English learners: A jumble of strategies produces distressing results

Enrique Sepúlveda had an unsettling experience while enrolling his daughter in school in Hartford, an urban district that has more students struggling to learn English than any other in Connecticut.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / www.CtMirror.org

Enrique Sepulveda, Hartford parent and associate professor of education at the University of Saint Joseph.

“She speaks Spanish? Does that mean she needs services” he recalls the administrator asking in alarm after he and his wife said they spoke Spanish at home.

“No. She is bilingual. That’s a good thing,” he responded.

Sepúlveda, an associate professor of education at the University of Saint Joseph, has found through his research that students who feel their culture is embraced at school are more likely to be better learners.

“Our state’s thinking is ‘forget your native language and learn English – yesterday,” he said during an interview. “That ideology is not what’s best for the kids.”

His family’s experience reflects a number of weaknesses in the approach the state and school districts across Connecticut have taken to educating the rapidly increasing number of English learners.

  • Only a relative handful of the state’s English learners benefit from the teaching method known as dual-language, in which foreign-language speakers attend classes with English-speakers and instruction is split between two languages. Research shows this model best fosters English proficiency and academic achievement for English learners and makes native-English speakers who choose to take part bilingual.
  • Though state law requires the state education department to “assist and encourage local and regional boards of education” to implement dual-language instruction, it does not require it, and the department has taken a hands-off attitude, allowing local districts to go their own way.
  • The state education department hasn’t determined what approaches have been most effective in teaching English learners in Connecticut, even though state law says the State Board of Education “shall annually evaluate programs” in districts that enroll high numbers of these students. Instead, the department for years relied on short self-evaluations filled out by school districts.
  • The type and quality of programs and supports for English learners in the state varies widely. Some school districts put students in English-only classrooms and provide them a language tutor for 20 minutes a week. Other students start the school year in their native language and are expected by state law to transition to English for “more than half of the instructional time” by the end of the year.

This jumble of approaches has produced distressing outcomes on nearly every benchmark – including academic achievement gaps between English learners and their peers that are among the worst in the nation.

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For those still considered English learners in eighth grade, the gap between them and their classmates in the ability to understand and use English is the worst in the country.

The state has set an expectation that English learners should improve their scores on standardized English and math tests by about 3 percent each year. However, between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year, just one-third met that target for English and 37 percent for math.

The state’s education commissioner says those results won’t do.

“It is our English learners who have lagged in all of our achievement over the last six years in education in Connecticut,” commissioner Dianna Wentzell said during an interview. “And that is not acceptable to us.”

A growing problem

The number of students who have shown up at Connecticut’s public schools needing to learn English has spiked – from 22,881 students 15 years ago to 36,788 this school year. That translates into one in 27 students during the 2002-03 school year compared with one in 15 today.

Among all states, Connecticut has experienced the 13th-fastest increase in the percentage of students who are English learners and the 23rd-fastest growth in the actual number of English learners, federal data show.

Just over half of the state’s English learners are in the state’s 10 lowest-performing school districts, even though they enroll only 22 percent of the state’s public school students. Nearly 80 percent attend the bottom 30 districts, though just 40 percent of public school students do.

Those 30 lowest-performing districts also tend to be those where resources are stretched.

At Hartford’s Maria Sánchez Elementary School, a school whose namesake advocated for bilingual education, the majority of students struggle with English, and the school has shed its tutors, reading specialist and other supports because of budget cuts.

Richard McHugh teaches third grade at the school, where boarded-up houses are the view from his classroom and police sirens often interrupt instruction.

“The biggest challenge in the classroom, for me and for many of the teachers at this school, is really dealing with language,” McHugh said during a recent interview. Though 40 percent of the school’s students are classified as English learners, he said, for another 20 percent, “The only English they get is at school for the most part.”

“I will receive students in the third grade who will have just come from another country. I have to start from scratch with them, starting with no English, starting with sight words, vowel sounds,” he said. “So when I have a 40-minute guided reading block at the end of the day, I might teach four different grade-level groups, but it might be a kindergarten group, a first-grade group, a second-grade group and a third-grade-level group.”

