Diversity Is Strength! It`s Also…The Emerging “Long Term English Learner” Problem In U.S. Schools

Over the last decade, a bipartisan consensus has been emerging among politicians, the prestige press, and leading philanthropists: the racial gap in achievement is the fault of—schoolteachers!

If only schoolteachers were more multiculturally sensitive, or if only they held students to more rigorous standards, or if only they could be fired in large numbers and replaced by young investment banker-types who work 19 hours per day and live on Red Bull and idealism, or if only … well, the cure-all proposals go on and on.

As a certain anonymous teacher wrote in an important essay on Achievement Gap Politics on the National Association of Scholars blog on May 9th:

“Educational policy is consumed by the achievement gap … It`s race that generates the most intensity. I don`t just mean that this is the number one priority. It`s the only priority. The achievement gap pervades every corner of American educational policy discussion. Nothing else matters. No Child Left Behind was entirely about the achievement gap and measuring schools to see if they`d closed it. Obama`s Race to the Top is just another take on the achievement gap—again, focusing on testing and this time holding teachers responsible if they can`t get low-performing students to improve.”

Unfortunately, nobody has ever been able to point to a single one of the 16,025 school districts in the country where reformers have been able to make the Gap go away.

My question: How much of the current elite frenzy over the supposed failures of teachers stems from unspoken guilt over the educational results of 40 years of open door immigration policy?

Maybe our ruling class is saying to itself something like this:

“OK—we`ve now got 48 million Hispanics. And, on average, they aren`t climbing the ladder like the Ellis Island immigrants did. We said they would, but they`re mostly just kind of sitting there, generation after generation, at the prole level. They aren`t earning enough money to pay enough taxes.

“And look what we`ve done to California. That used to be America`s shining future. Back in 1970, California ranked 7th out of all the states in highest percentage of high school graduates in the workforce. Now, California ranks 50th.

“And Texas is 49th, so it`s not as if it matters whether it`s a Blue State like California or a Red State like Texas. From 2000 to 2010 in Texas, the number of Anglo public school students fell from 1.7 million to 1.6 million, while the number of Hispanic students rose from 1.6 million to 2.4 million.

“Together, the two biggest states account for 62 million people.

“Last year, only 51% of the babies born in the country were white, and that percentage is falling about one point per year.

 “Uh oh! We`ve really fouled up the whole country.

“Quick—find somebody else to blame! Like … uh … TEACHERS! Yeah, Latino lack of achievement is the fault of the TEACHERS! That will distract the voters for a while!”

Of course, it is quite implausible that teachers are suddenly doing such a worse job. There are so hugely many K-12 teachers in the U.S.—3.5 million—that, on the whole, they are, by necessity, pretty average.

On the other hand, the education industry sure isn`t going to solve its problems itself.

That NAS clandestine analyst I quoted above, a recent graduate of a famous Education School, points to three explanations for the achievement gap and their accompanying policy advice:

  • The progressive: The problem is racism, and the solution is integration (no tracking, no disparate impact) and ethnic cheerleading by teachers.

  • The conservative: The problem is low standards on the part of teachers, and the solution is that everybody (teachers, students, parents) must work harder.

  • “The Voldemort View: The View That Must Not Be Named”—a reference to the villain in Harry Potter—the problem is cognitive differences.

As I suggested in my recent VDARE.com review of Diane Ravitch`s latest book, rather than trying to get blacks and Hispanics to improve by a full standard deviation while not allowing whites and Asians to improve at all, we should try to get everybody to improve by half a standard deviation. That`s a lot more likely to work.

Needless to say, the Voldemort View can get you Watsoned in the mainstream. But within the hermetically sealed Politically Correct world of Ed Schools, even the conservative opinion is ruinous. The anonymous author explains why these Ed School ideological purity tests are so deleterious:

“Ed schools don`t get much respect within the university, and even less in the political arena. But they are the gatekeepers of elite credentials within the education community. These credentials don`t matter so much for teaching jobs per se, but do matter for educational policy jobs and doctoral program applications that come after teachers `do their two` in public schools and move on to jobs in which they can influence policy.”

Hence, even when a smart Ed Industry consultant notices a new problem staring her in her face, she`s unable to think pragmatically about causes or solutions.

Case in point: the recent report from the progressive think tank Californians Together by Laurie Olsen: Reparable Harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for Long Term English Learners [PDF].

To her credit, Dr. Olsen,[Email her] who holds a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies in Education from U.C. Berkeley, has been one of the first to call public attention to what has emerged as a major educational problem in the 21st Century America: kids from Spanish-speaking households who learn to speak English okay in school—but who don`t learn to read or write well in any language.

Since Ron Unz`s Proposition 227 was passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 1998, virtually eliminating the “bilingual education” a.k.a. Spanish-language programs that kept students from Latino homes captive in Spanish-speaking ghettoes within schools, the struggle between English and Spanish for the hearts and minds of the latest generation of Latinos born in the U.S. is largely being won by English.

Unz`s victory took the wind out of the sails of bilingual education. Thus, the 2001 No Child Left Behind act didn`t give students being taught in Spanish an exemption from being tested in English.

Students in California are now mostly taught in English, and they largely talk to each other at school in English. When Californians voted to stop subsidizing Spanish, Hispanic kids started to get the message that English is the future.

Proposition 227 was a rare assertion of Anglo cultural dominance. And it turned out that the Hispanic masses, in contrast to their self-appointed leaders, reacted constructively to Anglo assertiveness.

