New study confirms that long-term ESL programs trap students

The Los Angeles Unified School District confirmed this week what many educators, parents, and critics have known for years.  Long-term bilingual education programs do not benefit students, but instead keep them locked out of the mainstream and more likely to drop out of school.  Bilingual programs need to mainstream students much earlier, and faster, if they want to improve performance:

Nearly 30% of Los Angeles Unified School District students placed in English language learning classes in early primary grades were still in the program when they started high school, increasing their chances of dropping out, according to a new study released Wednesday.

More than half of those students were born in the United States and three-quarters had been in the school district since first grade, according to the report by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

The findings raise questions about the teaching in the district’s English language classes, whether students are staying in the program too long and what more educators should do for students who start school unable to speak English fluently.

“If you start LAUSD at kindergarten and are still in ELL classes at ninth grade, that’s too long,” said Wendy Chavira, assistant director of the policy institute. “There is something wrong with the curriculum if there are still a very large number of students being stuck in the system.”

Bilingual education is one of those well-intentioned programs that have become sacred cows — and for that matter, cash cows for school districts.  Schools get incentivized to keep students in the program, thanks to federal funding based on head counts, rather than pushing students to get fluent in English and mainstreamed to become more competitive.

How do these students fall behind their English-speaking classmates?  Their curricula focuses on both content and language, which makes it harder for students to keep up in both, say administrators at the LAUSD.  However, that goes against the experience of language-immersion schools, with which I am familiar, as my granddaughter attends a German-language immersion charter school.  Despite no one in her household knowing German (a situation unique at the school), she has become adept enough to speak and be instructed in a no-English setting for the past year.  Her mastery of the material exceeds her grade level, as does that of most of her classmates.

Obviously, learning the language simultaneously with the material is not the big problem.  Students can do both, and do both quickly enough to keep pace in a relatively short period of time.   The problem appears to be a system that gains by locking students into a track that serves them poorly, and which perpetuates its need by that poor service. This doesn’t help, either:

All students who speak a second language at home must take a test to see whether they should be placed into classes for English learners. Once they are enrolled, they must take another test to get out. But Pachon said the process to get in is easier than it is to get out.

Why?  Ask yourself the question cui bono, and you’ll have your answer.

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