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Report: Nation needs to replicate California’s English learner efforts

Nearly three out of four American public school classrooms now includes at least one student who is learning English as a new language, and California is emerging as a leader among states for helping long-term English learners get up to speed. 

That's the conclusion of a 28-page report out Wednesday from the publication Education Week, which details the rapid growth in the U.S. of the population of students whose first language isn’t English. 

“California has been on the leading edge in the last few years with respect to the long-term” English learners – that is, those who have been in targeted programs for five years or more, said Lesli Maxwell, the publication’s assistant managing editor.

The large number of English learners in the state, she said – 1.4 million in the 2014-2015 school year – has compelled California state and local officials to carry out policies to improve their learning. Eighty three percent of English learners in California speak Spanish, but there are tens of thousands more public school students who speak Vietnamese, Filipino, and Mandarin.

“These kids are everywhere now, they’re in our schools, and we have to do a much better job by educating them," Maxwell said. "If they’re dropping out of high school, they’re not getting good jobs, and there are important implications for all of us if we lose too many students that way."

The report highlights the state’s efforts to turn around English learners, many of whom were born in the U.S., who’ve been in targeted programs for five years or longer. School districts are finding out that it takes a much different approach to transition these students out of English learner program than it does to teach students who’ve just recently arrived in this country.

“It’s not just about learning to speak English," said Hilda Maldonado, the head of English learner education at the Los Angeles Unified School District. "If it were that easy all of us would be successful."

Maldonado said that for many years, the district emphasized students' spoken English skills and moved students to mainstream classes as soon as they were proficient speakers. "But I think that we failed to look at the fact that they also need to be proficient in reading comprehension,” she said.

So L.A. Unified, after a federal investigation into the quality of its English learner education, started literacy classes for middle and high school students.

The Education Week report highlights one such program at L.A.’s Fairfax High School.

District-wide, the results are encouraging, Maldonado said. The percentage of students classified as long-term English learners – those in the program for five years or longer – has declined 6 percent in the last three years, she said.

Maldonado and the authors of the Education Week report are closely watching a November ballot measure in California that could radically change the way California teaches its English learners.

The California Multilingual Education Act would do away with most of the bilingual education limitations set in place by a ballot measure in 1998.

In recent years, California has seen a rise in bilingual education programs, now called dual immersion programs, as parents seek to give their students the advantages that speaking multiple languages bring. And more recent academic research suggests that teaching a student in his native language as well as English is the most effective approach.

“It would behoove the city and our state to really think about the multiple languages that we have as a rich asset that we can really build on towards the future,” Maldonado said.