‘Nation’s Report Card’ Shows Little Progress in Reading

Last week brought the release of  the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results –– also known as the nation’s report card. The data measuring the performance of the country’s fourth and eighth-grade students showed some progress in math scores, but little improvement in reading scores.

In math, 2011 fourth-grade scores showed a one-point increase from the 2009 numbers and a 28-point increase from 1990. In reading, however, fourth-grade scores showed no increase since 2009, and rose only four points since 1992.

About one-third of students in reading and eighth-grade math and 40 percent of students in fourth-grade math were considered proficient.

The news was also mixed for minority groups. Although scores in math rose from 2009 to 2011 for Latino  students, the achievement gap was only narrowed among eighth-grade students.

In reading, scores for Latino students showed improvement in eighth grade from 2009 to 2011, but showed no significant gains among fourth-graders. The achievement gap in eighth-grade reading scores was also narrowed.

The report also includes other revealing findings:

  • The percent of students taking basic math classes was higher among black, Latino, and American Indian students.
  • The national average for all students was 220 in fourth-grade reading and 264 in eight-grade reading, compared to an average of 205 for Latino fourth-graders and 251 for Latino eighth-graders.
  • In math, the national average for all fourth-graders was 240 and for all eighth-graders was 283 , compared to an average of 229 for Latino fourth-graders and 269 for Latino eighth-graders.
  • Latino students in Montana scored the highest in eighth grade math in 2011, with an average score of 285. Latino eighth-graders in Alabama scored the lowest in math, with an average score of 255.
  • Maryland Latinos scored the highest in fourth grade math, with a 245 average; while Oregon scored the lowest in that group, with an average of 220.
  • In reading, Maryland had the highest state score among Latino fourth-graders with an average of 226; while Oregon ranked lowest with an average of 196. Among Latino eighth-graders, Kentucky scored the highest with a 264 average; the District of Columbia was at the bottom with an average of 239.
  • Fifty-four percent of Asian students said they were more likely to say they read almost every day, compared to 46 percent or less of other groups.

Are Schools Doing Enough for Non-English Speaking Parents?

In a recent column about the role of parental involvement in school, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez took issue with a local school board’s practice of conducting meetings in Spanish, a concession to its predominantly Latino population.

His initial reaction: ” Holding on to your native language is terrific. But parents who make no effort to learn English are limiting their own job prospects, hindering their ability to monitor their children’s education and giving their kids an extra burden if they enter school with limited English.”

The comments stirred up considerable public reaction, leading to this September 17 follow-up, in which Lopez examines the language issue more closely.

While acknowledging the difficulties of learning a new language, particularly for low-income families struggling just to survive, Lopez notes: “It’s undeniable that language barriers — and perhaps to an even greater extent, economic disadvantages — are major factors in the abysmal test scores and graduation rates in California and other states. Starting school without English can be a disorienting hardship for the student, a drag on classmates and a great burden on the teacher.”

Lopez seems to perpetuate the idea that Latino immigrants are not trying to learn English. But as someone who came to the United States as a child, I saw firsthand how hard my parents and other family members worked to master English. I’ve also seen that effort when writing stories about Latino education issues and have interviewed parents taking English classes at night or teaching themselves the language. Research, including this Pew Hispanic Center report, has also shown that Latino immigrants are learning English at the same rate as earlier generations of immigrants.

But the bigger question for education reporters might be what schools are doing to reach out to non-English speaking parents and encourage their involvement.

Are there free or low-cost English classes for parents, as I saw in one Boston-area school? Do schools send home paperwork and flyers translated into Spanish? Are school meetings and open houses conducted in both Spanish and English? How do teachers and school administrators treat parents who don’t speak English?

At the next school board meeting, PTA gathering, or open house, try tagging along with non-English speaking parents, and view the experience from their perspective. The resulting story could offer insight into the obstacles faced by immigrant parents. If your district offers English classes for parents, try following some parents through the process for a look at the issue through their eyes.

Are Schools Doing Enough to Prepare for Latino Population Growth?

This week’s sobering news that the SAT scores of  U.S. students are dropping probably did not surprise anyone who has worked as a teacher in recent years. If my classroom experience has revealed anything to me, it is that the education system in this country is in serious trouble–and that students are not getting the type of education they deserve and need.

