Ed Next’s top stories of 2015

Starting in pre–K, children at Hoover School talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Children who aren't proficient in English can learn well in English or their native language -- if they're taught well.

Children at Hoover School in Redwood City, California talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Good teaching is more important than the language of instruction.

Learning English, my story on how “accountability, Common Core and the college-for-all movement are transforming instruction” of students from immigrant families, ranks 10th in Ed Next’s list of the top 20 Education Next Articles of 2015.

That’s not bad considering it didn’t come out till late November.

Overall, readers went for stories on poverty and inequality, say editors. “Five of the articles in the top 20 are from a special issue . .  . on the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report which examined the rise in the number of children growing up in single-parent families.”

Learning English — pronto

The fall issue of Education Next is out, including my article on what’s changed in how schools are educating students who aren’t proficient in English.

Pushed by No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) accountability measures and the college-for-all movement, educators nationwide have raised expectations for children from immigrant families.

More ELLs are learning in English, as old-style bilingual ed fades away. However, “dual immersion” bilingual programs are proving popular with educated, English-speaking parents.

There’s a greater sense of urgency about getting kids to proficiency in elementary school.

Learning English: Good teaching is #1

With a rising tide of immigrant and refugee students in U.S. schools, helping “English Language Learners” actually learn English — and master academic subjects — is more critical than ever. ELL education is moving beyond the bilingual vs. English debate, I write in Education Next.

I visited Hoover School in Redwood City (south of San Francisco), where 95 percent of students coem from low-income and working-class Latino families.

Ocean animals was the theme in pre-kindergarten classes at a California school in early May. Some pre-K teachers introduced “octopus” and “tentacle,” while others taught “pulpo” and “tentaculo.” In all the pre-K classes, children acted out vocabulary words with hand movements, sang songs, and played a guess-the-ocean creature game. Then they moved to tables, where some of them painted paper octopuses, while others gingerly smelled, touched, and then dangled little octopuses from a local fish market.

Starting in pre-K, Hoover students “talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, information-rich environments,” I write. “They dictate stories to volunteers, write letters, keep journals, and see their writing “published” in bound books.

“Pushed by No Child Left Behind’s accountability goals and pulled by college-for-all expectations, English Learner education is shifting “from the language of instruction to the quality of instruction,” says Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford professor who specializes in language learning.

Nearly all students at Hoover School in Redwood City, California come from Spanish-speaking families.

Hoover students are expected to be proficient in English by 4th grade.

Common Core exams are accelerating the move away from the old bilingual model. Principals want kids who will be tested in English to be taught in English.

However, “dual immersion” schools are growing in popularity. Educated suburban parents want their kids to be fluent in two languages. Quality tends to be high: These schools can’t dumb down expectations or use bilingual aides instead of teachers, because middle-class parents won’t stand for it.

In 1998, Californians passed Proposition 227, which limited bilingual education. A measure to repeal most of 227 is on the November 2016 ballot. It would let children be placed in non-English instruction without parental waivers. I think it has no chance of passing.

“When 227 passed, I thought it would be a disaster,” Frances Teso, a former bilingual teacher, told  me. “Now I think it was a good thing in some ways. It eliminated a lot of low-quality bilingual programs and opened the door to better-quality programs.”

Teso founded Voices College-Bound Language Academy, a high-performing K-8 charter school in San Jose that uses a modified dual-immersion model.

‘Speaking in Tongues’

Speaking in Tongues makes the case for bilingualism, reports Ed Week.

Faster exit from English Learner status

Any “English Learner” who scores proficient in English and earns a B average should be out of the program, argues Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, in an Orange County Register commentary. Norby, who’s taught immigrants as a high school and night school ESL teacher, has introduced a bill to do that. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, has a bill to change the home language survey, which can place a child in the English Learner program if any adult speaks a language other than English ever.

The California English Language Development Test is difficult to pass, especially for those barely able to read, and there is no statewide standard as to what is a passing grade. School funding is based partly on ELL percentages, so there is a financial incentive to keep kids in the program. Annual testing is costly, time-consuming and takes students away from valuable class time.

Parental petitions to remove their kids from ELL are routinely rejected. Some are told that, while their child may be conversant in English, they don’t yet know “academic English.” Well, what first-grader does?

Poorly educated parents don’t know how to get their kids out of ELL status, Norby writes. In Santa Ana, where 11 percent of the K-12 students are foreign-born, 55 percent are classified as ELL. In wealthier Irvine,  19 percent of the students are born abroad – mostly from Asia and the Middle East — yet only 13 percent are ELL.

“In a globalized economy, California’s bilingual kids are an asset to our state and should not be placed in academic dumping grounds,” Norby writes.

Bilingualism strengthens the brain

Being bilingual makes you smarter, writes Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the New York Times. Juggling two languages gives “the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

The cognitive benefits may even prevent dementia in old age.