The outcomes for English learners at his school are not promising – only 23 percent of those who have attended the school for at least three school years improved their standardized English test scores by at least 3 percent between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

English learners at East Hartford Middle School are taught a lesson in English

During a months-long trial last year in a lawsuit that explored whether the state is spending enough to educate students in its most impoverished districts, several educators shared stories about the education being provided to their foreign-speaking students.

One New London teacher testified she didn’t have textbooks. A teacher from Windham said students often were identified as special education students just to get them the extra supports federal law requires. An East Hartford teacher testified that she lost her subscription to language-support computer programs because of funding cuts.

Some frustrated parents and advocates have filed complaints about English-learner programs with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which reviews district compliance with federal laws and investigates complaints in an effort to protect the rights of minorities and other vulnerable students. Facing federal investigations or review, Hartford, Stamford and New London school officials over the last five years have promised major changes. (See here, here and here.) An investigation into New Britain Public Schools remains open.

Struggling Bridgeport

Bridgeport schools have the state’s third-highest number of English learners and illustrate some of the shortcomings of the state’s bilingual programs.

Spanish-speaking parents there told The Mirror their children’s bilingual classes were taught by teachers who spoke very limited or no Spanish. Ten of the district’s 35 bilingual classroom teachers received waivers from some of the state requirements for bilingual teachers this school year, though there is no way for the public to know whether a waiver was given for a language deficit or one of the many other requirements for teacher certification.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / www.CtMirror.org

Evgenia Monterroso, a Bridgeport mother whose primary language is Spanish with her 2-year-old daughter, Tiffany Ohoa

Jackie Cruz, whose youngest daughter was in a Bridgeport elementary school bilingual program, said the teacher struggled with Spanish.

“She is a great teacher, but that’s not a Spanish-speaking class,” said Cruz through a translator, who added that her daughter often did the translating for the class.

The parents also said the type of programs or services their children receive was never discussed with them, despite a state law requiring districts with more than 20 English learners to do so.

“We have a lot of barriers because of language,” parent Evgenia Monterroso said through a translator. “We can’t communicate with our children’s teachers. I feel we don’t have information because of our language barrier.”

With the help of the Yale Law School’s Civil Rights Project, the Center for Children’s Advocacy and Make the Road Connecticut, Monterroso and a group of parents have formed a coalition to document Bridgeport’s problems, educate parents and seek improvements.

A 56-page report the group released last month, said that, “Clearly, a significant portion of Bridgeport parents, whose children are English language learners, feel estranged from the Bridgeport Public Schools.”

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / www.CtMirro.org

A group of Spanish-speaking youngsters who will soon be starting school in Bridgeport. From left, Xochitl Miranda, Tiffany Ohao and Luis Ohoa.

Fran Rabinowitz, who was the leader of Bridgeport Public Schools from 2013 to 2016, made no excuses during a recent interview.

“I am just going to be totally honest with you. It is our responsibility to have someone at each school who speaks that parent’s language,” she said, noting that it might not be possible for some little-spoken languages.

Rabinowitz was able to expand dual-language instruction at one Bridgeport school and start it at another, but said there were many obstacles, including difficulty finding qualified bilingual teachers and getting existing staff to buy into it.

Rabinowitz and many others, however, do not see cost as one of the barriers. “I don’t remember an increased cost at all,” she said.

Evaluation lacking

Depending on whom you talk to – and which district you look at – the quality of bilingual programs in the state varies widely. One thing is certain, however. The State Department of Education has done only very limited in-depth evaluations of district programs and has not compared struggling programs with successful ones.

In 1999 the state legislature passed a law requiring the state to evaluate English-learner programs annually. However, the education department relied for oversight on brief, general surveys that individual districts fill out. The surveys vary widely in their rigor. (Read some of those here.)

That left many skeptical.

“The state laws and policies, they are all lovely,” said Anysia Mayer, a former assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education who studied the state’s approach to educating English learners for years. “If there is no one actually watching to see if anyone actually does it well, then some don’t… And there is no way for anybody to know.”

