselves eight years to achieve this vision.
We must demand that our district leaders emerge from the fog of English education and begin to act with urgency in support of our children and their families.
Dr. Bill Conrad is an educator who has provided several decades of teaching, administrative, and consulting support to school districts and schools within Santa Clara County and throughout the nation. He specializes in strategic planning and implementation, accountability, assessment, and science education. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. To submit an op-ed, email News Editor Jennifer Wadsworth at [email protected].