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Joe Guzzardi: School districts must do a better job teaching English learners

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Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2014 12:00 am

When I retired from the Lodi Unified School District after a 22-year career spent mostly as an English as a second language instructor, I had only one regret. I was sorry that I wasn’t able to help more students, mostly adults, learn English.

To be sure, there were many variables out of both students and my control that made it difficult — jobs that interfered with regular classroom attendance, transportation conflicts and domestic responsibilities. But in the end, if my students didn’t progress, we both failed.

Two specific things troubled me most. First, since most students were young adults who would ultimately live many more years in the U.S. than they had in their native countries, their American lives would be less fulfilling without fluency in English.

Second, and perhaps more important, if my adult students weren’t mastering English, they were unlikely to speak it at home. That meant, in turn, that their children would be less likely to communicate in English. Indeed, 43 percent of California households speak a language other than English.

If English isn’t being reinforced at home, then it falls to California’s K-12 schools to ensure that students learn. Although there are many uncertainties ahead in the economy, one thing is absolute: Without English mastery, California’s young adults will be doomed to low-paying jobs with limited futures.

An important Public Policy Institute of California analysis titled “Pathways to Fluency: Examining the Link between Language Reclassification Policies and Student Success” found that English learners who are reclassified as proficient by the end of fifth grade perform as well or better academically than native speakers, and they continue to do so through middle and high school. The PPTC’s findings are based on its study of California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified. The demographically diverse districts — which include Hispanic students, Southeast Asians and South Asians — represent about 15 percent of California’s total English learners. Statewide, English learners comprise 25 percent of total enrollment, about 1.4 million students.

The PPIC researchers tracked students in Los Angeles and San Diego for a decade, from second grade through their 12th-grade year. Those reclassified by the end of fifth grade not only did as well or better than native English speakers on state standardized tests, they were also as likely or more likely to make grade level progress and to graduate from high school.

PPIC notes, however, that reclassifying students’ language skills is more complex than it should be. Under current standards, students must not only reach thresholds on two different exams, but individual districts are also able to set their own requirements, which are often different from the state’s standards and those of other districts.

Accordingly, PPIC recommends allowing districts to reclassify students based on their success on a single but more rigorous test. Learning English shouldn’t be bogged down in bureaucratic red tape that, inadvertently or not, may delays a child’s progress. If PPIC’s findings in Los Angeles and San Diego holds true in other districts with a high number of English learners, then its suggestions to accelerate reclassification should be adopted.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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