States, Schools Trying to Improve ESL in Common Core Era


Data shows that Oregon public schools have been doing a better job of assisting students whose native language is not English become more accomplished in English within five or six years. Because of this, English as a second language courses have dwindled in middle and high schools, while elementary students make up more than 75% of those who receive daily help with English.

The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond writes that in 2008, it was less common for Oregon schools to finish teaching English to children who were non-native speakers by the time they left elementary school. Middle and high school students numbered 40% of students who were still learning English.

The change has come because of improved standards, better curriculum, more accountability and more training.

However, the trend is occurring nationally. Many states have large numbers of long-term English learners or "L-Tels", who have been learning English as a second language for over seven years without achieving mastery.

Much of the credit for Oregon's success is given to E.L. Achieve and its co-founder Susana Dutro and the training given to superintendents, principals, and teachers in many Oregon districts since 2006. Some of the teaching techniques include hand motions and gestures, using advanced language even with the youngest students (words such as "prefer" and "scrumptious" rather than "like" and "good"), teaching forms and patterns like comparing and contrasting and spending 40% of class time writing and talking.

"Smart English development classes," says Ventura Park language development specialist Shane Burchell, "focus on teaching students the structures of language they need to use in reading and science and history: How to make and defend an argument, discuss cause and effect, use sequencing, stake a claim and marshal evidence."

Another change that has resulted in more intensive and effective English education is rooted in the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. In 2006-07, Oregon schools began using the English Language Proficiency Assessment, or ELPA, for every English language learner rather than the widely varying tests and standards that had been in place before. It took time, but with the help of Dutro and her firm, schools made progress. Oregon's director of English learner programs, Kim Miller says:

"The one thing I have seen is a more focused attention to monitoring the progress of students and making sure students are making gains. When I talk with districts now, they truly know where their students are and where they need to go."

The California-based arm of The Education Trust, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, has repeatedly voiced concern that the new national standards might prove to be an additional burden for students whose native language is not English. Education Trust released a study last week which concludes that Common Core standards are both a challenge and a promising path to close the achievement gap for the rising number of US students who enter school knowing little or no English.

State and federal data from the 276 California unified school districts that have more than 100 English learners revealed top performers. Still, schools with a large number of Spanish-speaking students who live in low-income families do not do as well as other English learners, according to Pat Wingert writing for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

The report's authors spotlighted 11 California school districts that were improving achievement for these students and explained particular practices tied to the Common Core that have produced the best results. Specifically, the study found that outstanding districts offer English learners "a full Common Core-aligned curriculum that includes rigorous expectations, frequent formative assessments and college-preparatory courses."

Model schools also tend to have teacher collaboration times, site-based coaching, and professional development opportunities. The top schools are expanding students' vocabularies, encouraging more rich language in students' writing, and are offering one-on-one support to assist students with more demanding lessons.

The report acknowledges that the 10 school districts that have the most English language learners do not appear on the list of the 11 top-performing districts for English learners. Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at The Education Trust-West and the lead author of the study, explained:

"Students from higher poverty districts looked different than those from lower poverty districts," she said. "The role of poverty needs to be acknowledged. Students who are learning English and come from low-income families face additional barriers that other students don't face."

California Gov. Jerry Brown has been asked by leaders of 20 nonprofit organizations to add "an individual with a track record of advocating on behalf of English learners" to one of the two openings on the State Board of Education. John Fensterwald of EdSource writes that Education Trust-West stated that the implementation of the new school finance system is important for English learners and other under-served populations, but now a leader is needed to ensure that the resources are effectively used and reach the intended students.

Currently, the board has only one member who has taught English learners. Carl Cohn, a four-year board member, resigned this month, and shared these thoughts concerning his successor:

"I hope this doesn't sound self-serving but, so far, the governor's instincts have been excellent with regard to what the state board needs in terms of members.… Issuing directives from Sacramento isn't going to rescue youngsters who are learning English. The smarter strategy would be to advocate for EL (English learner) expertise in districts and schools – the real places that will make a difference in the lives of EL students."

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