EL Reform for Large Urban Districts

by Jennifer Kobrin on October 13, 2011

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Two districts with the largest numbers of English learners, Los Angeles and New York City, are both receiving pressure to substantially reform services for these students.

In New York, the state commissioner on education held a video conference yesterday, calling for more qualified bilingual teachers and pointing out the city’s alarming 7% graduation rate for ELs. Sadly, some outcomes seem focused on monitoring and compliance, rather than collaboration and shared accountability. According to the New York Times, principals were told that money would be withheld from their schools and letters would be placed in their files if all appropriate services were not provided and paperwork was not kept up to date.

To NYC’s credit, a 2009 report released by the Council on Great City Schools, looking at what some successful districts are doing to make progress with regard to ELLs, chose the city to highlight as a success story, along with San Francisco, St. Paul, and Dallas. The study’s recommendations focus on having a single, city-wide comprehensive plan for English learners, close collaboration between ESOL teachers and other staff, and point to the complexity of the issue.

In Los Angeles, the Obama administration settled its first civil rights probe, focusing on English learner and African-American students in the district. The settlement requires a complete overhaul of the city’s Master Plan for English learners. A widespread problem in LAUSD is students classifying out of EL-related services, and then floundering academically. Someone I spoke with who has worked for English learner programs at LAUSD said it was about time, but wondered if the new Master Plan would lead to any real change.

Finally, a great report about how babies’ brains process language came out this week in the New York Times. The report points out that the learning of language may begin earlier than six months. By ten to twelve months, young children who are exposed to two languages simultaneously (as in households where more than one language is routinely spoken) can detect one language over the other.

Language is social, it happens in interactions with other people. For our students to succeed, they need varied opportunities to talk and interact with other students, quality instruction, and resources like access to a library. I’m hopeful that NYC and LAUSD can make positive change.

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