English Language Learners Failed by System

The two largest public school systems in the country — New York City and Los Angeles — this week acknowledged that they had been failing to meet the needs of English language learners and promised to implement new programs to improve the situation, writes Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.

The number of English language learners enrolled in public schools across the country has skyrocketed in the last ten years, from 3.5 million in 1997-98 to 5.3 million in 2008-09. And many school systems have not had resources to meet the needs of this 51% jump.

Sharon Otterman at The New York Times reported that state education officials announced Wednesday that the city's public schools are providing poor services to too many English language learners and set out a plan to improve.

The U.S. Education Department announced this week that it had resolved a proactive civil rights enforcement action that targets the district's efforts to provide educational opportunities to English language learners.

"Today's agreement will go a long way toward ensuring that Los Angeles' English Learner and African-American students are performing to their fullest potential," Education Secretary Ane Duncan said.

"The remedies it contains are intended to address some challenges unique to Los Angeles and others that we are seeing play out in many different places across the country. But the process that got us here, the cooperation, the commitment to crafting effective solutions, and the fundamental agreement that every student deserves an equal shot at a world-class education is a model that I hope to see repeated again and again."

Among the actions the Los Angeles schools officials have voluntarily agreed to take are:

Develop and implement a new English language learners master plan

Undertake professional development that strengthens the delivery of instruction to these students

Communicate with parents so they understand the program and their child's progress.

Why it took so long for the New York City school system to come up with a plan to improve its situation after being ordered to by the state more than a year ago was unclear.

John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, was quoted by the Times as saying at a news conference that only 7 percent of the city's English language learners were found to have graduated on time and ready for college and careers in 2010. And reading and math standardized test scores for these students were far below city averages.

Modern school reformers have made teacher accountability their central focus, leaving issues such as these less present in the national debate about how to improve schools. Until this dynamic changes in a big way, schools, unfortunately, won't, writes Strauss.

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