You can see this important shift in the lack of demand for blockbuster movies dubbed into Spanish. Hispanics make up the most enthusiastic audience for Hollywood schlock. Yet, there is remarkably little interest among Hispanic teens in movies dubbed into Spanish. While Spanish-language television is huge in the home, when Hispanic kids go out, they want to be seen by other teens going to English-language movies.

For example, at the Plant 16 movie multiplex in Van Nuys, where, I`d guesstimate, about 80-90 percent of weekend moviegoers are Latino, there are currently 15 movies playing in English only. There is one showing of The Karate Kid in English with Spanish subtitles, and there is nothing dubbed into Spanish. Hispanic youths want to hear Jackie Chan speak English!

Spanish is becoming uncool. That`s very good news, because nothing can divide a country like language. Witness today`s election in Belgium over whether Belgium should break up into separate Flemish and French-speaking countries.

It`s also good for the Hispanic students economically. People who speak only Spanish have limited career paths.

But that doesn`t mean that everybody in Van Nuys who lined up to see The A-Team in English this weekend is going to grow up to be a periodontist or a patent attorney and pay in enormous sums in taxes. Because, as Olsen explain, there`s still a problem with these kids.

California schools now call students from Spanish-speaking homes “English Learners” or “ELs”. (Other acronyms in this jargon-crazed field include “ESL” for “English as a Second Language”, “LEP” for “Limited English Proficiency”, and “ELL” for “English Language Learners”.).)

“English Learner” is a cheerful, optimistic term that makes it sound like these students should be done learning English real soon now. Unfortunately, however, it turns out that a lot of English Learners only learn as much English as they want to—for example, enough to watch the latest Transformers sequel at The Plant—but not enough for academic success in America. 

In California, 18 percent of high school students are designated English Learners (and many more have dropped out). Of those, Olsen`s survey of California school districts finds that 59 percent have been English Learners for more than six years. She notes:

“Yet, the vast majority of English Learners currently in middle schools and high schools have been enrolled in United States schools since kindergarten — and most were born in the United States.”

 Olsen calls them Long Term English Learners. She writes:

“Many Long Term English Learners do not know they are English Learners. Particularly those who had been placed into mainstream settings for years and are socially comfortable in English. They are surprised when a counselor or teacher tells them they are an English Learner.”

Other teachers have more cynical terms. But whatever these kids are called, they`re doing badly. Olsen reports:

 “The achievement gap between English Learners and proficient English speakers actually widened in the past decade. Increasingly, educators in secondary schools seeking to understand this widening gap have noticed that there are English Learners in their classes who, despite having initially entered United States schools in the primary grades, are now stalled in their progress towards English and struggling academically. Not yet recognized in policy or formal literature of the field, various labels are applied: `ESL Lifers,` `The 1.5 generation,` `Forever LEP,` and `The 6 Plusers`.”

Characteristics of English Learner Lifers, according to Olsen: “high functioning social language, very weak academic language, and significant deficits in reading and writing skills.”

In other words, to paraphrase the title of Dennis Rodman`s autobiography, these students are as bad as they wanna be at English. They can understand Will Smith fine, they just can`t pass written tests of their English skills.

Tellingly, they generally don`t pass written tests of other skills, such as math, either. Olsen writes:

“This group is struggling academically, failing to progress in English proficiency, and facing disproportionately high drop out rates. …Long Term English Learners have significant gaps in academic background knowledge. … By itself, the number of years it takes an English Learners to become English proficient and satisfy reclassification requirements is not sufficient to define Long Term English Learners. Academic struggles and lack of progress (`being stuck`) towards English proficiency is also key to the definition.”

On the other hand, the Lifers have kept hope alive! Olsen writes:

“The majority of Long Term English Learners wants to go to college, and are unaware that their academic skills, record and courses are not preparing them to reach that goal. Neither students, their parents nor their community realizes that they are in academic jeopardy.”

So we`re not talking about Chinese kids who are struggling at mastering a radically different language while still acing their math tests.

And we`re not talking about all Latino students. Some quickly become English proficient and do well in math.

Instead, we`re mostly talking about Latino kids who speak English with whatever accent they think is cool, who can mostly follow Robert Downey Jr. speaking at 300 words per minute in Iron Man 2—but who can`t pass written tests in English, Spanish, or in math.

The Lifers are the leftovers who have been given opportunities repeatedly, but who have failed to take advantage of them.

What`s the simplest explanation for the mystery of English Learner Forevers? Olsen reviews various complicated flaws in how the schools have failed to meet their needs. But there is a much more obvious reason: they aren`t very bright and/or they aren`t very hard-working

Needless to say, that thought can`t cross poor Dr. Olsen`s mind. So her recommendations are both expensive to the taxpayers and inane. For example:

VI. Schoolwide focus on study skills, metacognition, and learning strategies”

Metacognition is one of those great words you learn at Ed School that you can intimidate people who didn`t go to Ed School. It means— to the extent it means anything—”knowing about knowing”.

Metacognition is not useful to English Learner Lifers. What would be useful to them is vocational training. Teach them a trade and then let them graduate with a newly invented “associates` high school diploma” after tenth grade.

In other words, spend fewer tax dollars on them and help them earn more and sooner, so they can come closer to paying back what American taxpayers have been compelled to invest in them.

And there`s another unthinkable thought. What would really be useful to the country: stop letting the parents of so many future Limited English Proficient Forevers immigrate, legally or illegally, in the first place.

[Steve iler (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA`S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA`S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]