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Video: Improving Outcomes for English Learners

Mary Severance June 5, 2018
Happy kids studying at the school and drawing in their notebooks - education concepts

An important aim of California’s recent K–12 reforms is to change how the state funds, assesses, and holds districts accountable for the education of English Learners (ELs). These policies are beginning to have an impact, and more reforms are on the horizon. At a recent event in Sacramento, PPIC senior fellow Laura Hill outlined the effects of these reforms on ELs and an expert panel delved into the issues from state and local perspectives.

As Hill pointed out, in many ways English Learners are the future in California. A key group in the state’s K‒12 system, ELs currently make up about 21% of the public school population. English Learner status is meant to be temporary—indeed, reclassified ELs (who are deemed proficient enough in English to succeed academically without language support) are among the best performing students in the state. But students who remain ELs for longer periods have poor outcomes.

The panel covered a range of issues, from the aims of reform and the challenges of implementation to the impact of recent immigration enforcement efforts on teachers and students. Panelists agreed that integrating English language development into the academic curriculum is a key aspect of the reforms.

Hilda Maldonado, executive director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that in LAUSD, “the priority should be to value our students’ home languages as we look at how we can ensure that they succeed.” She also emphasized early intervention: “Focusing on intervening for students in the later grades is a lot harder than focusing on K–3 literacy instruction.”

Veronica Aguila, director of the English Learner Support Division at the California Department of Education, said that the state prioritized the translation of the new academic standards into Spanish. This means that the vast majority of ELs have full access to academic content while they are gaining proficiency in English.

The panelists agreed that the reforms require many teachers to modify their approach so that language development is intertwined with academic content. WestEd’s Robert Linquanti—who works with states and districts on EL assessment, evaluation, and accountability—explained that “teachers need support in order to create the conditions in classrooms where kids really have those rich language opportunities every day.” For example, instead of asking a question that only one student answers, a teacher could set up “situations where students have to work together to solve problems.”

Although there are still many challenges to be addressed, the reforms mark an important shift toward seeing the bilingualism of ELs as an asset. As Aguila put it, “Multilingual education is for all students, not just ELs.”

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