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On teaching kids who don’t speak English

From The Atlantic:

Out of all the cities in Texas, this would seemingly have been the one where schools knew how to help Spanish-speaking students learn. El Paso is progressive and welcoming, and is more than 80 percent Latino. Its close ties with Ciudad Juarez, just across the border, means that the city embraces its Mexican roots and the people who have crossed the border for a better life. But a recent cheating scandal revealed that not even El Paso could successfully figure out how to best educate English-language learners.

In an effort to improve state test scores at Bowie High School in the 60,000-student El Paso Independent School District, administrators told some low-performing—mostly immigrant students—to drop out of school. And for years, administrators contorted their student rolls, skipping students from 9th to 11th grade so they wouldn’t have to take the state tests in 10th grade and bring down the school’s scores. Others, they chose not to educate at all: Many Spanish-speaking El Paso students at Bowie High School and others in the district were simply “disappeared” out of school rosters, their transcripts changed so they could be shown to have graduated, without ever having finished high school.

After the El Paso Times revealed the depth of the cheating scandal in 2012, the superintendent of the El Paso Independent School district went to jail, and the border city vowed to do better for its low-income, Spanish-speaking students.

Part of the problem is resources: Texas cut $5.4 billion from its public-schools budget during the recession, and a number of lawsuits allege that the state’s method of allocating revenue hurts lower-income districts in particular, which are often the schools with the most English-language learners. Latino rights advocates have been battling the state since 1970, arguing that it discriminates against minority students by failing to fund programs for English-language learners. An offshoot of that case, filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in 2014, accuses the Texas Education Agency of failing to effectively monitor, implement, and enforce programs for English-language learners.

Another problem may be the political optics of beefing up programs for non-English speakers.Texas legislators don’t want to be seen as spending state money on Spanish speakers, says Marco Portales, a Texas A&M professor who studies education trends. “It’s a conservative state, and they don’t want to be perceived as helping or teaching kids with other languages,” he said. “They’re not like in California. California plays up the fact that they teach more than 70 languages. You’ll never hear Texas say any such thing.”

There are scattered programs through the state that use the dual-language method, which teaches children in both languages, but they’re not the norm, he said. Some districts just have English-as-a-second-language courses, others separate Spanish and English-speaking students for much of the day.

Research may show that English-language learners do best when they are taught in two languages, but implementing bilingual education programs can be tricky. School districts in Texas, and even those in El Paso, can’t seem to decide the best method for educating English-language learners. El Paso might be just across the border, after all, but it is in America, and teaching American kids in Spanish, some administrators worry, may not prepare them for the real world.

Read the whole thing. It would have been nice to know more about what the best practices are for English-language learners. The story notes that El Paso ISD and neighboring Ysleta ISD take two different approaches, without giving any clue as to which one produces better results. Beyond that, the two main takeaways for me are that the more you depend on a particular method of evaluation, the more incentive there is for those that struggle with it to game the system, and school districts that have greater challenges to overcome need greater resources to enable them to overcome those challenges. You’d think that last one would be pretty obvious, but it’s not to our Legislature. One hopes that the Supreme Court is able to see it.

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