It’s not for lack of effort or commitment on the part of educators. The vast majority of teachers put in long hours, exhaustive work and much personal investment into creating lesson plans, working with students, dealing with parents and grading papers. But they are often fighting confusing school policies, lack of resources, problems the students carry from outside school and pressure to focus on standardized tests.

Those issues are amplified when it comes to teaching the growing population of Latino students who are just learning English, have just arrived in the country,  serve as the translators for immigrant parents or who face hostility because of their national origin.

My questions for education reporters: Are your school districts preparing teachers for that student population? Are there professional development courses geared toward the best practices for teaching in multicultural classrooms? Are the schools looking at textbook purchases with an eye for diversity? For example, do history textbooks in a predominantly Latino district cover the history of Latinos in the country and in Latin America? Are those topics covered in the class curriculum?

I’m currently taking a graduate course examining issues and trends in literacy education. Among the best practices noted for improving reading comprehension are the importance of “authentic reading”–reading that applies directly to the lives of students- and the application of  “prior knowledge”–making sure students have a foundation in which to make connections to newly taught material.

But take a look at some of the suggested reading in a curriculum map put together by Common Core, which creates maps based on the Common Core State Standards. In one 8th grade Language Arts unit called “Looking Back on America,” the list includes works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Maya Angelou, John Adams, Langston Hughes and numerous readings about the women’s suffrage movement. It is certainly filled with worthy and educational reading, but noticeably scarce are works by Latino authors or about Latino history.

The suggested readings for a ninth grade unit about Literary Nonfiction also includes a diverse group of authors, including Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Abraham Lincoln, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but no Latino authors.

Is this happening in your district? If so, what effect is that having on student learning?

Do English Language Learner Programs Work?

About one in four American children are immigrants or were born to immigrant parents. By 2050, immigrant children–the fastest growing student population–are expected to make up one-third of the country’s under-18 population.

For those children, the majority of whom are Latino, learning English is key to academic achievement.  But how well are English as Second Language programs–designed to help non-English speakers master academic English–working?

It’s a question that often crossed my mind as an education reporter–and has grown louder in the last couple of years, as I’ve stepped into the role of a classroom teacher.

One of the roles of English teachers in Texas is to help assess the writing and speaking skills of ELL’s. But we were given only superficial training in how to do so. All that was required was passing an online course, which most of us accomplished through educated guesswork. Yet, we were tasked with helping to decide which students were beginning, intermediate, or advanced English speakers.

Recently, in a comment posted to this blog, a teacher suggested that education reporters look into how ELL’s are identified. Are children being placed in ESL programs because of poor vocabulary or poor knowledge of English? What do schools gain or lose by placing students in ELL classes?

And what are students in ELL programs learning? I recently attended a faculty training session for college instructors, where one teacher–a former ESL high school teacher–mentioned that she had worked in four different districts. In all four, ELL students were assigned writing exercises that involved just copying material directly from their texts. Even if such rote assignments help students master basic English structure, how might it affect the students’ academic growth?

Recently released data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that ELL’s have lower rates of enrollment in Algebra I and advanced placements courses.

About 79 percent of ELLs speak Spanish as their native language, making this a key issue for anyone covering Latinos and Latino education.

For reporters interested in digging a little deeper, here are some good resources to start with:

Back-to-School Brainstorming

In Houston, the temperature is the 100’s, the leaves are turning brown and auburn (from a stubborn drought), and kids are stocking up on pencils, notebooks and backpacks.

That can only mean one thing: The school year is starting again. In the next few weeks, classes will kick off in districts around the country. So where are good story ideas lurking for education writers and others covering Latino communities?

Here are some thoughts and possible resources:

1. The burgeoning Latino student population. As the white population shrinks and the Latino population grows through immigration and births, school demographics are undergoing a major shift. The changes in the student body will affect curriculum, resources, funding, and the racial/ethnic make-up of the teacher corps. How is your district handling an evolving student population? Is it straining under the additional costs of non-English speaking students? Has it created innovative programs to meet the needs of Latino students? This Brookings Institute report looks at the growing diversity of the child population.

