English Language Learning, long the heaviest anchor on achievement and graduation rates in Nevada’s public schools, has a higher political profile and higher funding levels than ever before. But will more attention and more money make a difference if schools don’t change the way they teach kids who speak another language at home?
Last week, I spelled out the startling, sorry numbers behind ELL education in Clark County and the importance of a rapid turnaround. English is not the first language of more than one in five Clark County School District students. Their graduation rate is 23 percent. By the eighth grade, only 3.3 percent of them can read at grade level. Almost 90 percent of those students are Spanish speakers — about 60,000 total.
If schools do not dramatically improve outcomes for ELL students, the district’s 62 percent graduation rate won’t substantially improve, the outside perception that all valley schools are awful will remain, and opportunities for economic development will be limited.
Thanks to a boost from Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature, the school district will spend about $30 million on ELL programs during the 2013-14 school year — $20 million more than last year.
However, the way ELL students will be taught English will not change much. In Clark County, English Language Learner instruction is handled on a classroom-by-classroom basis. If a third-grade teacher winds up with 13 ELL students and seven kids who speak English at home, that teacher is expected not only to get ELL students up to speed in speaking, reading and writing English, but to make sure they progress in math, civics, science and everything else along with the English speakers.
The school district does not have magnet campuses for ELL students, where they focus on mastery of English before returning to their neighborhood schools. Schools do not remove ELL students from classes with English-speaking students and put them in ELL-only classrooms according to ability. For Spanish-speaking students, there is no guarantee their teacher speaks Spanish.
This is the approach that has resulted in 3.3 percent English proficiency among ELL eighth-graders.
The new funding will pay for changes at just 15 of the school district’s 357 schools. New Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky says these “zoom schools,” not yet identified, will have high enrollment of second-language students. With the additional resources, they’ll get preschool and summer school to prevent the loss of English skills over the extended break.
As I pointed out last week, all but three school district campuses had ELL students enrolled last year, and ELL students make up the majority of enrollment at 53 schools. That’s a lot of schools with no significant change in ELL instruction.
Lucille Keaton, hired in February as the Clark County School District’s assistant superintendent for English Language Learner programs, is a big believer in the current system, and she doesn’t favor an approach that breaks out ELL students into English-intensive classrooms or schools. She says teacher training is critical to ELL achievement. As of last month, 2,346 of the school district’s more than 18,000 teachers — about one in eight — were certified in teaching English as a second language.
I asked Keaton if the school district’s current approach to ELL instruction hurts the education of English-speaking students who wind up in classrooms with ELL students.
“No,” she said. “The education of a non-ELL student doesn’t suffer.”
Sorry, but that answer set off the alarms on my bovine manure detector. The current system is horribly unfair. It’s unfair to ELL students, who would benefit from more rigorous, focused English instruction. It’s certainly unfair to English-proficient students who could learn more material if their teachers weren’t bogged down by basic language instruction. And it’s horribly unfair to teachers to expect them to work one-year miracles in English while also teaching other subject matter.
Other school systems are having more success than Nevada by placing ELL students in full-immersion bilingual programs, in which students spend about half their day learning in their native language and half learning English. Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas of George Mason University, after examining more than 6 million student records, determined such programs are the most effective way to make ELL students English-proficient. At the Houston Independent School District, the researchers found, full-immersion bilingual instruction has native Spanish speakers at or above grade level in English and Spanish in grades one through five.
“This is a program that is spreading all throughout the United States very, very fast,” Collier told The Associated Press in April.
Nevada’s approach places a priority on giving ELL students a mainstream school experience, teaching a full curriculum and advancing them to the next grade with their friends — whether they’re proficient in English or not. It sets them up for years of struggle across all subjects. Would it really be worse to emphasize English for a year, with a highly qualified, bilingual teacher, even if ELL students might have to catch up in other classes? They can’t learn science, history or social studies if they don’t learn English first.
Most every teacher and education official I’ve talked to describes the same challenges in teaching English to Spanish-speaking ELL students:
■ Their parents most likely are illiterate themselves, unable to read Spanish and unable to provide any support at home in phonics or letter recognition, let alone English.
■ Their parents aren’t forced to learn English because the businesses they frequent have Spanish-speaking employees, the school district and other governments provide them with Spanish paperwork, and schools with high ELL enrollment have Spanish-speaking staff in the front office. Teachers must write notes to parents in Spanish.
The fact that so much language instruction is undone at home provides even more reason to intensify English instruction. And why should it be substantially more expensive than traditional K-12 education?
For all the time lawmakers and the public spent discussing ELL funding last year and this year, there was next to no debate about ELL instruction. The topic should dominate next year’s Clark County School Board campaigns.
Meanwhile, as more parents with English-speaking, proficient students see more of their tax dollars diverted into ELL schools, they’re starting to wonder why they’re subsidizing the second-language instruction of other kids when their own children have no bilingual education opportunities.
Regardless, Clark County appears locked into its status-quo approach for the next two years. If it doesn’t produce results after that, if the valley is still in the ELL basement, how long do we wait before we rethink English Language Learning?
Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.