Englishlearner forum message: track progress
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 3, 2006

Pat Kossan

Education experts who gathered in downtown Phoenix on Thursday agreed on one key thing about the divisive topic of English-language learners: It's not just about money.

People of all political stripes said that whatever program is put into place, it's critical for the state to investigate how well it works for struggling English-learners. If there are problems, the state, schools and teachers should adjust what they're doing.

"We need to fund what we know works," Becky Hill, education adviser to the governor, said at the half-day forum, called Arizona Conversations on English Language Learners. The state needs to audit English-learners'
progress in the language and in academics, monitor teacher training, and tie money to the best strategies, she said.

About 250 teachers, parents, and politicians listened to and questioned public//-policy makers and researchers brought together at the Hyatt Regency by The Arizona Republic and ThinkAz, a nonpartisan public policy foundation.

They met even as the Legislature sent a new bill to Gov. Janet Napolitano intended to fund English-learning programs to satisfy a federal judge's order.

About 85 percent of Arizona's English-learners are Latinos. Debates about how to teach these kids often turn into battles over immigration from Mexico, the state's English-only education law and taxpayer money.

This time, speakers and visitors focused on the best ways to turn English-learners, who are lagging behind their academic peers, into scholars.

Among the observations:

Learning English is not the stumbling point for most students. Brigham Young University Professor C. Ray Graham said 30 years of research shows learning a new language is a skill more like learning to hit a baseball than learning geography. The true stumbling point is making sure kids learn enough English to read, learn and write about algebra, history, social studies and literature. If they don't, kids will fail by the time they reach middle school.

For example, English-learners come to school with thousands fewer vocabulary words than kids who grew up speaking English. To keep up, they also must learn 3,000 new words each year.

"That's the big challenge, that's the area children fall behind," said Graham, who called it a waste of time to debate the good and bad points of English-only vs. teaching kids in Spanish and English. Both methods have been successful.

Teachers can't replace the help parents can give children at home.
Christopher Jepsen, a researcher from the Public Policy Institute of California, said children of parents with higher incomes and better education are more successful English-learners in the classroom, no matter what language they speak at home.

All parents, rich or poor, need to be brought into any successful program to help English-learners, Jepsen said.

Graham said parents should understand they could help their children in Spanish, or any of the dozens of languages Arizonans speak at home.

Arizona needs to track English-learners' weekly and monthly progress. It's
the only way to determine which teacher-training programs are working or if
smaller classrooms or pull-out programs are working. It also helps identify
what instruction and tutoring methods will help kids catch up and keep up.
Educators call it "data-driven decision-making."

Ed Sloat, research director for Peoria Unified School District, said the
state can't count on standardized test scores. Those tests were created for
students who grew up speaking English. For example, English-learners who are
good in math may do poorly on standardized test word problems because they
don't understand the vocabulary. Language on the tests can be very different
than the functional English students learn first.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, second in command at the Arizona Department of
Education, said the controversy over the English-only law and government
mandates to test English-learners has forced schools and policymakers to
care about students the state has long ignored.

The former principal, who began school speaking only Spanish, helped get the
English-only law on the ballot and passed by Arizona voters.

"It has put English-language learners on the front burner," Garcia Dugan
said. "At one time, they weren't even on the stove."