learners: How many still left behind?
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[APRIL 26, 2006]
ARLINGTON, Va. -- For English language
learners, perhaps more than any other segment of American public
education, the No Child Left Behind Act fundamentally changed how
schools conduct the business of their education. The law, for the
first time, required schools to show agreed-upon levels of progress
in moving English learners toward proficiency in English and then
linked those and other results to federal dollars. The law even took
the sensible step of requiring bilingual education teachers
themselves to be fluent in written and spoken English.
But when it comes to improving the transition rates that ultimately
measure such growth, English learners in some states fare much
better than others. In Arizona, California, Illinois and elsewhere,
the rates at which English learners attain sufficient skills and are
fully integrated into mainstream English classrooms remain well
under 10 percent per year. The rest continue in transitional
bilingual education programs that, in fact, seem barely transitional
Even though Arizona and California passed laws effectively
eliminating bilingual education, these laws have been unevenly
applied and in some school districts even ignored. In Illinois and
other states, students can remain in segregated bilingual education
classes for the vast majority of their public-school careers.
Meanwhile by contrast, Florida and New Jersey had transition rates
of 29 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
Such cavernous gaps in success rates are indications that this
area of the No Child Left Behind law is working better in some
places than in others. Some bilingual education advocates argue that
it can take up to six to eight years to teach English fluency and
that schools should first develop proficiency in children's
non-English, native languages. But research shows children can
acquire a second language faster and more effectively when taught at
a younger age.
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Before No Child Left Behind, federal funding went directly to
local programs that often provided little evidence of success at
improving students' English proficiency. Critics pointed to many
such programs as isolated and inferior education tracks more likely
to lead students to drop out than to graduate.
Some of the nation's lowest-transition-rate states, like
California, also reported strong gains in English learners' test
scores over the same period. Policymakers would be wise to ask how
it can be acceptable to leave some English learners behind but not
English learner annual transition rates into mainstream English
Alaska, 5.1 percent
Arizona, 6.0 percent
Idaho, 7.5 percent
Illinois, 8.5 percent
Nevada, 3.4 percent
Source: U.S. Department of Education. Data reflects two-year
average in states where English language learners comprise more than
10 percent of all students.