2. Reading lists. By now, most K-12 English and  language arts departments have mapped out reading lists for the year. Do the lists stick to the white European canon–or do they include Latino and other non-white writers? It’s worth comparing the student demographics and the classroom curriculum (in English and other content areas). Do they reflect each other? Talk to teachers, students, and parents about the books students will be reading this year. Go to a local Barnes & Noble and check out the books-for-school pile; that will give you a good idea of what schools in your area are planning. Another source could be the National Council of  Teachers of English.

3. Programs for college-bound kids. Not all Latino students are newly arrived immigrants with poor English skills who struggle in school. Many are honor roll students headed for college, or kids striving to be on that path. Remember to include that cohort in your beat coverage by looking at programs geared for the college-bound. Do Advanced Placement classes include a representation of Latino students? If not, is your district doing anything to reach out to those students? If your school offers AVID, a college readiness program that targets kids in the “academic middle” and first-generation college-bound, take a look at the results (how many go on to college) and the demographics of participants (almost half of AVID students nationwide are Latino).

Stanford Will Help ELLs Prepare for Common Core Standards

The announcement this week that Stanford University is launching an initiative to help English Language Learners meet Common Core State Standards in math and language arts brought up some story nuggets that have been simmering in the back of my mind.

The initiative itself provides a good opportunity to look at what states and individual school districts are doing to prepare ELLs to succeed under the new curriculum standards that 46 states have adopted.

As the initiative’s principal investigator, Kenji Hakuta, points out: “The Common Core and the National Academy framework for K-12 science are going to demand high levels of language from students and teachers alike … Our current education tends to obscure the role of language, and our project will make the language that kids need to succeed academically much more visible so that it helps guide what goes on in the classroom.”

In other words, are ELLs being given the kind of classroom support they need to succeed under the new framework? As this report from the National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners shows, students learning a new language often struggle with academic vocabulary, which is key to performing well in the classroom.

One way to start researching story ideas might be to get more details about the Stanford project, which is described as partnership with “local, state, and federal educational agencies; experts in Common-Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics; developers of the next-generation science standards; and developers of new English language proficiency standards, as well as advocacy groups, publishers, and test makers.”

What exactly will researchers do through this collaboration? Will they produce curriculum guidelines? Policies? Research data?

If you are in a state that has adopted the Common Core Standards, ask the schools you cover whether they are considering programs or strategies to help ELLs–or better yet, find out if they are one of the districts that will be part of the Stanford initiative, which promises to help schools and teachers “create clear specifications and exemplars of how teachers can foster English language proficiency as part of subject matter instruction, above and beyond any English as a Second Language (ESL).”

Educating Immigrant Students

As school districts search for ways to accommodate growing immigrant populations, one trend seems to be emerging: separate schools for newcomers.

In Massachusetts, one group has proposed the Somerville Progressive Charter School, which would serve “the needs of children in Somerville whose first language is not English, the children of fairly recent immigrants,’’ according to this Boston Globe story. The student population in Somerville, a city adjacent to Cambridge, is more than 50 percent immigrant, the group says.

Other similar schools have popped up across the country. In New York City, as this New York Times story shows, there is the Ellis Preparatory School in the South Bronx for students arriving with little or no formal schooling and the Internationals Network for Public Schools for immigrants of all educational levels. In Colorado, The New America School system serves English Language Learners and their families.

These schools offer smaller settings and more focused instruction. It is unclear, however, if this approach is more effective than including new immigrants in mainstream schools.

But, as the Times story notes, “the system over all generally does not serve these immigrants well.” Too often, schools can shuttle new immigrants into special education programs or keep them in classrooms where work stagnates at a basic levels. The range of learning levels is also challenging for teachers, who may have some newcomer students who are unable to read a picture book, while others can produce three-page essays.

How does your district educate recently arrived immigrants? Are they funneled into the general student population, or is there a separate program designed specifically for the needs of newcomers? Have new charter schools serving this population started to pop up?

Most importantly, what are the educational outcomes for immigrant students? Does your district or state track this group?

A quick story could take a look at a day in such a school or a program, telling the stories of the students. (They are often compelling, sometimes heartbreaking). For a more in-depth analysis, examine the student population, the curriculum, graduation rates, and the number of immigrants in special education.

