Bill Renews Debate Over Helping English Learners

Times Staff Writer

Glendale teacher Rebecca Quintero spent a recent morning encouraging her fourth-graders to write about the joys of summer for an English assignment. But some of her Spanish, Armenian, Korean and Tagalog speakers were confused at how to begin and their textbook offered limited guidance.

What Quintero needed, she said, was a fourth-grade book that would support students with varying degrees of English proficiency.

“It would be incredible if all teachers had this so that we don’t have to always use supplemental materials,” said Quintero, in her classroom at Columbus Elementary School.

In the debate over how best to teach English to immigrant students, teachers like Quintero and others say they are struggling to meet academic standards with too few tools.

These educators argue that current approaches to language development have failed the state’s 1.6 million English learners, leaving them lagging behind native English speakers on test scores and the state’s new high school exit exam.


Legislation approved by the state Senate on Thursday, by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), would instruct textbook publishers to provide additional reading and writing support for English learners and give school districts discretion in purchasing the materials. The bill, SB 1769, which was approved by the Assembly last Friday, could reach the governor’s desk today.

While the legislation has gained wide support, it has also become a symbol of the fierce philosophical clash over English instruction in California, with many opponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, insisting that the option would lead to lower standards and segregation of students based on English ability.

The debate echoes the angst provoked by Proposition 227, which passed in 1998 and mandates that all students learn to read and write in English.

Whichever course the state takes will have profound implications for students who fail to boost their language skills and also for California’s future economic and social health, educators and others say. Research shows that immigrants who improve their English have higher earnings, more job opportunities and pay more taxes.

Inadequate English skills limit the potential for economic competitiveness, productivity and the quality of life, according to a recent national report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

The question facing California policy makers: What is the fastest, most efficient way to improve student language skills to meet more demanding expectations?

“Most kids who start out in the elementary system will transition to English-only courses pretty fast so it’s not a question of whether they will learn English,” said Arturo Gonzalez, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. “It’s about learning the content of subject matter like history, math or grammar that will make them competitive with their peers a couple of years down the line. What’s the most effective approach to speed up English learning and the acquisition of other topics? That’s really the policy question and challenge to California education.”

There is little research that offers guidance. A recent five-year study on the effects of Proposition 227, commissioned by the state Legislature, found no evidence that either bilingual education or full English immersion is more effective. The study, by the American Institutes for Research and the education group WestEd, found quality of instruction plays a more important role. It also found a persistent achievement gap between English learners and native English speakers in most subject areas.

Although the gaps have not widened despite an increase in the percentage of English learners, the study’s results argue for allowing school districts more options, said co-author Tom Parrish.

“Now that we have an outcome standard that we agree on and a single criterion to which schools are being held accountable with clear consequences, I would argue that we should give schools some latitude about how they are going to get there,” Parrish said.

Other critics say the state is ignoring proven best practices.

“People lack the understanding of what it means to learn a language,” said Norm Gold, an educational consultant who formerly worked as bilingual compliance manager for the California Department of Education. “They believe it’s all wrapped up in learning to read and are so focused on English language arts standards that they can’t see that kids need to build their comprehension to gain fluency.”

Many educators -- though this is not universal -- say they want textbooks that combine reading and writing exercises that are the core of English class with added instruction on language development for students with fewer skills. Textbook publishers have indicated they could accommodate such a request, supporters said, and such a text, written to California’s high academic standards, would probably become a national model, they add.

The state recently adopted standards that will govern textbook materials for elementary and middle school students from 2008 through 2014. They call for 2 1/2 hours a day of English geared to all students, plus an additional hour of instruction for English learners.

But that additional support is not as effective as it could be because the materials used are not aligned to students’ reading and writing exercises, many teachers complain.

Learning is also hampered by teachers’ varying degrees of experience.

“Right now, teachers have to fill in the gaps and there’s an inconsistency across classrooms,” said Columbus Principal Kelly King. “I understand the fear at the state level about lower expectations, but I think there needs to be more trust in the safety net they’ve put in place. We have statewide academic standards, No Child Left Behind, the exit exam, so that we can’t go back to pre-227 days.”

Columbus, named a California Distinguished School in 2004, was used last month as a backdrop by state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell to announce standardized test scores, and he expressed concern over the achievement gap. But King said she did not get a chance to discuss the plight of English learners with the schools chief. In 2006 scores, 19% of English learners at Columbus were proficient in English language arts compared with 46% of students school-wide.

Just under half of the students are English learners and 70% of those are native Armenian speakers, who must adapt to an entirely different alphabet. There are also students like 10-year-old Jeison Morales, who arrived recently from Mexico having not attended school at all.

According to a 2005 Public Policy Institute report, California schools contain nearly 40% of the nation’s English learners. But on the issue of curriculum, other states with large immigrant populations have not necessarily followed its lead. New York, Florida and Texas, for example, do not mandate a set curriculum and give school districts leeway as long as students meet state standards.

California officials argue that English learners do best using the same curriculum as other students and that anything less would dilute the learning experience for everyone. Roger Magyar, executive director of the California Board of Education, said the newly adopted curriculum should help teachers fill in the gaps.

“One problem is that we have a lot of teachers who are not trained to use the materials,” Magyar said. “Especially in schools where there are large numbers of low-income kids, teachers lack experience or are not credentialed, so the problem in many cases is not the curriculum but the pedagogy.”

Schwarzenegger, an immigrant who came to the country knowing little English, offered personal testimony in a recent letter to state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland) opposing SB 1769:

“I cannot,” he said, “endorse any effort which may lead to the creation of separate curricula and textbooks that will isolate these students within our public schools. This sort of segregated learning is not only detrimental to the language learning process -- it would have a divisive impact on our children, classrooms, schools, teachers and our larger society. It undermines the principle of inclusiveness that inspires so many entrepreneurial and hard-working immigrants to pursue the American dream.”

Many educators agree, and it is notable that while SB 1769 won endorsement by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and his staff support the state’s position.

“I don’t think any state policies have hampered us in our work with English learners,” said Michael Romero, director of reading instruction for L.A. Unified. “With the last adoption the state board should be congratulated for putting some outstanding tools in front of us.”