Full disclosure: My wife is a bilingual teacher and my children grew up speaking English and Spanish. But you don’t need those factors in your life to have a vested interest in how well the school program commonly known as ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages – is faring in this country, state and community.
Latinos are now the largest minority in the US. Florida’s population growth today is driven largely by Latinos. And Latinos make up almost two-thirds of Miami-Dade County’s residents.
A quarter million Florida youths, a tenth of the state’s public school students, are enrolled in ESOL. The program accounts for a fifth of Miami-Dade’s public school pupils – and more than 25 percent when you include the system’s ESOL adults.
There are certainly Florida schools, like Miami’s Coral Way K-8 Bilingual Center, where ESOL is exemplary. But as a new academic year gets underway – and as classrooms face the more rigorous Common Core standards – there are nagging signs that too many Florida ESOL students are slipping behind. Or as El Nuevo Herald education writer Daniel Shoer Roth recently put it, an “alarm has sounded” among educators across the peninsula.
By a number of measures, Florida’s ESOL report card is in fact worrisome. Last year only 9 percent of ESOL 10th graders passed the state’s standardized English reading test; only 7 percent of ESOL fourth graders are English proficient, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that many Orange County high schoolers refer to themselves as ESOL “lifers” because it’s taking them so long to pass the standardized tests and graduate.
As a result, a growing chorus of voices are calling on state officials to both revise and re-prioritize ESOL. Among the key flaws they point to: a lack of individual school accountability for ESOL performance, inadequate teacher training and a requirement that students take Florida’s standardized English exams after just one year of ESOL instruction – something Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, himself an ESOL alumnus, calls “not reasonable.”
“Overlooked and underserved, behind target, disorganized,” says Rosa Castro Feinberg, head of the Florida education committee for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), about the state’s ESOL system. “The people in the state Department of Education responsible for ESOL students are good, decent and hard-working,” she adds, “but they are few in number, and there is too much going on for them to be able to handle it in an efficient way.”
Officials insist they’re implementing the recent reform directives of a state task force and “pushing to ensure that these students are getting the services they deserve,” says Mary Jane Tappen, the education department’s deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction and student services. She notes, for example, that the state is making sure ESOL teachers get every bit of Common Core preparation that teachers of native English speaker students are receiving.
Still, Castro Feinberg points out that a lot of state officials and legislators would still like to cut ESOL teacher training hours in half. And while the state says it’s bound by federal guidelines when it comes to the rule that standardized exams be taken after only a year of ESOL instruction, ESOL advocates insist that Washington’s fine print allows Florida to relax it. Either way, both sides agree that the task force at least came up with one means of alleviating that pressure on ESOL students: a weighted or curved grading system.
But the larger issue is how well states like Florida – or New York, California and Texas, which are struggling with their own ESOL issues -- are addressing the Latino demographic boom. One big bright spot is a rise over the past decade in Latino high school graduation rates, from 61 percent in 2006 to 71 percent today, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But that’s dampened by a Latino school dropout rate of more than 15 percent, the highest of any racial or ethnic group in the country.
ESOL is critical to reversing that crisis – and fixing that crisis is, in turn, socially and economically critical for Miami, Florida and the U.S. Says Viviana Hurtado, author of the popular Wise Latina Club blog and co-founder of Latinas for Latino Lit, which conducts a nationwide reading program for Latino youths: “The success of teaching these children English, and teaching them well, is going to be an absolute key to the rest of our country’s success.”
That’s a 21st-century reality. And you don’t have to be married to a bilingual teacher to know it.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.