LAUSD’s English learners fall far behind other large California districts. Will Prop. 58 come to the rescue?
Craig Clough | November 10, 2016
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With California’s voters passing Proposition 58 this week, millions of students will now have increased access to bilingual education. That’s especially good news for LA Unified, where the district’s English language learners significantly trailed their peers at other large districts in the state on the most recent standardized tests.
While LA Unified had plans to expand bilingual education with or without Prop. 58, the process will now be streamlined, as schools will be free to offer recommendations to parents on bilingual education, and parents won’t be required to sign a waiver form.
LA Unified leaders proudly announced the district’s improved overall performance on the state’s standardized tests at an August press conference, as its students made jumps in both English language arts and math. Superintendent Michelle King pointed out that the increases “represent some of the highest gains that were achieved among urban districts in California.”
But one statistic that was not mentioned, and certainly not cheered, was the performance of the district’s English language learners (ELLs) in comparison to other urban districts.
While the district, the state and many subgroups saw growth on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) tests — also known as the Smarter Balanced tests — growth for ELLs at LA Unified was close to stagnant, and among the 10 largest districts in the state, they were tied for last on both the math and English language arts (ELA) tests.
“At the end of the day, let’s face it, we are not happy with the performance of English learners and we definitely need to do better,” said Hilda Maldonado, director of LA Unified’s Multilingual and Multicultural Division.
Three percent of LA Unified’s ELL students scored proficient, meeting or exceeding the standard on the ELA test, and 6 percent were proficient in math, numbers that reflect only a single percentage point improvement in the math score over last year. Statewide, 13 percent of English learners were proficient on the ELA test and 12 percent were proficient on the math test. San Diego’s ELLs scored a 25 percent proficiency rate on the ELA test, which was first among the 10 largest districts, and a 23 percent proficiency rate on the math test, which was second. San Francisco had 20 percent of its ELLs score proficient in English, which was second highest, and 27 percent score proficient in math, which was the highest.
As the largest district in the state, with over 557,000 students — not counting those enrolled in independent charters — LA Unified also has the highest number of English learners, at over 141,000, or roughly 25 percent of the student body. LA Unified dwarfs all other districts, as San Diego, the second-largest district, has roughly 130,000 students, with 19 percent of them ELLs. San Francisco, with roughly 55,000 students, has 30 percent ELLs.
“It is definitely fair to compare us to other school districts … but we are three, four times larger than everybody else, so for us to impact a whole system takes a lot more than everybody else,” Maldonado said.
When asked to explain why San Francisco’s ELLs perform so well, Christina Wong, special assistant to the superintendent at San Francisco Unified, said the district has a long-term investment in English learner programs and bilingual that is typically far ahead of other districts because of a lawsuit from the 1970s. In the Lau v. Nichols case, the California Supreme Court ruled San Francisco Unified was depriving English learners of their civil rights by providing an inadequate education. As a result of the ruling, San Francisco has been invested in developing programs for English learners for decades.
“We have the Lau vs. Nichols consent decree from the 1970s, and since then San Francisco must ensure their English learners have access to the core curriculum,” Wong said. “And so basically the district needed to find ways to support English learners and make sure they had access, and so one way was to develop and grow bilingual programs so that students would have access to the core content.”
The use of bilingual and dual language programs was found in a 2014 Stanford study to be more effective long-term for English learners. “The results show that while students in English immersion programs perform better in the short term, over the long term students in classrooms taught in two languages not only catch up to their English immersion counterparts, they eventually surpass them both academically and linguistically,” the study said.
San Francisco, as a result of its long-term focus on English learners, has far more dual language and bilingual programs than LA Unified, which may account for its high achievement. Roughly 30 percent of San Francisco’s ELLs are enrolled in bilingual or dual language programs, compared to LA Unified, which has under 2 percent of ELLs enrolled.
“I think it’s just part of (San Francisco’s) history to serve their language populations than compared to the way they have been for LAUSD,” Maldonado said.
In San Diego, the reasons for success were not as easy to pinpoint as San Francisco’s. San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, who is in her fourth year running the district, summed it up as simple hard work and focus.
“We don’t believe in silver bullets and we don’t believe in quick fixes. We don’t believe children are test scores. We believe that when you meet children where they are, you recognize their strengths and abilities, you see language as a strength and asset, and you give them support in the classroom instead of pullout programs,” Marten said.
Of San Diego’s English learners, roughly 11 percent are enrolled in dual language or bilingual programs. Marten said one key change the district has made over the last few years is getting each teacher specific training on teaching English learners.
“We have a vision that every teacher needs to be an English learner expert. So we have English learner support teachers, and our model was for the expert to help each and every teacher at each school become an expert in the classroom,” Marten said.
Some critics have pointed to LA Unified’s ELL problems as one of budgetary focus. Earlier this year, the district lost its appeal to the California Department of Education on how it spends hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds that are supposed to be directed to its neediest students, including English learners. According to the state, LA Unified’s use of $450 million over the last two fiscal years on special education does not qualify it as also having been spent on three needy subgroups — foster youth, English learners and low-income students — despite the district insisting that it did.
State law requires extra money be targeted to these groups and also provides extra state money for them, and the ruling essentially found that the district was using creative accounting and short-changing them to help balance the books.
The district has also been the target of a lawsuit that was filed last year over how it was spending the disputed funds, and a 2015 study by UC Berkeley and Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) coalition also found that the bulk of the district’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) dollars “has seeped into the district’s base budget with … little apparent regard to the students who generate the new dollars.”
LA Unified had no immediate comment on the state’s ruling, but in response to the lawsuit in 2015, the district issued a statement: “We believe that this group has misinterpreted the LCFF. The Legislature clearly granted school districts — which serve predominantly low-income students, foster youth and English language learners – the highest degree of flexibility in determining student program needs.”
LA Unified has also had problems with the federal government in regard to English learners. In 2011, the district settled a complaint by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which found that the district had failed to provide adequate services to English learners. As part of the settlement, the LA Unified school board passed a new English Learner Master Plan aimed at improving services for ELLs.
At a September committee meeting, several board members expressed dismay over the test scores, including the performance of English learners. Board member George McKenna, summing up his colleagues’ sentiments, said, “I’m as frustrated as I can possibly be. The data is miserable.”
LA Unified has shown it is investing in dual language programs and there are also signs it is making improvements to how it teaches English learners. In May, the district announced that its long-term English learner population — students who require six or more years of special English instruction — has been reduced by 6.4 percent since 2013. The district also added 12 new dual language or bilingual programs this year.