Two largest school districts inadequately educating English language learners (The Lookout)

Education Sec. Arne Duncan, flanked by Los Angeles’ mayor and ed chief (AP)

New York City and Los Angeles–the nation’s two largest school districts–have faced criticism this week for failing to adequately educate students who are learning English. Los Angeles is now implementing a new plan mandated by the federal Education Department to tackle its problems, while New York City leaders have agreed to try a new approach suggested by the state.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss points out that the districts’ struggles with educating a growing number of non-native speakers is representative of a larger challenge that school districts across the nation are wrestling with. The important particulars of this struggle often get lost in the education reform debate, Strauss notes. “In the last decade, the number of English language learners enrolled in public schools across the country has skyrocketed, from 3.5 million in 1997-98 to 5.3 million in 2008-09,” Strauss writes. “That’s a 51 percent jump, and many school systems have not had resources to meet the needs of these children.” Meanwhile, much of the debate over education reform focuses on holding teachers accountable by using their students’ standardized test scores to evaluate and pay them.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights wrapped up its 18-month investigation of Los Angeles’ schools and concluded that the district has failed to provide resources to English-language learners and black students that they need to succeed.

A meager 5 percent of high-school English language learners in LA are scoring proficient in English or math tests, the AP reports, and non-native speakers tend to languish in the English learning programs for years without ever testing out and being put in regular classes. Only 14 percent of non-native English speakers qualified to make the switch to mainstream classes in the 2009-2010 school year.

“We can and must do better,” LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a press conference announcing the new agreement with the Education Department to revamp the program. The new program will focus on getting special help to English language learners who have not yet been classified as fluent despite completing the program.

Meanwhile, New York State education officials blasted New York City schools for the low graduation rates of its English learner population. Only 7 percent of them graduated on time in 2010 with scores on standardized tests that indicated they were ready for higher education or careers, according to the New York Post. More than 3,000 New York City students were not getting English-learning classes because of teacher shortages last year, and 43,000 students did not gain access to the full range of services they are entitled to under federal law. City officials told the paper that graduation rates for English learners are up dramatically since 2007–and that school administrators are providing students with language services than they had in the past The city will open 125 new bilingual programs over three years and hire more bilingual teachers under the new plan.

LA has nearly 200,000 English language learners, the most of any district, while New York City has 165,000.

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