South of the ELL Border …

With all of the policy talk on AYP and teacher incentives and such issues, it is easy to see how we can lose sight of an enormously important issue facing school districts — English Language Learners.  Take a listen at any large urban school, and you’ll hear dozens of languages spoken.  And Spanish is leading the pack.

When Eduflack’s mother came to the United States at the age of 5, she didn’t know a word of English.  At the time, the response from the public schools in New Jersey was to hand her a paintbrush, point her to an easel, and let her draw until she started picking up enough English to handle the rigors of Sayreville Public Schools.

That approach may have worked then, but we all know it won’t work now.  In many classrooms, if we followed that approach, we’d need a few dozen easels, and only a couple of school desks.  So what is a school district, or a teacher, to do when faced with the challenges of teaching a growing Spanish-speaking population?

There’s an interesting answer coming out of Oregon.  Following efforts being pursued by school districts in Washington, California, and Texas, the Oregon Department of Education has sought out a unique solution to this growing problem.  Oregon is now working with Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, gaining the textbooks, Internet sites, and interactive materials developed by our neighbor to the South to teach math, science, and history to its Spanish speakers. 

The story is here, courtesy of the Associated Press.

Undoubtedly, some will have real problems with such an approach.  We hear we only need English-speaking classrooms, and anything else just grows the problem.  For these folks, the solution is more paintbrushes.

Our public schools, though, have an obligation to educate all students who come through their doors.  And if those schools can find a method to successfully teach their students the math and science skills they need to succeed in school, and are able to effectively measure such learning, they should pursue it.  And as we demonstrate effectiveness, we should be looking to replicate it in districts and schools that face similar student challenges.

No one is saying we give up on English language instruction.  That is a non-negotiable in our schools, even those where 100+ languages are being spoken.  But we can’t afford to wait for those skills to be mastered before we provide math, science, or social studies instruction.  It isn’t an either/or solution.  And the Oregon Department of Education recognizes that.

What does this approach say to the education reform community?  If we are going to have every student in our public schools achieving in the classroom, we need to explore multiple pathways, solutions, and ideas to get us there.  As we opine on best practices and modeling, we need to realize that those best practices are not limited to our schools of education or the lessons learned in the lower 48.

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