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Textbook foolishness

September 13, 2006|Jennifer Washburn | JENNIFER WASHBURN is a fellow at the New America Foundation based in Los Angeles.

AN IMPORTANT education bill -- sponsored by state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and supported by prominent education groups -- is sitting on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk awaiting his signature. The bill would allow publishers to develop textbooks for the state that would be designed to foster the language skills of non-native English speakers.

Virtually everyone agrees that these English language learners, who make up about 25% of the state's student population, need more help mastering English. According to a 2006 state-commissioned report, fewer than 40% of English learners in California schools are likely to meet the linguistic and academic criteria needed to reclassify them as "fluent" in English after 10 years.

In 2005, only 3% of English learners in the 10th grade scored "proficient" in English on the California Standards Tests. Meanwhile, on the California high school exit exam -- a graduation requirement -- only 50% of English learners in the 11th grade passed the portion testing English skills.

Sadly, the chances that Schwarzenegger will sign the bill are slim -- despite the fact that it has the support of the California School Boards Assn., representing 95% of the state's school boards, as well as the Assn. of California School Administrators, representing 16,000 school superintendents, principals and other administrators. Both groups say educational materials available to help English learners are woefully inadequate. The new textbooks would integrate basic English-language instruction into every lesson and would be fully aligned with curriculum and testing standards.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 15 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Textbooks: In a commentary Wednesday about a pending bill for textbooks for English learners, Sherry Skelly Griffith of the Assn. of California School Administrators was incorrectly identified as Shelly Griffith.

Shelly Griffith of the administrators association says her members see an urgent need for new textbooks that would enable early-stage English learners to "keep up with grade-level subject matter, even as they are improving their command of English." She emphasizes that individual school districts could choose whether they want to use the textbooks.

But the bill may well be vetoed because of an old political debate about bilingual education that has nothing to do with this measure. Ron Unz, who led the 1998 initiative campaign that eliminated most bilingual instruction from California's public schools, recently told the Los Angeles Times that he suspected the Escutia bill was a "backdoor" effort to bring back bilingual education. Some newspaper editorial boards have made similar claims.

It's true that Escutia is a well-known supporter of bilingual education, and her strong-arm political tactics have alienated many. But this bill has nothing to do with bilingual education. It calls for textbooks written in English for use in English-only classrooms.

If a school has a large number of English learners who are below grade-level in reading and writing, such textbooks may be advantageous. If a school has only a small number of limited-English students, it may choose to use this alternative curriculum in tandem with standard textbooks, giving the teachers more instructional tools to work with.

The other main criticism of the bill is that it might lead to English learners being segregated in classrooms where "they tend to get a dumbed-down, second-rate education," as The Times recently editorialized. This is not an unreasonable fear because many school districts serve disproportionately high numbers of English learners.

But it's pretty clear that the current situation is no better. When limited-English speakers are placed in classrooms where they cannot comprehend most of the instruction, it is de facto segregation. As Holly Jacobson of the California School Boards Assn. told me: "Many English learners have to sit through a big chunk of their day not understanding most of what is being taught."

The proposed books and materials are designed to give English learners the second-language instruction they are supposed to receive but often do not. Some kids do learn English through the sink-or-swim total-immersion approach, but too many struggle and fall behind.

Just ask Jane Schrenzel, an elementary school teacher in Laguna Hills. Last year, she taught a fifth-grade class that had close to 95% English learners. Many of her students were born in the U.S., but most were reading one to two levels below grade level. Five were recent immigrants who spoke no English. Just getting through one seven-page story in the state-approved textbook was challenging. "There are so many basic vocabulary words the kids just don't know," she said. "And the supplemental materials we have are extremely limited. It's very time consuming to modify all the time and scrape together the materials ourselves."

These textbooks may not be the magic bullet. But we would be giving teachers and school districts more and, we hope, better choices.

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