Sunday, September 09, 2007

English learners left behind

The current No Child Left Behind Law sets up non-native speakers for failure.
By David Brewer, Monica Garcia and Yolie Flores Aguilar
September 7, 2007

California Rep. George Miller recently said what educators have known for years: Congress "didn't get it all right" when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago.

As the debate about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind gets underway, there are promising signs for reform, such as Miller's call for serious changes and a recently released discussion-draft of the bill. It's important to Los Angeles, which is severely affected by NCLB, that we review and fix this flawed law.

We share NCLB's goal of educating every student to become an active, productive citizen. The law's insistence on measurable academic achievement standards and steady gains -- not just for students but for schools -- can spur change in our under-resourced educational system.

Indeed, the Los Angeles Unified School District has made gains under NCLB. Our teachers are highly qualified, students are making incremental improvements, and we are committed to ensuring that every student graduates college prepared and career ready.

Despite its good intentions, however, No Child Left Behind did not provide the resources or the flexibility to turn vulnerable schools around. By emphasizing standardized testing, NCLB has created an incentive to practice "teaching to the test." At best, such testing offers a one-dimensional measure of achievement, not necessarily indicating the student's true level of mastery.

The greatest challenges are faced by our most vulnerable population: English learners, or "EL" students. Of the more than 700,000 students in district schools, more than 40% don't speak English as their native language. Of those, 94% are Spanish speakers, and the vast majority are native-born U.S. citizens. The NCLB's ill-conceived mandates have set up these students and their schools to fail together. Under the law, if any demographic group in a given school isn't making "adequate yearly progress," the entire school is subject to a list of unproven and inefficient "corrective actions" that could ultimately result in a state takeover of the facility.

In L.A. Unified, 297 out of 1,000 schools were judged to be not making adequate yearly progress in 2006, and the district as a whole did not make adequate yearly progress because, among other reasons, EL students were challenged to meet achievement targets that are unfair and unrealistic.

Students who don't speak English as a first language need three to five years to become fluent. Achieving the fluency to understand subject-matter tests may take several more years.

But No Child Left Behind requires that EL students be tested in English or in their native language to "the extent practicable." Congress and the Department of Education do not define what's "practicable," and many states, including California, have dropped the ball on developing reliable assessments of EL students' academic achievement.

Schools are also hamstrung by the failure of our universities to train future urban teachers in the fundamentals of language development and second-language acquisition. Teachers are trained to teach content alone and often don't know how to instruct those whose first language is not English.

Congress will reauthorize NCLB this year, which gives lawmakers a chance to fix what's broken. At the top of the list: Congress should require and fund states to develop content-based standardized tests for EL students in their native languages. These students should continue to be tested, and schools should be held accountable for how well they're taught. But their test scores shouldn't be factored into decisions about a school's proficiency until solid native-language tests are developed or EL students have time to learn the English they need to perform well.

Finally, Congress should allocate resources to train teachers in second-language acquisition and content-based instruction for English learners. Educators need to develop a repertoire of strategies to incorporate English language skills-building into every lesson plan -- no matter the subject.

Congress didn't get it all right with NCLB -- but it didn't get it all wrong either. Some simple improvements can make a good law better and more fair for all our students.

David Brewer is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Monica Garcia is president of the LAUSD board, and Yolie Flores Aguilar is an LAUSD board member.

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