Friday, July 09, 2010

Student fluency woes rising in Boston. New testing finds 28% in Hub need help in English

Policies based on wrong theories will continue to get bad results

The number of Boston school students identified as lacking fluency in English surged dramatically over the past school year, presenting further challenges for a school district already under federal investigation for failing to provide adequate programs for students trying to learn the language.

Such students now number nearly 16,000, about 28 percent of the district’s total enrollment, according to new data released by the district. Last fall, the group consisted of more than 11,000 students.

Much of the increase emerged after school officials complied with a federal directive to retest thousands of students who were improperly evaluated over the last seven years for English fluency, causing them not to be identified for services. Those students were tested only on how well they speak and listen in English, but not their ability to read and write in the language.

The retesting effort, carried out over the past six months, identified 4,269 additional students in need of specialized instruction. The students, who have low MCAS scores, run the gamut: Some barely grasp English, while others are almost fluent.

“It’s a substantial increase, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation’’ said Eileen de los Reyes, Boston’s assistant superintendent for English-language learners. “One thing that is very clear to us is that students in this group need an academic intervention.’’

The failure of Boston schools to properly identify and provide services to the students could play a big factor in their poor academic performance. Students lacking fluency in English have among the lowest MCAS scores and graduation rates in Boston and statewide, potentially limiting their job options later in life.

School officials have begun meeting with parents of the newly identified students to explain educational options to them. They have created a special summer school program to serve approximately 3,300 of the newly identified students, who will require additional help when the school year begins.

The rapid increase is adding urgency to the district’s efforts to bring programs that serve English-language learners into compliance with state and federal civil rights laws.

A state review two years ago revealed numerous problems, such as school employees encouraging parents to decline services because programs were full or not properly testing students for English fluency. The district revealed that more than 4,000 students already identified as English-language learners were not receiving any services, but state education officials suspected the number was much higher because of inadequate testing and identification.

The US departments of education and justice, dissatisfied with Boston’s pace in fixing the problems, subsequently launched their own investigation, which has brought federal investigators into school district offices this week, their third such visit.

Boston’s retesting of students is a big step forward in bolstering the quality of education for English-language learners and for accepting the failures of the past, said Miren Uriarte, coauthor of a report that called attention to the problems in Boston schools.

“To me, it’s an indicator of a changing environment,’’ said Uriarte, who coauthored the report for the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Center for Collaborative Education. “The federal review has highlighted for a lot of people how serious the problem is and has made movement in an areas where people thought movement was not possible.’’

The growth in the number of English-language learners has challenged school districts statewide. Many programs were thrown into disarray, specialists say, after voters in 2002 abolished widespread use of bilingual education, which allows students to learn subjects in their native tongue until they master English.

The new law stresses teaching all subjects in English for nonnative speakers, using a student’s native language only sparingly. Instruction generally takes place in a separate setting or in a regular classroom amid native English-speaking students.

In making the switch, many districts, such as Boston, failed to provide appropriate staffing, training, and programs, either because of funding shortages or misunderstanding of the legal requirements, specialists say.

Over the last year, Boston has invested millions of dollars to revamp programs, hire dozens of additional teachers to work directly with English-language learners, and train traditional classroom teachers to work with the students. It is planning to spend another $10 million on such efforts this year.

Some advocates for English-language learners question Boston’s ability to properly serve all such students, especially in lean budget times.

“Clearly, it’s a significant number of kids, and our concern is now that they have identified these kids, what are they going to do with them?’’ said Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy, a national organization that represents linguistic minorities and has an office in Somerville. “Are they going to design programs to meet their needs. . . . We are talking about kids who missed two, three, four, and five years of English-language learning programs.’’

De los Reyes said the district aims to ensure all English-language learners are receiving extra support this coming school year. She said the district and the federal investigators are working toward an agreement on what changes will be made to programs that serve the students.

“Now the question in the years to come is how do we make sure we keep the momentum and English-language learners front and center in the district,’’ de los Reyes said.


Success in New Orleans?

Before hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, New Orleans had one of the worst performing public school districts in the nation. Katrina forced nearly a million people to leave their homes and caused almost $100 billion in damages. To an already failing public school system, the storm seemed to provide the final deathblow. But then something amazing happened. In the wake of Katrina, education reformers decided to seize the opportunity and start fresh with a system based on choice.

