Study: State needs to do more for English learners

Published 3:00 pm Wednesday, January 7, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Alabama is among a minority of states that lack teacher standards for instructing students who are English-language learners and an ever-increasing part of the state’s population, a new study released Wednesday shows.

That observation is among several gleaned from policy and achievement indicators in Quality Counts 2009: Portrait of a Population: How English-language learners Are Putting States to the Test.

The 13th annual quality study by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center is the first to focus on students classified as ELLs, or those for whom English is their second language. There are 4.3 million such students in the nation and 16,987 in Alabama, researchers said.

Alabama matched the national overall grade of ‘C’ that is based on six factors, including students’ chance for success, K-12 achievement and school finance.

Alabama’s highest grade of an ‘A-‘ came in the standards, assessments, and accountability category, which was unchanged from the 2008 report. The state’s lowest grade of ‘F’ in K-12 achievement also stayed the same.

State education officials did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.

Staff members at the Washington, D.C.-based center have talked about focusing on ELLs for several years and putting the spotlight on that population is past due, editorial projects director Christopher Swanson said.

“We’ve heard a lot about … school systems that never had that kind of population before and the really daunting challenges that it’s putting on (them),” he said. “On one hand they have a really growing and diverse population that’s learning English and at the same time they’re also being held accountable for how they’re doing in math and reading.”

Crossville Elementary School principal Edmond Burke knows the difficulty of balancing those factors all too well.

The K-8 school in DeKalb County was the state’s first to reach a Hispanic majority in its student enrollment two years ago, and 58 percent of its 930 students this school year are Hispanic.

With just four English as a Second Language teachers, the system has turned to alternative ways to meet the need, such as having a former student come back to help teachers who are having difficultly with students in their English-learner classes.

Burke said his English learner students have done well the past two years and the school has been meeting its annual performance goals.

“Our ESL teachers pull kids every day to work with them,” he said.

“The teachers work real hard to keep us moving forward.”

The study knocked Alabama and 16 other states for not having professional standards describing what teachers should know and be able to do to instruct ELL students.

Swanson said such standards are necessary in states’ quests to educate those students and close the achievement gap between them and other groups.

Other categories for ELLs that were looked at in the report were state funding for that population, ways the students are taught and their progress in English proficiency.

Three states do not require competency in ELL instruction for their teachers’ licenses and just 11 of them provide incentives for teachers to earn English as a Second Language licenses.

The study found that while more Alabama students initially fail in English proficiency, more of them progress in that area and test out of ELL classification faster than the national average.

Swanson said Alabama is “right in the heart of a lot of this growth we’ve seen and there’s not really a strong state response. That’s an example of what we’re seeing nationwide.”

“The issue is worth closer investigation from the state’s perspective,” he said.