Catching up

More of the same would mean more failure at James Lick High School in East San Jose. The school ranks in the bottom 10 percent in the state, even when it’s compared to schools with similar demographics: Most students are low-income Hispanics; one third aren’t fluent in English. Some 300 students have taken advantage of the No Child Left Behind Act to transfer to a neighboring school with a much better record.

So the superintendent replaced the management team at the school, which faces state and federal sanctions for its failure to improve. The new team of three co-principals has tightened discipline, added time for teacher collaboration, offered classes to help students pass the state graduation exam and decided to teach nothing but English and math to new students who are too far behind to do high school work. From the San Jose Mercury News:

More than half of incoming freshmen and 10th graders will take English and math — and little else. That’s three periods of English and two of math for a projected 60 percent of students who test two or more years behind grade level. If the budget permits an extended day, they’ll also get gym and an elective.

This unprecedented, seismic shift in students’ lives reflects the demand of the state Department of Education to reverse Lick’s abysmal test scores.

Math and English teachers will get more training. Incoming students will be tested to determine what classes they should take, instead of dumping everyone in algebra and ninth grade English.

About Joanne


  1. Walter Wallis says:

    Damn – Do you think sanity is returning? I sure hope so.

  2. lindenen says:

    James Lick is a rather unfortunate name.

    “Incoming students will be tested to determine what classes they should take, instead of dumping everyone in algebra and ninth grade English.”

    Does it disturb anyone else to learn that they weren’t already testing the kids to find out what classes would be appropriate for them to take?

  3. Lick is in East Side Union High School District, which also has a school called (William C.) Overfelt. I’ve always had the deepest sympathy for Lick and Overfelt cheerleaders.

  4. Richard Heddleson says:

    NCLB workign. How long would Lick have been allowed to continue to bumble along without the spotlight of NCLB?

  5. The question is; why were the students allowed to go to high school?

    Shouldn’t they have been tested from elementary school to see if they were ready for middle school and from middle school to high school?

  6. I thought most schools went by report cards. You get passing grades in middle school, high school takes you into ninth grade. Unless you’re trying to get into a specific program, there’s no testing. I don’t think high schools ever send students back to middle school. Testing incoming freshmen for class placement is a good idea, since the high school has no control over how the middle school determines who passes 8th grade, but I wonder how the school deals with turnover. A kid who spends his first six weeks at that school learning only English and math, whose family moves into a different neighborhood, is going to find himself in 9th grade expected to have had 6 weeks of social studies, science, and whatever else under his belt. Kids coming in who have to have the English and math only program will have partial credit for the other courses they started. Still, it’s a good idea.

  7. Rita C. says:

    Social promotion is common up until 9th grade.

  8. How did they pass elementary and middle school, if they didn’t know the basics of English and math?

    I don’t believe that any high school or college should have to be responsible for the teaching of basics, which should have been taught in elementary and middle school.

    Do you wonder what grades were on those students’ report cards that they were allowed to get so far up in the system?

  9. lindenen says:

    If they’re altering the curriculum at Lick I hope they take a good look at the schools feeding students into Lick.

  10. Walter Wallis says:

    I helped build Overfelt.

  11. “If they’re altering the curriculum at Lick I hope they take a good look at the schools feeding students into Lick.”

    If one third of them can’t speak English as the article says then the chances are they came from schools outside the US.

    Too bad these students are only being taught what they need to know to pass the test mandated by NCLB. If any of them want to go to college they’ll be woefully unprepared.

    But hey, the test scores will go up and the politicians will look good and claim NCLB is the greatest innovation in the history of education.

  12. Mike in Texas says:

    I’m going to take a cue from Tim and label myself a little better since I noticed another “Mike” posting here.

    Tim, always good to hear arguements from a fellow teacher.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    So we have these 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-old kids who don’t speak English, or speak only a little English, and we’re trying to teach them long division and get them to read The Catcher in the Rye in English? Am I the only one who thinks this is profoundly stupid?

