Sunday, December 4, 2011

English Language Learners

At a recent HSD curriculum committee meeting, the district's director of English Language Learner, or ELL, programs gave a presentation on their plans. This is a critical issue, as we have a huge Mexican immigrant population in Hillsboro, as well as a smattering of other nationalities.

He described some foundational understandings, including some impressive-looking graphs showing that bilingual programs, especially the new "two-way bilingual" programs where English- and Spanish-speaking students learn from each other, are the most effective methods. Overall it looks like there will be a combination of structured instruction and bilingual programs.

They have clearly done a lot of analysis and planning around these programs, and it certainly seems like there is a lot of potential for improving the proficiency of our students. I very much liked the focus on measuring outcomes in order to understand the effectiveness and course-correct as needed. In addition, the speaker had a lot of credibility, as he had personally been very successful as an ELL teacher in one of our local schools with a high Latino population.

There are a few aspects of the issue that give me a bit of concern, though.

  • Generations of immigrants have succeeded through English immersion, without bilingual programs. Many of us grew up on stories of grandparents and great-grandparents who arrived from non-English-speaking countries, entered public schools in large cities, and achieved the American dream.
  • It is not an established fact that bilngual programs are the most effective. To be fair, there are many studies that do make this claim. But on the other side, there is a lot of concern that the "crutch" of the native language reduces the imperative to learn English, and does the students a long-term disservice when they enter the job market and find themselves at a huge disadvantage. In the presentation, I saw no real acknowledgement of the controversy over these methods, and the many dissenting studies. For example, from a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision (
    • After the 2000 order was entered, Arizona moved from a "bilingual education" methodology of ELL instruction to"structured English immersion" (SEI). Research on ELL instruction and findings by the State Department of Education support the view that SEI is significantly more effective than bilingual education
  • Our district has real experience with badly-implemented bilingualism. I know this due to hearing firsthand experiences of students and parents, when I knocked on hundreds of doors during my 2009 school board campaign. In particular I remember one woman who was practically in tears that her 1st-grader could not read yet, and the teacher was spending virtually all her time speaking in Spanish to a group of unruly immigrant students.

But like I said, I was impressed overall with the dedication and energy of the district's ELL director, and am cautiously optimistic about the district's direction. (I also give him bonus points for his mathematical integrity, as explained in my previous blog post.)  We just need to keep a close eye on outcomes. We also need to keep in mind that programs that work for some students may not work for others, and be ready to create alternative or charter programs for students not reached by the district's primary methods.

And as always, I would love to hear comments from readers about firsthand experience they have had in this area. Please post a comment or send an email!

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