Mother and Child, Learning Together

A number of early childhood learning experts I’ve talked with describe programs like Head Start and Educare as “two-generation” strategies: They not only benefit young children directly, but they also help parents increase their parenting skills and further their own educations. At heart, strengthening a parent’s literacy and commitment to education pays off for both parent and child, especially before children enter elementary school.

Now, the National Center for Family Literacy and the MetLife Foundation are teaming up to award 10 grants of $25,000 each for partnerships between community colleges and family literacy programs. The application deadline is Aug. 22 and awardees will pursue their projects through the 2012 calendar year. You can find out more about the application process here.

Plenty of studies show that the mother’s level of education is the pre-eminent factor in determining her child’s educational success. But if one listens enough to that drumbeat, it can feel like there’s no hope for children of parents with little formal schooling. Yet research also shows that children can benefit when parents attain higher levels of education. According to a 2007 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research, children’s performance on a standardized math test can be increased 1.5 points for every additional year of maternal schooling.

Reporters in Florida, Rhode Island and Kentucky might be particularly interested in a recent report on such partnerships that feature case studies based in Columbia County, Providence and Jefferson County. Many of the students profiled are Latinas raising young children and trying to further their own education: learning English, passing the GED and moving on to begin college-level coursework. The adult education field has long struggled to help its students transition successfully to college courses and, ultimately, degrees. Though current statistics on transition are dismal (Only three percent of GED recipients earn associate’s degrees), the three programs profiled are beating those odds. Building strong personal relationships with students and offering childcare and flexible course scheduling appear to be among the components for success.

Funding Stalls Efforts to Bridge Preschool and K-3

You may have spotted Sarah Garland’s great article on the Pre-K -3 movement either at the Hechinger site or at Education Week. Pre-K-3 is a new effort among funders and early learning advocates to build better bridges from preschool to kindergarten and beyond. Garland paints it as an ambitious policy agenda covering universal preschool, full-day kindergarten for all and connected curriculum from pre-school through third grade.

I think her reporting shows that the most important step to bridge elementary school from preschool effectively is getting the pre-K and early elementary teachers in the same room to talk about what they are doing. The lead of the piece shows preschool and kindergarten teachers in Santa Maria, Calif., a mostly Hispanic and low-income city north of Santa Barbara, making exactly this kind of connection. The kindergarten teachers told the preschool teachers that the children, mostly from immigrant families, struggled with stories in the reading curriculum, like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Humpty Dumpty.” So the preschool teachers began reading those stories with the children to help familiarize them with classics of the American children’s canon.

Budget cuts sadly have hamstrung Santa Maria in its effort to link preschool and the early elementary grades more explicitly. The biggest problem is lack of money for preschool: Many children lack access to the program. The city had a kindergarten transition program but that has been eliminated for lack of funds. Though Garland’s piece links the city’s efforts “with only small test score gains,” I’d view it in more of a glass-half-full way. That the town has seen test scores increase slightly with this modest effort to bridge preschool and the first few years of grade school seems to me to be a glimmer of hope.

Garland’s piece points to the nearby town of Carpinteria as a place that has looked to Santa Maria’s example and is trying to expand the work by improving teacher quality and building a community center including mom-and-tot activities for stay-at-home mothers.

It will be interesting to see how pre-K-3 efforts play out across the country, especially as state and federal funds become even tighter. How those efforts will play out in Latino communities and what distinct features they might have should be worth watching, too.

Comic Books for English Language Learners

As an admitted fan girl who dreams of attending the San Diego Comic-Com, this story about a panel featuring students from Imperial County, California caught my attention. For the last three years, school district students have been working with the Comic Book Project to create comic books as part of a program to develop literacy and English language skills.

“(The panel will illustrate how) students throughout the United States have created comic books in their classrooms and how it’s showing growth in student development in English as a Second Language,” said a curriculum director involved with the project.

The idea of using comic books as a way to help English Language Learners got me wondering about what other school districts are doing. Many years back, I wrote a narrative piece about a Philadelphia teacher who had her students write and produce a telenovela. The story  offered a great way to go beyond statistics and tell the stories of students in that school’s ELL program.

Are your school districts trying new or innovative programs to reach ELL or immigrant students? Comic books? Creative writing programs? Telenovelas? If you find something interesting and write about it, let us know.