The US Department of Education has announced an investigation into the teaching of English-language learners in Los Angeles public schools. These students, who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, make up one-third of the LA school population. The investigation is the first of a number of civil rights actions planned for local school systems around the United States.
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Just days ago US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went to Selma, Alabama, to announce that his department would step up enforcement of federal civil rights laws to ensure that students of all backgrounds have equal access to a good education. The location of the announcement, in the Southern city of Selma, was symbolic. It was the site of a clash between police and civil rights activists in March, 1965, when hundreds of marchers were beaten by police.
Wednesday, Duncan's assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali, launched the first of a series of actions in Los Angeles as she announced a probe into the treatment of English language learners in the city's public schools.
She says the investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District will reveal reasons for their low academic performance.
"We know that LA Unified's English-learner high school students have the lowest levels of achievement across the board," said Russlynn Ali. "Right now, only three percent of them are proficient in math and English."
One third of the students in Los Angeles public schools are placed in special classes for English language learners. The approaches differ from school to school. Bilingual education was banned in California in 1998 under a voter-sponsored measure called Proposition 227, and many classes for English learners require English language immersion. But schools can be given waivers and they use a variety of methods, including dual-language programs.
Critics complain that academic standards are uneven for English learners in the core subjects such as as mathematics and science.
Los Angeles school superintendent Ramon Cortines, who appeared at a news conference with Ali, said he welcomes the probe and looks forward to identifying what he calls best practices for teaching English learners. He says some of the city's schools do well with students who are not proficient in English.
"But I also believe, because I know, the data says, we are not consistent across the district and there are many children and young people falling through the cracks," said Ramon Cortines.
Los Angeles has the second largest school system in the United States, after New York. It has more than 220,000 students in special classes for non-English speakers. Harry Pachon, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, says many students in those classes were born in the United States, but speak a language other than English at home.
"They speak Spanish, speak Mandarin, speak Cantonese, speak Thai, Korean, there's a whole United Nations of languages in LA Unified School District," said Harry Pachon.
School officials say 90 languages are spoken in LA schools.
Pachon co-authored a study that showed that 30 percent of one large group of English-learners were kept in special classes from the third through 8th grades. He says that is far too long. He notes that federal officials will look into such questions as the criteria for evaluating proficiency in English.
"What is a proficiency level? Is it 50 percent of English? Is it 40 percent of English? Is it 60 percent of English? And when do you reclassify the student?," he asked.
Education official Ali says the probe will also look at how teachers are trained and evaluated, how data is collected and whether school officials communicate with parents in a language that the parents can understand.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, welcomes the federal investigation. He sees a lack of attention to the core academic subjects in some English-learner classes, and says it is a problem not just in Los Angeles.
"There is a problem nationwide with the teaching of English learners," said Thomas Saenz. "It is a major element of the achievement gap that we as a country must address in order to have our education system succeed."
LA school superintendent Ramon Cortines says the achievement gap between English-learners and English-proficient students leaves a large group of youngsters ill prepared for college or careers. Education Department official Russlynn Ali says this hurts the country as a whole.
"Our sense of urgency couldn't be greater," she said. "What's happening in Los Angeles and across the country is economically unsustainable for us as a nation."
Federal officials say they will work with local schools to ensure that all students get a good education, regardless of their race or gender, disability or national origin. The officials promise civil rights reviews in more than 30 school districts around the United States.