Opinion: NYS Policies Translate to Failure for English-Language Learners

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ELL grad rates

NYC DOE

A chart from the DOE's annual snapshot of gradation rates, showing the rates for English Language Learners. The overall graduation rate reached 76 percent in 2018.

President Trump commits outrages against humanity by separating newcomers from their families, leaving them without soap, blankets or toothbrushes. New York State would never do things like that. We’re more enlightened. Instead of depriving young immigrants of physical necessities, we simply decline to them their most fundamental educational need—instruction in English.

You won’t hear or read about that much. Parents of newcomers don’t tend to engage in much public protest. They’re loudly threatened with ICE raids, deportations, and veritable concentration camps. They won’t be taking to the streets any time soon. In fact, a whole lot of immigrant parents I know haven’t got time to be political. Likely as not, they’re busy working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet.

Educational deprivation isn’t remotely as sexy as physical deprivation. Newcomers go to school every day just like those of us who are born here. We’re not yet sending children into the streets or the pages of some grim Dickens novel. Nonetheless, the geniuses in Albany pat themselves on the back for their brilliant innovations while expressly setting up these kids for failure.

For years I’ve read about the issues with ELLs. What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they graduate in four years like everyone else? I’ve had DOE reps come to our school, call us to meetings, and have nothing to say but Jesus, make those kids pass the English Regents exam. Actually we can do that. However, the English Regents Exam is nothing but a warmed-over Common Core exercise. It doesn’t indicate fluency or mastery of everyday English. Academic English? You must be dreaming.

MaryEllen Elia, Betty Rosa, and the Regents placed their important heads together and came up with a solution. Let’s give these students less English instruction, they decided. Instead, they determined, they would dump ESL teachers, no longer actually teaching English, into classes the students were already taking. This way, while native English speakers take 45 minutes to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg, newcomers would somehow learn not only about the battle, but also all the necessary vocabulary and culture in the same 45 minutes. Having less direct English instruction would somehow support this.

How would they accomplish this? I spoke face to face with NY Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia, who told me they would use “strategies and techniques.” You could’ve knocked me down with a feather. I’ve been teaching ESL for three decades. I know strategies and techniques. However, I don’t know of any that compensate for lack of time.

NY State believes, as a matter of official policy, that “Students receive English language development instruction in order to acquire the English language needed for core content areas.” It’s hard for me to get my mind around that. It’s my job to make students love English and thus motivate them to embrace it. If I can make that happen, it will make it a whole lot easier for them to pass that science class, or whatever it is New York State appears to value.

Still, if you’re a child of immigrants, you have more immediate priorities we could support. As part of your daily life, you might have to go to the doctor with your mother to translate. Not only that, but you might want to buy a pizza, watch a movie, or make friends who don’t speak only your first language. You might even want a safe forum to practice English without humiliating yourself. Likely as not, the only such forum in your young life is your ESL class. Also likely as not, you haven’t got one anymore.

Via a modification of Commissioner’s Regulation Part 154, Elia and Rosa have cut those classes by a factor of 33-100 percent. They portray this as an improvement. For them, evidently, direct study of the English language is not a priority. For newcomers though, it’s an absolute necessity, indispensable, something without which they cannot succeed in these United States.

It’s a disgrace that that state bureaucrats sit in ivory towers, pretending all is well, while actively damaging the prospects of the students it’s my job to serve. How low will NY State set the bar to keep juking the stats? No one knows, yet.

Still, imagine how you’d feel if you went to China tomorrow, and they sat you in classes with almost no instruction in Chinese language. That would mirror official NY State policy. It’s a disgrace, in 2019, that we can’t do better. In NY State, we may not practice outright xenophobia, but our support for newcomers is dubious at best.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School.

One thought on “Opinion: NYS Policies Translate to Failure for English-Language Learners

  1. Sink or swim is back! It doesn’t work with anyone but the most motivated learners. With newcomer refugees, there must be a lot of relationship building, basic vocabulary and cultural instruction, alongside wraparound health and wellness care. New York State has excellent resources on line for teaching Students with Limited and Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). I’m surprised that the state is adopting such regressive multilingual learner programs. This is happening in California as well. Content teachers are being asked to teach newcomers and beginner Multilingual Learners their content area without the benefit of a trained ELL teacher at all. No common planning time, no extra prep, and no curriculum. They often get new teachers to teach these courses, courses in which the teacher also has the opportunity to “sink or swim” alongside their students. We are setting up both students and teachers for failure. It’s unfortunate that we have so much knowledge, research, and expertise in the field of Multilingual Education, and yet policy makers jump on trends and make poorly informed decisions.

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