    I just don’t see how any kid is going to learn math that’s taught in a language he doesn’t know. I’ve been working hard learning Spanish for the last year and a half, and I’m up to the point where I can understand the ads on TV, though I can’t really follow plots even in soap operas, and if I had to sit in a math class learning long division taught in Spanish, I would be so lost. And I already know how to do long division!

    Suppose you had to learn math in a class taught in, say, Basque. What would be the point? Would you be able to tell the difference between a literature class and a history class, if both were taught in Basque? Why are we having these kids waste their time sitting in classes they can’t understand, instead of either teaching them in their native language or teaching them English?

  14. Richard Heddleson says:


    I’m sure the San Jose School District would have made these improvements without NCLB. I’m sure the students would read and cypher much better with out a test. Not.

    Test scores going up is a good thing, or do you think not? And if it takes politicians shaming teachers and administrators into taking the actions necessary to make scores go up, then perhaps politicians are not as totally useless as I had imagined.

    And if NCLB is the only way we can start the assimilation of these kids into American society with minimal skills, then maybe it is the greatest innovation in the history of public education. Name another.

  15. Common sense like this is in the public school system is unheard of.

    Here’s my question. How did it happen?

    Second question, will the people who made this change have their heads chopped off?

    My only disappointment is that “teachers will get more training.” What usually passes for teacher training does more harm than good.

  16. Cardinal Fang says:

    > Test scores going up is a good thing, or do you think not?

    Test scores going up might be good, but then again, it might not be good. It depends why they’re going up.

    You have to be very sure that what you’re testing for is really what you want, because you’ll get it. Here are some ways to make test scores go up without making students know the material better:

    Call 12-year-olds in special-ed second-graders. Include their scores in the second-grade scores instead of the sixth-grade scores.

    Encourage low-achieving ninth-graders to drop out before they reach tenth grade, where they would be tested and lower your scores.

    Contract with a neighboring town to take all your special ed kids. Their test scores will now be part of that town’s scores instead of yours.

    Waste days of classroom time teaching the kids guessing strategies and test-taking strategies.

    If you are a teacher whose pay depends on your students’ test scores, cheat. Give the kids the answers.

    Make this year’s test easier than last year’s. Scores will go up like magic!

    Test things that are easy to test instead of testing what you really want kids to know.

    Have kids do writing samples. Have idiots who wouldn’t recognize good writing if it bit them on the nose grade them. Have these idiots spend only two or three minutes per essay. Reward dull, formulaic, mediocre writing. Penalize excellent writing.

  17. Mike in Texas says:

    As Cardinal pointed out, and I forgot to mention, the test scores can be manipulated to show anything the politicians want them to say. When George W began running for president, the math standard for 5th graders was lowered so far a kid only had to get half the questions right to pass. Many of the questions were labeled “field questions” and didn’t count against the kid’s total score.

    It’s NEVER good when politicians get involved!

    And in case you haven’t noticed, NCLB is largely an unfunded mandate requiring massive money investments for schools without enough of an increase in federal spending to cover the costs. Some school districs are going cold turkey on federal aid b/c the cost of implementing NCLB is not worth what they receive in return.

  18. Steve LaBonne says:

    Mike in Texas, the claim about NCLB being a massive unfunded mandate is comprehensively exploded here:

    And while there are bad tests, the idea that a properly designed test can be “manipulated to show anything you want” is also nonsense. Go over to Number 2 Pencil and try to make that claim, and psychometrician Kimberly will hand you your head.
    If your test is correctly designed to measure what you want to measure, e.g. specific reading and math skills, then “teaching to the test” can be a very good thing to do.

    The outcry from the educational establishment about NCLB has little to do with these issues, and much to do with an allergy to sunshine.

  19. ALso, how many kids moved to the US, much less San Jose, in the last 3 years? These kids come into the country with all sort of learning deficits. We can’t test them at the border.

