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Two English-Language Learner Programs Come Under Fire

Last month, a Texas court ordered the Texas Education Agency to overhaul the state’s bilingual education system, citing low test scores and high dropout rates. In Seattle, an outside review of that public school district’s program for immigrant students was deemed weak and in need of restructuring. The program, the evaluators said, “is ad hoc, incoherent and directionless,” the Seattle Times reported.

As two different systems struggle to overcome the burden of low achievement among their English-language learner populations, one scholar recommends providing children with more language support before pushing them into English-only classrooms, among a few strategies that may help both systems.

In Texas, Judge William Justice of the U.S. District Court ruled that the state failed to properly educate ELL students, reversing a 2007 ruling affirming the state bilingual education programs. “The failure of secondary (limited English proficient) students under every metric clearly and convincingly demonstrates student failure, and accordingly, the failure of the (English as a Second Language) secondary program in Texas,” Justice wrote in his decision.

TEA has until Jan. 31 to develop a new plan for the estimated 140,000 junior high and high school English-language learners, although the state is expected to appeal the court’s ruling.

Texas is home to one of the nation’s largest English-language learner populations. An estimated 680,000 students are enrolled in bilingual education programs, according to the TEA. Data for the class of 2006 show that the graduation rate for students in bilingual or English as a Second Language programs was 41 percent, notably below the state rate of 80.4 percent.

While the elementary students enrolled in Texas’ ELL programs are performing well, the appalling graduation rates among secondary students prompted officials from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights organization, to pursue the case.

According to LULAC officials, the TEA’s system of monitoring the performance of students created “gaps and masks” that distort the problem of low performance among this cohort of students.

The TEA aggregated test scores and dropout rates of all students and failed to disclose how specific groups were faring. “The students in elementary schools were doing very well, but the students in high school were doing poorly,” says Roger Rice, an attorney from Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, Inc.

Why is Texas’ system failing? That answer is for the state to determine and remedy, LULAC lawyers argue. Still, some of the system’s shortcomings emerged in court testimony.

“Many of these students were submerged into English and placed into sink or swim situations,” says David Hinojosa, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who along with Rice brought the case on behalf of LULAC and the American GI Forum. Parents of prospective English-language learners have been suspicious of Texas bilingual education and ESL programs for some time, Hinojosa notes.

Additional reports disclosed teachers lacking command of the language in which they were instructing, usually Spanish. “In some cases you had students being taught by teachers they didn’t understand,” Rice says.

Dr. Elena Izquierdo, associate professor of bilingual/ESL education at the University of Texas at El Paso, says the problems English-language learners face begin in elementary schools.

“They say that the elementary schools are doing well, but they don’t see the long-term effects,” she says. “The kids are learning English but not content. It’s not about learning English. It’s about learning in English. By the time they hit middle school, the content is behind and the focus [of the curriculum] is content literacy. These students get behind and there is a big drop.”

Before joining the faculty at UTEP, Izquierdo served as the principal of the nationally recognized Two Way Dual Language elementary school in Washington, D.C. Currently she sits on the executive board of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education.

According to Izquierdo, there are varied approaches to bilingual education. The programs that are most effective offer several layers of language support in and outside formal classroom settings.

“The programs that do terribly are programs that exit students after three years or four years of support. Students can decode language, but they don’t comprehend it,” says Izquierdo, noting that many students also lack analytical skills. “They are learning English at the expense of their education.”

According to MALDEF officials, the bilingual community in Texas, most of which is Hispanic, has been aware of the problem for sometime. In Texas, bilingual education courses for limited English proficient students are optional.

“When parents deny entry, normally, it is a result of two possible things. One [reason] is that the programs are seen in the community as remedial and deficient. Two, the principal, teachers or administrators are discouraging entry so they do not have to provide those additional services,” Hinojosa says. “In some districts, there were denial rates of 29, 30 and 35 percent.”

Entry denials should hover around 5 percent, Hinojosa adds.

In Seattle, much of the failure stemmed from early ejection of English-language Learners and the lack of qualified teachers, according to the evaluation report. The Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems which evaluated the Seattle system, concluded that Seattle immerses nearly 25 percent of its English-Language Learners students in regular classrooms without much support before they are ready. Izquierdo insists that students must have language support for a minimum of three or four years.

In Texas and nationally, she says, “We have to ensure that we have strong bilingual programs that allow students to develop cognitively in a language they know, so they can handle grade-level material in their language while, at the same time, having rich English-language program so they don’t get behind.”

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