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California schools holding back English Learners, say Stanford researchers and colleagues

Kenji Hakuta
Kenji Hakuta

California schools holding back English Learners, say Stanford researchers and colleagues

New report by Kenji Hakuta, Ilana Umansky and others offers evidence of inequitable treatment of English Language Learners in California schools.

California public schools often trap non-native English speakers into rigid categories for “English Learners” that jeopardize students’ long-term academic progress, concludes a new report co-authored by Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers and colleagues from other institutions.

The report, drawing on three research partnerships with an array of school districts across California, describes the state’s system for classifying English Learners as far “too blunt” and warns that the programs themselves often isolate students from the classes they need to get on a track for college.

Once a student enters an English Learner program, moreover, it can be difficult to escape. Intentionally or not, the report says, current efforts to support children who lack English skills often simply hold them back.

“California and federal law require that schools provide [English Learners] with targeted services to meet both English language and content learning goals,” the report states. “Despite the law, however, research from the three partnerships suggests that English learners often suffer from restricted educational opportunity compared to that of non-English learners, particularly with regard to their academic learning needs.”

The researchers call for California to expand academic opportunities for English Learners, and they present findings that the state’s near-ban on bilingual education has not worked as promised. (The restrictions have been in place ever since voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998.) They also urge the state to adopt a new system of classifying English Learners.

Posted online today, the report is the latest in a series of policy briefs published by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), which is based at Stanford Graduate School of Education. Its lead author, Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor of education at University of Oregon, who did research for the report while a doctoral student at Stanford, will be leading a PACE seminar on the report on Oct. 23 in Sacramento.

 Among the research findings cited in the report:

  • English Learners often have much less access than other students to core courses, from English Language Arts to Algebra 2, that are required for getting into four-year universities.
  • “Sheltered” academic classes for English Learners are often less rigorous and slower-paced than comparable classes for non-English Learners.  Sheltered classes also deprive English Learners of exposure to high-achieving students and to the heavy use of English in an academic setting.
  • Bureaucratic hurdles and complex criteria for reclassifying students keep many students in English Learner programs for years longer than they should. 
  • Because high-achieving English Learners are often quickly reclassified as proficient in English, English Learner programs increasingly become pools dominated by low-performing students — which can slow their progress even more.
  • A large proportion of students who remain long-term English Learners are dually classified as having a disability.  For instance, in an analysis of seven school districts, 30 percent of students who are long-term English Learners qualify for special education, compared with 10 percent in the English-only students. 

“School districts  are often trapped by rigid definitions and categories that hold children back from their true potential,’’ said Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford and one of the report’s authors.  

“Children who come to school with limited English certainly have needs, but it’s a question of the right amount and of being flexible enough to meet a wide diversity of needs,” he said.  “School districts need capacity to be more analytical and show greater accountability for how students fare over the long-term.”

On a potentially explosive political issue, which California voters will take up at the polls in 2016, the researchers present findings that strongly support ending the state’s steep legal barriers against bilingual education.

Proposition 227 prohibited school districts from offering bilingual education except under a narrow set of circumstances.  But many studies over the past 16 years have indicated that bilingual courses can spur academic progress over the long term.

The new report supported those findings.  Although the students in bilingual programs are initially slow to achieve English proficiency, research shows that the students caught up and surpassed English Learners by middle school on both language proficiency and overall academic progress.

The report stems from three separate partnerships between academic researchers and nine local California school districts.   The first partnership was with the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The second was with a large urban district that hasn’t been named.  The third was with a cluster of seven small- and medium-sized districts in California’s inland region.  

In addition to Umansky and Hakuta, the co-authors included Stanford professors Sean Reardon and Claude Goldenberg; Karen D. Thompson at Oregon State University College of Education; and Peggy Estrada at UC-Santa Cruz. The other three co-authors were senior administrators from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The writing of this report was supported by a grant from the W. T. Grant Foundation and by Policy Analysis for California Education.

One key message of the report is that school districts need to be flexible enough to grapple with the extraordinary diversity in the abilities and needs of students who learn English as a second language.

There are major differences between first-generation and second-generation English speakers, as well as between students who are literate in their own languages and those who are not. 

There are also big differences between ethnic groups.  Roughly 90 percent of children of Chinese origin in English learning programs are reclassified as proficient in English by 5th grade, for example, compared with 65 percent of Hispanic children. 

Given the wide range of needs, the researchers say, there are no simple formulas for how long a student should be in an English Learner program. 

But the report places strong emphasis on the barriers that isolate English Learners from the core academic courses and the advanced classes.

“EL students often have limited access to secondary mathematics courses that serve as gatekeepers to postsecondary education,’’ the researchers write.  In the seven small and medium-sized school districts, for example, 5 percent of English Learners were enrolled in an accelerated math sequence of Algebra 1 in eighth grade, geometry in ninth grade, and Algebra 2 in tenth grade, compared with 25 percent of the non-EL students in the same grades. 

 “The implications of these barriers to full access on academic achievement are potentially profound,’’ they continue.  “Research from one school district suggests that students who are classified as English learners have significantly lower academic achievement than an otherwise identical group of students who are not classified as ELs.”

The group’s top recommendations are to revamp the system for classifying students and to reduce the obstacles for students who want to be reclassified as proficient in English. In particular, the group argued that school districts should stop requiring students to pass both a test on English proficiency and tests on specific subjects. English proficiency by itself should be enough.

California should also monitor and enforce policies aimed at providing equitable access to all the school’s academic offerings. It’s not enough to provide formal access to the courses. If English learners are falling behind, schools should take action.

The report suggests lengthening school days for English Learners, so their learning English doesn’t crowd out other subjects. It also recommends that districts provide teachers with more training on ways to integrate language skills with the teaching of specific subjects.

The group’s broader recommendation is that school districts carry out more analysis on the long-term effects of different strategies.  Small investments to standardize and improve the quality of data on the instructional services provided to English learners could provide much better insight into what strategies do and do not work.

Edmund L. Andrews, a freelance writer and editor, wrote this story for Stanford Graduate School of Education.

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