‘Spanish Learners’ struggle in Mexico


Anthony David Martinez raises his hand in class at the Escuela 20 Noviembre school in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/NPR

When Mexican immigrants return to their homeland, their U.S.-born children struggle in Mexican schools, reports Claudio Sanchez for NPR.

Most were labeled English Language Learners in U.S. schools because they don’t read or write proficiently in English. But they’re not literate in Spanish either.

In the last eight years, nearly 500,000 children — 90 percent American born — have returned to Mexico with their families, estimates UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. Some immigrants left because of the economic downturn. Others were deported.

Patricia Gandara, co-chair of the Civil Rights Project, thinks Mexican educators should learn from the U.S. experience with English-only and bilingual education.

In Mexican schools, the goal is to transition children as quickly as possible to Spanish fluency — because it’s the only language that matters. We’ve tried to estimate the percentage of classroom teachers in Mexico who speak English at a level that they can communicate with these [U.S.-born] kids, and found that fewer than 5 percent in public schools across [Mexico] can communicate with these children.

U.S. educators build on children’s “primary language,” says Gandara. She wants Mexican schools to assess U.S. returnees in their primary language, English.

In the U.S., these students were treated as though Spanish was their primary language.

The children of poorly educated parents often lack well-developed skills and vocabulary in any language; they’re also weak on general knowledge about the world. No es el lenguaje estúpido.  You can figure out what that means because you’re educated readers.

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.

Kentucky, Georgia top NAEP Dishonor Roll 

Kentucky, Georgia and Maryland top Dropout Nation’s NAEP Dishonor Roll 2015 for excluding high percentages of special education and English Learner students from testing.

The U.S. Department of Education requires districts and states to test 95 percent of students and 85 percent of special ed and EL students. Some states are out of compliance.

naep_reading_2015_special_ed_eighthgrade_exclusion

Dropout Nation also looks at cities that exclude high percentages of special ed and EL students.

Washington D.C. Public Schools, which won praise for rising NAEP scores, “excluded as many as 44 percent of ELL fourth- and eighth-graders” from the reading exam, reports RiShawn Biddle.

Dallas “excluded 44 percent of fourth-grade kids in special ed, leading in that category, and ranked second behind the notorious Baltimore City school system (36 percent), by excluding 29 percent of eighth-graders who were special ed and had other disabilities,” reports Dropout Nation.

NYC union’s failing K-8 charter will close

Running a charter school is harder than the United Federation of Teachers thought. The New York City union will close its failing charter school’s elementary and middle school, but ask for authority to continue its high school.

Students read at UFT's charter school in 2013. Photo: Geoffrey Knox

A reading class at UFT’s charter school. Photo: Geoff Decker

“When the school opened in 2005, then-UFT President Randi Weingarten said its success would demonstrate that unions could play a starring role in efforts to improve the school system,” write Geoff Decker and Sarah Darville on Chalkbeat NY. Weingarten also hoped to show that a union contract was not an “impediment to success.”

The UFT Charter School has been one of the lowest-performing charters in the city.

“Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new school-grading system, the school earned the lowest of four marks in all four categories, including the school environment and its success at closing the achievement gap,” write Decker and Darville.

Curiously, only 2 percent of the school’s students are English Learners and 10 percent –below the public-school average — have an Individual Education Plan.

Unions and charter schools don’t mix, writes Darren. Two California charters run by schools of education — UC Davis and Stanford — also closed due to poor performance, he observes.

Differentiation is a failure

Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students,” writes James R. Delisle in Education Week. A consultant on gifted students and a part-time teacher, Delisle is the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back).

Differentiation sounds great, but “is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back,” he writes.

Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster . . .

. . . the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.

Dismantling special classes for gifted kids, struggling learners and disruptive students has “sacrificed the learning of virtually every student,” argues Delisle. 

I volunteered in my daughter’s classrooms when she was in elementary school in Palo Alto. Nearly all the students were being raised by highly educated white or Asian-American parents. Yet, in what may have been the least diverse school in California, there was enormous variation in children’s abilities to sit still, pay attention, follow directions, write letters, read fluently, etc.

I predict “blended learning” — using technology to personalize instruction — will expand rapidly as a way to help teachers manage classrooms in which students have a wide range of skills. But it has its limits.

Here’s another hit on the myth of learning styles.

Most ‘English Learners’ are born in U.S.

Most English Learners — students who aren’t proficient in English — were born in the U.S., notes the Education Writers Association. While 4.7 percent of students were born abroad, 9.1 percent are classified as English Learners.

The category includes many who speak “playground English” but test below grade level in the subject. It’s assumed they lack “academic English” proficiency.

Image of In U.S., Students Struggling with English Outnumber Kids Born Abroad

When English Learners don’t learn English

Parkview Elementary in El Monte

California schools are focusing attention on “long-term English Learners,” students from non-English-speaking homes who never reach proficiency in reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Many were born in the U.S. They speak and understand English, but they test below grade level on state exams. Is it their English skills? Or, are they just below-average students?

