Is English the difference?

Low-income English Learners in Denver learn much faster if they attend low-poverty schools instead of high-poverty schools, according to a study of elementary reading and writing by the Piton Foundation and the University of Colorado. Why? The Rocky Mountain News offers one explanation:

A key difference between the schools is that students in poorer schools typically learn English with help in their native language, generally Spanish.

In wealthier schools, students learning English are typically immersed in English.

Researchers were looking for evidence that all low-income students learn more in low-poverty schools. They found significant gains — very significant — only for English Learners.

Between third and fifth grade, ELL students in high-poverty schools gained on average less than one point per year on their CSAP writing scores. Meanwhile, ELL students in the lowest poverty schools (30 percent or less free and reduced lunch) gained an average of 26 points per year.

Essentially, ELA students’ reading and writing skills barely improved from third to fifth grade, while English immersion students nearly caught up with their classmates. Researchers aren’t sure that teaching in Spanish is slowing students’ progress.

“I don’t want to say teaching kids in English is the only model,” (Alan) Gottlieb said. “Another possible answer is they have unqualified teachers in the ELA (English Language Acquisition) program teaching kids in Spanish and they’re not learning anything. The other possibility is that the curriculum is so watered down . . .

“DPS needs to take a hard look, at least, at what’s happening in the ELA program in elementary schools . . . because there’s something very wrong.”

A federal court order requires Denver Public Schools to offer an ELA program “where teachers use Spanish to transition students to English over three years,” if there are significant numbers of students who speak Spanish and aren’t fluent in English, reports the News.

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  1. Great, a federal judge required Denver schools to impede educations of students from poor families who didn’t speak English. How very 60’s retro. Was this judge an LBJ appointee?

  2. DPS needs to take a hard look, at least, at what’s happening in the ELA program in elementary schools . . . because there’s something very wrong.

    It’s got to be something. It can’t be that immersing kids in English actually works better, so we’ll keep looking until we find an answer.

  3. Look, when the government wants one of its employees to learn a foriegn language for foriegn service what does it do?

    It sends the employee to a school that teaches full immersion in that language. It’s true…you can look it up.

    So why can’t we make the logical leap and realize that the best thing for students who don’t speak English is full immersion English language classes?

    Identity politics and job security in our school system.

  4. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Even better, gahrie. My mother is an immigrant; when she arrived in this country just over half a century ago she only knew German. When she went to school here in the United States, there were no “bilingual” programs available for her. So, guess what happened to her? Why, she was thrown to the wolves, so to speak, and fully immersed. Now she speaks better English than any of the rest of us in the family. You’d never know talking to her that her first language was anything other than English.

  5. Andy Freeman says:

    It’s interesting that the commenters assume that the public schools want kids to learn English and are merely failing to do so for some reason.

    Let me suggest a model that is more consistent with actual behavior – people and organizations do what they want to do.

  6. Andy Freeman:

    Actually, I agree with you. That was the point of my identity politics comment.

    By the way, it’s not the schools, it those who run the bilingual ed programs.

  7. catholic_school_mom says:

    my husband is an alumni of the UW Madison school of education (but doesn’t teach- would be crazy to in Madison WI). He gets their quarterly magazine that talks about prominent alumni, up and coming students, and what the school is doing these days. Its very political, very anti-NCLB. The issue that was mailed last week had an article about a professor at UW whose life mission is to teach non-English speaking children in their own language, and to save them from English immersion. His reasons were based on making himself look like a nice guy, and had nothing to do with kids test scores or future success. His evidence was i quote “lots of studies show this is best”. He is quite the scientist! Those poor public school kids are nothing but lab rats.

  8. Cardinal Fang says:

    There are a couple of issues that are unclear on this study. It doesn’t seem to me that the comparisons between the high-poverty schools and the low-poverty schools leave everything else equal. OK, the low-poverty schools teach using English immersion and the high-poverty schools use bilingual instruction.

    But that is not the only difference. Typically, high-poverty schools have worse teachers. Also, the typical English learner at a low-poverty school is nothing like the typical English learner at a high poverty school.

    I don’t see how one can make any conclusions at all from this study.

  9. Cardinal, the researchers did say that poor teaching in the bilingual program or lower expectations might account for the performance difference rather than the language of instruction. However, it’s significant that low-income, non-EL students did not do significantly better in low-poverty schools than in high-poverty schools. If the issue is teacher quality, than it seems to be teacher quality for EL students — not for all low-income students.

    The researchers didn’t expect to find this result and clearly are uncomfortable with it.