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

A dual-language program at Silvermine Elementary School in Norwalk

“There is very little state oversight. The state department has had one person overseeing English language instruction,” said Steven Adamowski, who has headed schools in Hartford, Windham, New London and now Norwalk.

In 2015, legislative researchers, noting the requirement for an annual report, asked the education department for more analysis and evaluation of the quality and success of local programs.

That lone education department employee devoted to English-learner programs replied in a long email. A state-level analysis, going deeper than the local reports, had never been expected, she said – and if one were done, it would include some bad news.

“To provide a detailed report of how each district is doing and whether or not their programs are effective . . . with a clear explanation of the differences of each program throughout the state would be IMPOSSIBLE,” Marie Salazar Glowski wrote. “It would be very challenging and would take months to do it properly… To be fair, I would have to visit schools and with all of that, if I were to be transparent and fair, I would have to report that there are several schools that are NOT providing solid education well researched bilingual education for these students.”

Also in 2015, after gathering testimony describing bilingual programs in the state as everything from the “gold standard” to a “dumping ground,” a legislative task force found them “in need of immediate attention.”

“The gaps in our understanding of these issues and how to deal with them was all so glaring,” said then-House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, when releasing the task force report.

The legislature then passed another law requiring the state to gather standardized achievement test scores for English learners and use them to “monitor their academic progress and the quality of bilingual education programs.”

What has worked best in Connecticut?

The education department finally produced an annual report in February of this year, but the five-page report lumped together students who were being taught using completely different methods – making it impossible to distinguish which was producing better results.

Also, the analysis of year-to-year improvement on English and math achievement tests did not take into account students who had improved enough to no longer be considered English learners. The department only tracked results for students who were labeled English learners in both years, saying they wanted to focus on students who were struggling the most rather than those who had succeeded in exiting bilingual programs.

“We want to put the spotlight on those who are currently ELs,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the bureau chief of the State Department of Education Performance Office. “The intent is to keep the focus on the current ELs and to make reasonable expectations for them.”

As a result, the department reported to legislators that it saw no statewide difference in results achieved by different approaches to English learners.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / www.CtMirror.org

English learners are taught in an English-only class at Diloreto Elementary & Middle School in New Britain

Asked whether the education department had any research showing which English-learner programs were more effective in Connecticut, the department said it did not.

“That is not an analysis that we have done,” Gopalakrishnan said.

The Mirror asked for a breakout of outcomes by the four main types of education offered to English learners – dual language, transitional bilingual, no services, or other supports such as tutoring.

But the lack of data on students who were no longer considered English learners still stymied any effort to accurately assess progress. The data showed fewer students meeting growth targets in dual-language programs.

In the dual-language model, classes are taught in both English and another language at different times in the school day, and both English learners and native-English speaking students typically attend together. The programs may last through high school.

In Connecticut, English learners are more likely to be put in traditional classrooms and be given supports ranging from 30 minutes of weekly tutoring to help from a teacher’s aide in the classroom, who may or may not speak the student’s native language.

A quarter of the state’s English learners are in transitional bilingual programs of varying quality, where instruction is supposed to begin in a student’s native language and transition to mostly English within the school year. With few exceptions, the longest a student can stay in such a program is 30 months, and thousands leave each year without achieving proficiency.

Researchers have found that English learners receiving dual-language instruction perform much better than their peers, both in English proficiency and academic achievement. Native-English speakers in dual-language programs perform about the same academically as their peers in traditional classrooms, but they also learn a second language.

But a review of programs for English learners in Connecticut’s most impoverished districts by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, found that “most Connecticut school districts are not looking towards research identified best practices to guide their EL programming.”

Wentzell, the state’s education chief, said during an interview that research is great, but it’s not the whole story.

“So there are really good-quality bilingual programs, and then there are programs that are not as good. The same is true with English as a second language. So the quality of the program is going to make the biggest difference for the kids,” said Wenztell, who speaks some French and Russian. “So it’s more important to have an effective program than a particular philosophy.”

The department also has declined to push local districts to adopt any particular approach, though the department does visit two districts each year to review the English learner programs being offered.