Fairfax High Principal Carmina Nacorda said, more than 70 percent of her 125 long-term English Learners have educational disabilities.

Dasha Cifuentes, an English Learner from kindergarten through 10th grade, appreciates the slower pace of new classes.

On a recent morning, she and her classmates watched a “60 Minutes” documentary on Lakers point guard Jeremy Lin. Her teacher, Serafin Alvarez, then peppered the students with questions about it to check their understanding. What inspired Lin to play basketball? How many colleges offered him scholarships? What helped him succeed?

Few of the 10 students answered the questions correctly, but it was unclear whether they didn’t understand the documentary or didn’t care to pay attention. Alvarez said student apathy is one of his biggest challenges in teaching the more sophisticated language needed for college and careers — a recent vocabulary list included “mandated,” “effective,” “interact” and “discipline,” words few of the students hear at home, he said.

Dasha admits she didn’t read books or use the dictionary, as her teachers and parents advised. She didn’t ask for help. Now she talks about her problems with a mentor teacher.

At Parkview Elementary in El Monte, a language development program “pushes students in preschool through third grade to use richer language in curriculum incorporating literature, social studies and science taught through such popular themes as animals and the solar system,” reports the Times.

Teachers use “collaborative conversation” between pairs of students to develop oral skills, vocabulary charts and frequent writing assignments.

Half of school staff aren’t teachers

Half of school employees aren’t teachers, reports The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach.

The U.S. spends a much larger percentage of education funding on non-teaching staff than other countries, more than double the spending in Korea and Finland.

Teacher aides represent the largest growth category over the last 40 years. “From 1970 to 2010, aides went from nearly non-existent to the largest individual staff position, outside of teachers,” according to the Fordham report.

Teacher aides have little, if any, positive effect on students’ academic achievement,” concludes an analysis of Tennessee’s Project STAR. Decreasing class size to 14 to 17 students in the early grades raised achievement significantly, especially for black students.

School staffing has increased by nearly 400 percent since 1950. Much of the growth occurred from 1970 to 1980. “Passage of several pieces of federal legislation — such as Section 504, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and Title IX (Equal Opportunity in Education Act) — likely played a big part in changing the makeup of schools.”

Aides often are hired to work with special ed or English Learner students. That is, the adult with the least training works with the kids with the most needs.

Core math demands more English

Under Common Core standards, math will require more English fluency, writes Pat Wingert on the Hechinger Report.

At Laurel Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, 90 percent of students get a subsidized lunch and 60 percent aren’t yet fluent in English. Yet 83 percent scored at proficient or higher on a recent state language-arts exam, and 91 percent scored that high on the math test.

Laurel Street kids can excel in math while still learning to read and speak English, said fourth-grade math teacher Angel Chavarin. This year, teachers worry the new standards require more sophisticated vocabularies.

“The language demands of the Common Core are enormous,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education. “This is absolutely going to be a big challenge to English learners.”

Common Core emphasizes complex word problems and requires students to explain in writing how they solved the problem, writes Wingert.

Third-grade teacher Alejandra Monroy, who was born in Chile, started a lesson on “repeated addition” with a vocabulary lesson.

“There are very important words you need to know,” she told her class. “If you’re doing a multiplication problem — 3 x 4 = 12 — the numbers `3’ and ‘4’ are the FACTORS and the ‘12’ is the PRODUCT. All the numbers and symbols together—3 x 4 =12—is a “MULTIPLICATION SENTENCE.”

“What is this?” Monroy asked, pointing to the equation.

“A multiplication sentence,” the class echoed back.

Next, Monroy stressed that repeated addition involves “patterns,” in this case, 4+4+4 = 12

We need to know that a pattern is a regular or repeated sequence,” she said. “A pattern can be something like red/blue/red/blue, right? A sequence that repeats. When you count by skipping numbers—2-4-6—you’re doing a PATTERN.”

Laurel Street’s district uses a structured curriculum adapted from Singapore Math by a local teacher.

 To determine if the changes they’re making are on the right track, Laurel Street teachers monitor their kids’ performance in class and on weekly assessments that grade-level teams create together. Each student’s score is then added to a spreadsheet and scrutinized by the principal, all the teachers and even parents and students.

If one class gets better scores than the others, teachers don’t hesitate to compare notes and incorporate the most effective strategies into their own lesson plans, said fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Harris. It’s about collaboration, not competition, she said. “We learn from each other.”

“We do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t work,” says Principal Frank Lozier.

Small school students show gains

New York City’s small public high schools are producing gains for disadvantaged students, according to a new MDRC study, Sustained Progress.

Students who win the admissions lottery to these schools are significantly more likely to earn a high school diploma (70.4 percent) than applicants who lost the lottery (60.9 percent) than lottery losers. Small schools  increased the graduation rates of special-education students by 13.8 percentage points and of English Language Learners by 4.9 percentage points, MDRC suggests, though the sample size is small.