  20. Walter Wallis says:

    If I were moving to Mexico I woould consider learning the language to be of paramount importance. Until I learned the language I would be at the mercy of those translating for me.
    Say, you don’t suppose that is why some people want to preserve their control of new arrivals, to profit from interpreting, do you?
    Naw, no one could be that evil. Or could they, Cardinal?

  21. Richard Heddleson says:

    Everything Cardinal Fang said about testing is true in one sense or another about financial reporting. So what? Just as with financial reports, the public can be lied to for a while, but not for ever. Why do I suspect the Cardianl and Mike are teachers?

  22. Roy W. Wright says:

    It’s NEVER good when politicians get involved!

    Hey, I agree with Mike for once. But I doubt that his sentiment will lead him to the logical conclusion: disdain of publicly-funded education.

  23. Just to clarify, Lick is in the East Side Union High School District, which is on the East side of San Jose. A number of K-8 districts feed into East Side. The largest, Alum Rock, has a lot of schools with poor, Mexican immigrant students earning very low test scores. The high school district can’t control the feeders and often coordination efforts fall through.

    The one-third of Lick students who aren’t fluent in English are kids classified as English Language Learners. Most were born in the U.S. or have attended U.S. schools for many years. Most of the native Spanish speakers were taught primarily in Spanish in elementary school until bilingual education was limited by state initiative. Even now, many kids are taught to read in Spanish (often by poorly trained bilingual aides) before being taught to read in English in third grade.

    Those who still are ELLs in high school are kids who test poorly in English, below the 35th percentile. Some use English as their primary language for social interaction but don’t have the vocabulary or grammar to handle reading and writing at anywhere near a high school level. Of course, some are recent immigrants, but most have been here for many years.

    Most high schools with lots of new immigrants offer social studies and science classes in “sheltered English.” Typically, immigrant students can learn math in mainstream classes taught in English — if they’re capable of learning math at all. That is, the barrier is previous math knowledge, not language.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Joanne, thanks very much for the description of the kids classified as English Language Learners. I wonder if you could tell us more about what, exactly, these kids’ linguistic skills are.

    If I interpret your message correctly, most of the ELLs at Lick were born in the US or came here when they were, say, younger than eight. But these kids, nevertheless, speak English poorly? How poorly is poorly? And are they fluent in Spanish (or whatever their first language is), or do they have no native fluency in any language? I imagine that these kids lack vocabulary and some grammar but speak English with no discernable foreign accent, since they learned whatever they did learn before puberty.

    I’m still finding it confusing that they don’t speak and understand English well, but are able to understand math instruction. I’m not disbelieving what you say; I just have trouble visualizing it. Is it just that they are fluent in English, but illiterate?

  25. Cardinal Fang says:

    Richard, I’m not a teacher, and since I’m a homeschooler I don’t have a dog in this fight except as an interested citizen.

    And I do agree that there is an analogy between high-stakes educational testing and corporate reporting. A foolish reliance on quarter-to-quarter reports harms companies and causes them to manipulate their books and their finances, just as a foolish reliance on high-stakes testing harms schools. But we were not discussing corporate finance.

  26. >

    While it disturbs me, it doesn’t surprise me.

  27. >

    I hired an Asian engineer years ago, graduated from San Jose State. Didn’t take long to find out that he had no grasp of the english language. Turns out he got through college taking english as a second language. A friend filled out his employment application. If I remember right he went to Overfelt.

  28. And if NCLB is the only way we can start the assimilation of these kids into American society with minimal skills, then maybe it is the greatest innovation in the history of public education. Name another.

    Posted by Richard Heddleson

    We could send them back home where they understand the language.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I thought we were talking about kids who grew up here. Send them back home, by all means, but home is East San Jose.

  30. Mike from Oregon says:

    Okay, I saw your post and I’ll start identifying myself a bit better too . Oh to have a non-common name like Cardinal Fang .

