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New York City
August 2002
English Language Learners Let Down by Board of Education
By Priya Athiappan

Advocates for Children claims English Language Learner (ELL) students are receiving an inferior education. The organization, which provides advice and legal services in the hopes of giving all New York City students fair access to a public school education, recently released a report entitled Creating a Formula for Success. The paper details the hardships faced by immigrant students in New York. According to their research, current ELLs have the highest dropout rate of any group of students in the city31.7 percent.

According to Chancellor Harold Levys 2000 Report on the Education of English Language Learners, ELLs make up about 15 percent of New York public school students. These children, who are not fluent enough in English to enter mainstream classes, are often placed in the bilingual education or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs of the schools they attend. There they are taught academic subjects in their native language (usually Spanish, Chinese or Korean), as well as receiving English instruction. ESL and bilingual education stem from the 1974 Supreme Court case Lau vs. Nichols, where it was ruled that public schools had to adequately educate all children, regardless of their English proficiency.

According to Jill Chaifetz, Executive Director of Advocates for Children, too much pressure is placed on students who have recently immigrated to the U.S. They are expected to meet the same standard as native students. They must master an entire new language, as well as learn how to think from a different point of view. Chaifetz uses global studies as an example. History is often taught from the American perspective, and is especially difficult to excel in for a student who has no American background. When ELLs do not do as well as their English proficient counterparts, it is common for impatient school advisors to suggest that they drop out and leave, and get their GED. According to Chaifetz, for those ELLs who drop out, prospects are dim. Many believe they will work, but end up with dead-end jobs with little upward mobility. In fact, the average earnings of someone with a GED are roughly equivalent to those of someone who dropped out of high school.

For the 31.7 percent of ELLs who opt to leave school, the educational services of the Board of Education have failed. While they are supposed to transition into mainstream classes within four years, many ELLs stay in bilingual education or ESL for up to nine years, says Chaifetz. The struggle of ELLs toughened three years ago when New York State completely revamped the Regents. The new reforms require all students to pass the English Language Arts Regents, as well as a new Math Regents. While the Board of Regents raised the requirements that thousands of high schoolers needed for a graduation diploma, the corresponding level of educational support for ELLs was not raised. Although a 12-Step Action Plan to help prepare ELLs for the new Regents was passed, most of these students did not receive access to promised classes. Yet they still have to meet requirements, remarks Chaifetz. It seems as though there is a different level of accountability, for the Board of Education than there is for ELLs, who must somehow prepare themselves for the new, tougher Regents in order to graduate high school.

Chaifetz cites several reasons as to why the New York City Board of Education has failed many ELLs. In ESL, there is no prescribed curriculum. Each teacher creates his or her own lessons, and there is no guarantee who you get. While bilingual education has a consistent curriculum citywide, many instructional materials such as textbooks are not translated from English to the languages of ELL instruction. Thus, there is no proper provision of services. Since both ESL and bilingual education are received by roughly equal numbers of students, neither program provides a distinct advantage.

A severe shortage of teachers for ELLs is another problemover 3,000 are needed. Uncertified teachers often fill in these spaces. Possibly, the scarcity is due to the fact that while ESL and bilingual teachers are paid the same as general education teachers, they have twice as much coursework to cover, says Chaifetz.

An anomalous finding of Advocates for Childrens report is that former ELLs actually have higher graduation rates than even English proficient students (58% vs. 52.2%). This is probably due to the fact that many of these former ELLs entered the programs when they were younger and had enough time to develop fluency. Therefore, Chaifetz reasons that some bilingual and ESL programs are doing something right.

One and a half years ago, the Board of Education approved a new bilingual education program, which was outlined in Chancellor Levys 2000 report. The new initiatives included: the Dual Language/Two-Way Model, where ELLs would be taught alongside fluent English speakers; Accelerated Academic English, where subjects would be taught in English during and after regular school hours; and a higher level of parental involvement. Chaifetz views highly intensive ESL and the Dual Language program as a tremendous boon to the education of ELLs. But very little happened because of budget cuts, she says. The reforms would have cost $75 million.

Chaifetz believes that in addition to the Chancellors proposed reforms, the Board of Education must increase accountability in specific schools that have high levels of failing ELLs. Additionally, individual students must receive individual attention. Chaifetz recommends that in order for ELLs to be better served by the public schools, reforms should focus on improving ESL instruction, decreasing the number of uncertified teachers in the system, reforming tests and increasing parental involvement.#


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