“We will not be directing people toward specific models, but what we will be doing is requiring evidence-based models,” said Wentzell. “While there is more evidence behind some models than others for turnaround, what matters more is the plan that you will be able to do and that people really will buy into and commit their energy and resources and belief in.”

That neutral approach has been reflected in the state’s work with local districts.

In New Britain, the state helped fund a turnaround plan that shut down one of the district’s dual language schools and went to an English-only approach. But in Bridgeport, the state funded the expansion of the dual-language program.

Under court order to desegregate schools in Hartford, the state has rejected calls from advocates to open a dual-language regional magnet school to attract suburban, white families eager to have their children become bilingual. Alternatively, when Adamowski was appointed as a state “special master” to intervene in the failing Windham school system, he shut down what he said was a struggling bilingual program and left untouched the district’s dual-language program.

Essentially, the state has left it to local district leaders to figure out what approach to use. That hands-off approach and the lack of research have frustrated many, however.

“I don’t know if they know what the best approach is. I don’t feel that there is a serious commitment in Connecticut to English learners or bilingual education,” said state Rep. Juan Candelaria, a Democrat from New Haven and the former leader of the legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus.

“We have this segment being overlooked. You can give a thousand reasons why, but it’s still wrong,” said Candelaria, who was an English learner himself when he moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico at age 8.

But things may change eventually. In its plan to implement the recently overhauled federal education laws, the education department promises to monitor English learners’ progress in speaking, reading and understanding English starting in 2019-20. If schools in the state’s bottom 10 districts make insufficient progress, the plan promises an “in-depth program review” by the state that will recommend changes beginning with the 2020-21 school year. Districts then will have six school years to improve, or the state can force the school to close or change management.

Dual-language programs decline

In the absence of a commitment to overcome obstacles as they arise, several dual-lanuage programs have closed in Connecticut.

Connecticut now has fewer than 10 dual-language programs. Many end in second or third grade even though research shows that the big gains do not show up until a student has been in the program for several years, typically in middle school.

Of the state’s 36,788 English learners, 1,383 are in programs that districts consider dual language. Over the last five years, enrollment in dual-language programs has hovered around 4 percent, data show.

The remaining students were in transitional bilingual programs (24 percent), received other supports such as tutoring (69 percent), or had parents who declined services (4 percent).

Hartford shut down its eight dual-language programs 10 years ago.

Mayer, who has since left UConn, said of that decision, “Nobody tested those kids to see if it was working. It was just the perception that it wasn’t. … There were a lot of assumptions of what was and wasn’t working to help English learners.”

Years before those programs closed, however, the state education department did a lengthy study and found promising growth for students in the district’s dual-language programs.

So now Hartford uses a plethora of approaches to serve English learners.

“The only research that is really strong is that dual language is a more effective model,” Monica Quinones, Hartford Public Schools director of English Language Learner Services, said during an interview. “Why don’t we do it here? Our system is not set up that way.”

And the constant churn of superintendents in Hartford has made it difficult for things to change.

CtMirror file photo

A refugee from Myanmar writes in her native language as her history teacher at Law & Government Academy in Hartford watches.

“Whereas, [the last superintendent] was interested in the feasibility and maybe would have continued thinking about it, new leadership comes on board and that might not be their focus right away,” said Mary-Beth Russo, the district’s English-learner coach. “When they realize what is needed, they are moving on to another position.”

Cam Staples, who served as the House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee during the last major overhaul of state laws surrounding English learners in 1999, said during a recent interview that he regrets not having put forward bolder legislation mandating bilingual instruction for all students from the time they start school.

“This is unfiltered, having been out of politics now for a while, but I remember thinking at the time, if we could just pass something – one thing– I wish I could have mandated foreign-language instruction from kindergarten on,” said Staples.

“If there is one thing we could do to promote educational achievement for all children, I think promoting bilingualism is something as a state we should do more of. It was a real frustration of mine and others – language acquisition is not a real priority in our schools. It strikes me as a missed opportunity.”

Coming next week: Local educators say they prefer the dual language model but there are too many barriers to making it happen. We look at how other places have overcome them. Read the first story in this series here.

The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. View more of the projects they have funded here. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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