While the educational goals of students who enroll in ESL courses at California’s community colleges may vary, the economic benefits of effective ESL programs are clear: English proficiency can facilitate social and economic mobility for non-native speakers. But little is known about ESL programs across the state, or about the trajectories of ESL students. Now that a new law—Assembly Bill (AB) 705—is motivating colleges across the state to assess and reform their ESL programs, we need to better understand the ESL student population and the programs that serve them.
At an event in Sacramento earlier this week, PPIC researcher Bonnie Brooks outlined the findings of a new report on ESL in the community colleges and a panel of experts discussed AB 705’s impact on ESL in the community college system.
Kathryn Wada, who has taught ESL for 30 years at Cypress College, noted that the fact that AB 705 distinguishes ESL from developmental (or remedial) English and recognizes that ESL students are working toward proficiency in a foreign language is “huge for our field.”
AB 705 requires colleges to reform “credit” ESL programs—which offer credit-bearing courses for which students pay tuition—so that they do not deter or delay educational progress. By fall 2020, colleges must implement policies that maximize the chances that students complete a transfer-level English course within three years.
A look at the length of ESL course sequences across the system indicates that students at many colleges could, theoretically, complete transfer-level English in three years. In reality, however, most students don’t get this far. As Brooks noted, simply offering a sequence that is short enough to allow students to get through transfer-level English in three years “isn’t necessarily enough to maximize the probability of completion.”
Fortunately, many colleges are taking new approaches to ESL instruction that do increase the likelihood of completion. Courses that take an integrated approach—teaching more than one English skill at a time—and policies that allow students to move directly from ESL to transfer-level English instead of requiring them to enroll in developmental courses are likely to be key to fulfilling AB 705’s mandate. And, as Wada noted, new policies that make credits from advanced ESL courses transferable to UC and CSU moves credit ESL programs beyond the goals of AB 705: “If students are able to fulfill CSU and UC general education requirements directly with ESL courses . . . that’s huge.”
These new instructional approaches usher in a new era for ESL students. As Alice Perez, vice chancellor of academic affairs in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office noted, “Many of our faculty and our institutions are set up to receive students assuming a major deficit: ‘You’re not college ready, and this placement test shows us this.’” Melissa Reeve, an English and ESL professor at Solano College, echoed Perez’s call for a “mindset shift,” citing the importance of “all of us having a belief in our students and what they are able to do, and sharing that with them in every facet of what we do.”