Today, New Orleans has the most market-based school system in the US. Sixty percent of New Orleans students currently attend charter schools, test scores are up, and talented and passionate educators from around the country are flocking to New Orleans to be a part of the education revolution. It’s too early to tell if the New Orleans experiment in school choice will succeed over the long term, but for the first time in decades people are optimistic about the future of New Orleans schools.

The key attributes are competition, parental choice, investment, and an end to the union deathgrip on New Orleans schools that kept children locked into failing schools and failing classrooms. Parents in New Orleans have hope now that their children will get educated rather than baby-sat, and that will provide a renaissance of its own to a city struggling to get back on its feet.

Otherwise, we’ll end up with this, courtesy of Bob Ewing at the Daily Caller:

Everyone knew OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] would be a bargain. DC has among the highest spending per pupil in the nation. At a conservative estimate of $17,542, the public schools spend over $10,000 more per child than the $7,500 spent through the scholarship program.

But would OSP achieve measureable results? The answer is a resounding yes. Previous studies by Wolf showed an improvement in academic performance, to the point that a student participating in OSP from kindergarten through high school would likely be 2 ½ years ahead in reading. The key finding in this final round of research, Wolf told us, was the graduation rates. OSP dramatically increases prospects of high-school graduation.

Wolf pointed to research showing that high-school diplomas significantly improve the chance of getting a job. And dropouts that do find employment earn about $8,500 less per year than their counterpoints with diplomas. Further, each graduate reduces the cost of crime by a stunning $112,000. Cecelia Rouse, an economic advisor to President Obama, found that each additional high school graduate saves the country $260,000.

Simply put, OSP has a profoundly positive effect not just on students, but on the city and the country as a whole.

So when it came time for Congress to reauthorize OSP, it would seem to be a no-brainer: Expand the program. Instead, they killed it.

Of course. They haven’t had a Katrina to refocus Congress on what ails education; instead, they’re acting in thrall to the teachers union. Be sure to read it all; it’s as depressing as the Reason TV video is uplifting.


English spelling 'too difficult for children'

Odd that kids have been mastering it routinely for a couple of hundred years, then. This is just an excuse for lazy and wrongheaded teaching methods. I have seen Grade 1 kids producing legible words when taught via phonics. Vowel sounds in English are certainly erratic but if a kid knows how the consonants generally sound, he/she can usually interpret a word despite the erratic vowel spelling

The complexity of the English spelling system is to blame for soaring levels of illiteracy among teenagers, according to a researcher. A high number of “inconsistencies” in the way basic words are spelt makes it much harder for children to read and write at a young age, it is claimed.

Masha Bell, author and literacy researcher, will tell a conference of English teachers on Friday that sweeping reforms are needed to the spelling system to improve children’s linguistic skills.

She will say that English employs 185 “unreliable” spellings for just 44 speech sounds. Words such as too, true, who, flew, shoe and you all employ different letters to represent the same sound, she will say.

According to academics, children in Britain normally take three years to read to a decent standard. But in Finland – where words are more likely to be pronounced as they look – children can read fluently within three months.

Her comments will be made to the annual conference of the National Association for Teachers of English in Leicestershire.

Speaking before the conference, Mrs Bell, author of the books Learning to Read and Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling, said English was unique in the way in which “identical letters make different sounds”.

“It is difficult to learn any subject, or even to train for a trade nowadays, without learning to read and write first, but roughly 20 per cent of all speakers of English leave school with very poor literacy skills,” she said.

“The antique, inconsistent spelling system of English is probably the main reason why the UK has a far longer tail of educational underachievement than any other European country, why more of our young people are Neets (Not in Education Employment or Training), why many end up in jail, and why improving their chances of re-offending while in prison is much more difficult too.”

Mrs Bell’s views have been criticised in the past for advocating “dumbing down” of a spelling system that has naturally evolved over centuries.

She has previously claimed that children face 800 words by the age of 11 that hinder their reading ability because of the way they are spelt.

Words such as orange, foreign, rhinoceros, handkerchief, soldiers and stomach all contain letter combinations that are more commonly pronounced in a different way, she claimed.


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