    But that does bring me to a point, Cardinal you say,
    “I just don’t see how any kid is going to learn math that’s taught in a language he doesn’t know. I’ve been working hard learning Spanish for the last year and a half, and I’m up to the point where I can understand the ads on TV, though I can’t really follow plots even in soap operas, and if I had to sit in a math class learning long division taught in Spanish, I would be so lost. And I already know how to do long division!”

    On the one hand, I know what you are saying, because I too have started trying to learn spanish and I too am having a hard time of it. However, every “exchange” student (America to some foreign country) have always been thrust into what is called immersion language. Basically, the exchange student gets a 4 – 6 week hard core course in his/her new language so that they MIGHT be able to ask where the bathroom is when they need it. However, they are then put into their new country, new school, and are expected (and are successful) with their new homework. They are forced to use the new language almost exclusively and become quite good quite fast (look up one of them if you doubt me).

    Here, California scrapped their gradual learning the language program, a program that had a time line of seven years, hundreds of thousands of dollars and poor results. The changed to a one year total immersion program. One year of almost nothing but learning english, how to speak it, how to read it and how to write it. The results are students who come out of the program and are ready to join their peers. It has a higher success rate and has cut costs by thousands and thousands.

  31. Anonymous says:

    The more I think about it, the more I’m skeptical about these Overfelt kids not knowing English after being here for six or eight or ten years. I suspect that the problem is that they are perfectly fluent in English– after all, Joanne reports they are socializing in it, which requires excellent fluency– but they’re illiterate, so they can’t pass written tests in English.

    The proper response to that is to teach them to read, which is what Overfelt may be doing. I don’t see what that has to do with NCLB, really. Seems to me that NCLB opponents and NCLB supporters would agree that if you are a high school that has kids who can’t read, the first thing you need to do is teach them to read, because they can’t learn any of the rest of the curriculum if they can’t read the textbooks, take notes or write a paragraph. Surely it doesn’t require high-stakes testing for a teacher to discover that a high-school student can’t read.

  32. Richard Heddleson says:

    NCLB, of which I was not a suporter or opponent until this thread, is making a difference because without it, nothing would have changed at Overfelt. The students wouldn’t have to work, the teachers could blame the students, the administrators would still get paid and the parents wouldn’t know the difference. But NCLB put a spot light on the bottom rungs of the American educational ladder and told teachers and administrators that if they couldn’t move their school up, their sinecure was history. It is not perfect, it does not address every problem. It is making a difference in whether and what children learn and I’m actually impressed.

  33. A good ESL teacher can teach math and other subjects, in English, to a student who doesn’t speak English. It takes a lot of skill, but it is done. You need to carefully plan the lesson to include some English (vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension related to the subject) with the subject itself, and it will take twice as long as teaching the subject in the native language. I’ve done it. It works, and it really speeds up the English language learning process, but you do need to move slower through the math than you would if it was in the native language. The younger the kid the easier it goes, but it’s possible up through the teenage years. What doesn’t work is having a math teacher, with no ESL skills, teaching math to ESL students. That’s a total disaster. It also doesn’t work if an ESL teacher doesn’t understand the math, obviously.

  34. If 60% of Lick’s incoming students are not literate in English, there’s a huge problem in the schools they came from. Looks like NCLB hasn’t reached deep enough yet. Lick’s solution to this is drastic but not unreasonable. Instead of trying to teach all things at once and likely failing at everything, it concentrates on the two highest priorities:

    1. English and literacy. If you cannot read, write, speak, and listen to English with good comprehension, you are at a huge disadvantage both in school and in the job market. The best way to learn a language is to enter an environment where it is the only language you hear or can use – 24 hours a day of immersion would be better than 6, but public schools can only do so much…

    2. Math is also very important in the job market, and it’s difficult to catch up if you fall behind. It’s harder to learn if you are poor at the language it is taught in, but it’s less dependent on language than most subjects. So if you think that 6 hours a day of English instruction is too much, math is the logical second subject.