I’m tutoring a bilingual first grader in reading. When she asked if Spanish was bad, I gave her a pep talk on bilingualism making the brain stronger.

“Dogs can’t really talk,” she responded.

“They can say ‘arf’,” I said. She was not impressed. “No, dogs can’t really talk,” I said. We moved on.

Mandarin pulls new students to LA school

Mandarin immersion program is drawing white and Asian students to what was a heavily Latino, under-enrolled elementary school, reports the Los Angeles Times. Enrollment is up:  Dual-language students may outnumber students in regular classes in a few years.

In 2009, 81% of Broadway’s students were Latino, 15% were black, six were white and none were Asian, reports the Times. “The next year, the new classes of Mandarin immersion students were almost exclusively white and Asian,” though a handful of black and Latino students have chosen the program. Few students are native Mandarin speakers.

Students spend half the day learning exclusively in Mandarin, half the day in English with a different teacher.

“These programs have had very good results for the English speakers, sometimes not quite as great for the other language speakers,” said Sacramento-based bilingual consultant Norm Gold. “But it all depends on doing a quality implementation.”

Even excluding the students in the Mandarin program, Broadway has boosted its standardized test scores — up more than 100 points to 869 on the Academic Performance Index from 2008 when (Principal Susan) Wang arrived. Mandarin immersion students were too young to be tested last spring, but the school’s scores could rise again next year.

Mandarin immersion attracts the children of ambitious, educated parents, most of whom are Asian or white and middle or upper-middle class. No wonder it’s popular with parents.

Via Alexander Russo.

Pablo the Bilingual Reindeer

In a dress rehearsal for the winter concert, the chorus at PS22 sings Pablo The Reindeer, a New York City classic. Via Gotham Schools.

Failure guaranteed

Failure is almost guaranteed for four- and five-year-olds who take California’s test to identify “English Learners,” I write on Pajamas Media. Only 12 percent of entering kindergartners who take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) are deemed fluent in English, even though 85 percent were born in the U.S., concludes a new study by Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research. Outside of Los Angeles, the CELDT pass rate is 6 percent.

One in three California elementary students is classified as an English Learner. That’s because schools are misidentifying large numbers of children, conclude Berkeley Education Professor Lisa García Bedolla and researcher Rosaisela Rodriguez.  As a result, teaching and tutoring resources are spread thin: Some kids are taught skills they already know, while others don’t get enough help.

It all starts with the home language survey, which asks about the child’s first language, the language he or she speaks most often at home, the languages the adults speak at home, and what language the parents speak most often with their child.

If Mom mentions a language other than English — or in addition to English — the child will be given the nearly unpassable CELDT, the researchers find.

Maybe Grandma lives with the family and speaks Spanish?  A five-year-old will be given a two-hour test which requires him to talk to a stranger with no parent in the room.

Children that young can’t handle a two-hour test, the researchers say. Observers report children crying and hiding under chairs or tables. CELDT, which keeps getting longer, has added reading and writing questions for children who haven’t started kindergarten.

Schools get more money for English Learners, which provides an incentive to identify as many children as possible and keep them in the program, even when they test as proficient on CELDT.  Few children are in bilingual classes these days, but some schools hire aides who provide help in children’s native language — or what’s supposed to be their native language. Many are pulled out of class for instruction in basic English.

English Learners improve

More English Language Learners are reaching proficiency on state reading and math tests, according to a Center on Education Policy report.  However, it’s impossible to compare data from one state to another, says CEP’s Jack Jennings. From Education Week:

Because of deficiencies in data on ELLs, Mr. Jennings said he’s inclined to think the nation should have a single definition for such students. Currently, each state creates its own definition for an English-language learner under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford education professor, called for benchmarking “state assessments against trusted common benchmarks such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress to verify if the gains are indeed real.”

By breaking out data on ELLs’ achievement, NCLB greatly increased the information available and the focus on non-fluent students. What’s missing is long-term data on how well former ELLs do over time after they leave the program.

Update:  In a long-term study of randomly assigned ELLs, children learned English reading equally well by fourth grade whether they were assigned to Success for All’s Spanish bilingual or English immersion reading program.  Both groups of fourth graders closed most of the gap, but not all, with native-English-speaking students.  John Hopkins’ Robert Slavin, who designed SFA, conducted the study.

SFA’s transitional bilingual program teaches reading in Spanish, “with a transition to English starting as early as 1st grade and completed by 3rd grade,” reports Ed Week.

The study found that students in bilingual education had an edge in Spanish reading skills over students in English immersion in the early grades, while the reverse was true for English reading skills. But differences evened out by the 4th grade, with students scoring about the same in Spanish and in English, the researchers reported.

Since all teachers used Success for All’s scripted curriculum and received the same training, the only difference was the language of instruction. I think the evidence for quite awhile has suggested that good teaching and a strong curriculum is much more important than the language of instruction.