Lost students

My commentary on California’s Lost Students — students from non-English-speaking families who never learn to read and write competently in English — is on the Reason Foundation web site.

For those who want more information, see my paper for the Lexington Institute on schools and districts that move English Learners to proficiency. A focus on improving instruction and close monitoring of students’ progress tends to pay off.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne,

    I was a little disappointed by the lack of depth in the article, and the unsupported assertions that the lack of redesignation is somehow accounted for through malaise, malfesance, and misunderstanding of the process, rather than low quality instruction and the lack of instructional environments specifically designed to support ELLs.

    This lack of nuance manifested itself in many ways, starting with the discussion of the CELDT. You cannot “pass” the CELDT, as asserted in the article. You can receive a score of “advanced,” but to exit ELL status and become an R-FEP, there are other factors. And that’s really where the discussion needs to go. We should look at the requirements as set forth by the state, and compare redesignation rates for districts that comply with state guidelines and those rates for districts that have enacted more strict requirements (usually the inclusion of a passing score on the STAR writing exam, administered only in the 4th and 7th grades). How do redesignation rates compare relative to the percentage of ELLs in a given district’s overall student population? Do districts with a small percentage of ELLs redesignate at a higher rate than those with a high percentage?

    We were not offered a level of detail that could drive the discussion past the kind of generalities and stereotypes — “She works at Wal-Mart and cares for her baby” — that do not advance the drive for improvement.

  2. While teaching ELL students in middle school, I learned several disturbing things.

    The kids did not necessarily want to learn English.
    The kids often did not have any English language resources at home.
    The kids often read English language materials only in the classroom.
    The kids did not see the need for learning English in order to live in the areas where they resided.
    The families of the kids may have been in the country for generations.

    At home, in the neighborhood, on the weekends, in the evening, and with friends, the kids did not read any language. Internet usage was far more limited than I had imagined. MySpace sites had pictures, not text. Communication was auditory, and the vocabularies were very limited. Communication that was written tended to take IM format. Kids used more text messaging on their cels than actual instant messaging.

    “U Cn C Y Kds R Low” (You can see why kids are low [performing]). Instant message texting uses low level vocabulary, and those words are shortened to single letters when possible.

    Overall, the kids were exposed to about an hour to an hour and a half of reading English texts for five days a week in a classroom. Many were not intersted in learning new words or playing with language. Sometimes I could reach them with rhyme because of rap music or pop lyrics. Once in a while word games like charades, hangman, crosswords, and rhyme hot potato helped. Often, it was very disheartening.

    You don’t learn to read a language in a short time by spending about seven hours a week on it. It takes more practice than that, and that is all that it is…practice.

    Meeting with the parents was heartbreaking. Many got up, went to a service industry job, ate, went to a second service industry job, and came home in time to go to sleep for a few hours. Due to necessity, the focus was on bringing in money to keep the household functional. Extra money was spent on entertainment, not education. The parents truly wanted their kids to do well, they just did not see how they could help them. They tended to think of learning as something you did in a classroom. Babysitting tended to be thought of as the responsibility of the older kids, and it tended to consist of watching videos. It was a very insular world. Learning was passive.

    In contrast, the kids who came into middle school under the redesignated heading tended to read outside of the classroom. They enjoyed word games, and they liked to play with the sounds of words. Often, they said they had played boardgames as kids. Many of their parents had jobs involving reading (secretarial, clerical, professional, academic, or civil service). Whether they said so directly or not, the kids of these parents understood that learning to read English mattered in the real world in America. People with jobs involving some form of reading tended to make more money. The kids had more resources at home. The parents tended to think of learning as something you do no matter where you are. These parents took their kids to see things on the weekends. Babysitting seemed to consist more of games and playing for the older children of these parents. Learning was active.

    The gap I saw started at home, and it could not be repaired at school. Sometimes, I met parents with low paying jobs who were also taking classes or trying for higher paying positions at work. The kids of those parents tended to try harder to learn more.

    Whenever learning was treated as an activity at home, the ELL kids soared. Sadly, it was often not viewed this way.