    This isn’t the same, but I knew foreign college students with very little comprehension of written or spoken English who were in physics and engineering programs. They had trouble with everything but the math.

    I’m not sure whether Lick’s approach is the best, or whether a few months of English and only English first would work better, but it’s certainly a better approach than than plunging the students into regular classes taught in English, or than continuing to teach in Spanish (so the next generation of gardeners and maids will have HS diplomas but no more English skills than their parents).

  35. Markm, the kids now in high school have had 8+ years of schooling before NCLB. It may have revolutionized middle and elementary ed, but that won’t make a difference to kids in high school now.

  36. Bill Leonard says:

    Interesting variety of comments here, as usual.

    As a graduate of James Lick High School. albeit back in 1961, I read the San Jose Murk piece with considerable interest.

    As to the student demographic, I suspect the main reason most of those who don’t speak English and who need so much remedial arithmetic have such needs is, as kids from migrant families, they’ve likely never attended a full school year anywhere in their lives; to have attended a full year at any one school is, for these kids, a genuine rarity. At some level, teaching such kids is an exercise in frustration, because they’re not likely to be around long enough to make any significant progress in anything. And as soon as the boys look old enough to be out of school, regardless of age, they’re likely to spend their time loitering around hardware stores in strip malls, looking for day work with the other illegals who typically hang out in such places. Such is the urban California landscape these days.

    It is true that Lick appears not to have been competently run for quite awhile. Nevertheless, the real probelm ultimately resides in a federal government that is unwilling to deal with either legal or illegal immigration issues; in a state government that is driven by a liberal legislature to palliatives for the illegals (in Sacramento, they’re talking yet again about driver’s licenses for these criminals); and in a society that tolerates the prescence of these people, while referring to them (as the San Jose Murky typically does) as “undocumented immigrants.”

    If you detect a little anger as you read this, you’re right; as a citizen and a taxpayer, I am outraged that public money is urinated away on anything for these people except their deportation.

    On another point, as a relative newcomer, Joanne probably can’t be expected to know all that much about California or local history. James Lick was a Gold Rush-era philanthropist whose money financed the Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton, about 23 miles southeast of San Jose. Construction started about 1874 or so. When constructed the observatory had the world’s largest telescope; it still has the world’s fourth-largest telescope, and stll is an active, working observatory, under the aegis of the University of California.

    Overfelt was a local pioneer rancher. For about 40 years or so, now, there have been jokes about the school’s Overfelt cheerleaders…

    Rant mode off.

  37. Eric Blair says:

    Yes, it is easier to learn “hard” technical subjects with limited English than it is to learn the arts and social sciences. This seems to be well known to, among others, Asian immigrants to this country! That’s one of the reasons you see Asians clustering in the technical areas in our universities. Some of my computer science professors at San Jose State spoke terrible English, as have a number of my coworkers in the tech biz, but they knew their stuff technically.

    Personally, I read and speak Spanish at about a sixth grade level–good enough to successfully assist my Spanish speaking clients as part of my software technical support job. But I would still have trouble with many of the literature and history books that are part of a normal high school curriculum.

  38. Eric Blair says:

    The emphasis on test scores in California predates NCLB, I believe by several years; we’re just now seeing the results of laws passed several years ago. I’m not sure, but I seem to remember that former governor Pete Wilson and former education superintendent Delaine Eason pushed it as kind of a bipartisan thing, or maybe it was more the voting public.

  39. When I was a student in California in the happy pre-Prop 13 era, we were tested regularly. Difference was, the scores were used to track the kids into advanced,remedial, or around grade level classes. I agree that public schools nationwide are generally bad, but if we actually treated teaching as a respectable job with a living wage and made it as hard to go to teacher school as law or med school (and paid somewhat better salaries), I expect it would help. Of course, the Ed schools would be out of business …