Arlington Schools’ Non-Solution for English Learners

Arlington County, which has one of the most politically “progressive” school systems in Virginia, has reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to bolster support for students learning English, reports the Washington Post.

The column described systemic problems in the school system. English-as-a-Second-Language students are often taught below their grade level and grow frustrated and bored. As a specific example of dysfunctional education, columnist Theresa Vargas cites a 15-year-old girl who had spent three years in the school system but still didn’t know how to use an English-Spanish dictionary correctly.

Now for some context missing from the column… The problem is not a lack of money. Arlington County spent $19,323 per pupil in Fiscal 2017 compared to an average of $11,745 per pupil spent statewide that year, according to Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) data.

Neither is the problem a lack of commitment to “diversity and inclusion.” The Arlington County school system has an Office of Equity and Excellence, which…

works to create an equitable, hospitable, safe, and inclusive environment for students, families and staff. The goal of this work is to create culturally affirm spaces where openness, inclusiveness, respect, and appreciation for diversity of thought, values, cultures, learning styles, perceptions, and actions flourish.

Arlington schools hold an annual “Color of Leadership” conference “to empower middle school students of color with leadership skills and knowledge in an environment in which they feel supported, valued, seen, and heard.” Arlington also belongs to a Minority Student Achievement Network, has a special SAT/ACT test preparation program, and maintains a mentoring program for girls in middle school.

Neither is the problem a lack of political commitment to support immigrant families regardless of legal status. In September 2017 a press release expressed the school system’s “dismay” at Trump administration policies regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and affirmed, that the school system “does not require any information about the legal status for ANY of our students. … We believe that, morally and ethically, our mission is to serve ALL children in our community.”

Despite spending 64% more per pupil than schools statewide and despite supporting an equal opportunity bureaucracy, Arlington’s results for ESL students are only a hair better than results statewide.

ESL students in Arlington passed their English Reading Standards of Learning exams at a 61.4% rate compared to 59.3% for ESL students statewide, according to VDOE 2017-18 data.

For whatever reasons, the disparity in outcomes is more profound for Hispanic ESL students than ESL students of Asian ethnicity. The English Reading SOL pass rate for Hispanics in Arlington was 54.7%. The pass rate for Asian ESL students, by contrast, was significantly higher — 75.7%.

The English SOL pass rate for ESL students in Arlington County stays pretty consistent — in the low 60% range — from 3rd grade through 7th grade. Then it falls off a cliff in 8th grade to 43%. Girl ESL students consistently pass their English SOLs at a higher rate than boys. By 8th grade, the performance gap between ESL boys and girls reaches eight percentage points.

Arlington County and the Justice Department have worked out an agreement detailing what ESL children “are entitled to and what is in our collective interest to provide them,” writes Vargas.  Writes Vargas:

Under the agreement, Arlington, among other things, is required to: communicate with parents about program offerings and other essential information in a language they understand; adequately train middle school core content teachers of English Learner students so these students can meaningfully access grade-level curriculums: ensure English Learner students are timely and appropriately evaluated for special education services; and properly monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of its English Learner programs over time.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is not clear that any of the issues evident in the VDOE statistics cited above — the Hispanic/Asian achievement gap, the male/female achievement gap, or the drastic fall-off in 8th grade — will be addressed. One obvious solution — reallocating resources from administrators devoted to talking about “diversity and inclusion” to teachers in the classroom who are actually doing something about it — apparently is not in the cards.

Both Arlington County and the U.S. Justice Department are committed to social justice principles. If those principles misdiagnose the reasons why some groups under-perform others academically, the solutions are doomed to be irrelevant at best, and self-defeating at worst.

Here’s my prediction: The Arlington schools/Justice Department settlement will accomplish nothing. More money will be spent, more administrators will hold more meetings, more teachers will undergo training, more good intentions will be expressed…. And outcomes will not change.

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6 responses to “Arlington Schools’ Non-Solution for English Learners

  1. I suspect that any excellent and honest high school teacher, or group of them, could go into and observe personally, or by video, one of these failing classrooms for one class, and tell us why all of these kids so chronically fail.

    All these excellent and honest teachers would need would be the freedom to tell the truth, meaning that they would be given the assurance that they would be fully protected from the system and its administrators for telling the truth as to what the problem really is.

  2. Don’t hold your breath, Reed.

    • Great advice? Too many people are making to0 much money and enjoy far too many well paid but do nothing jobs to admit too, much less solve, the most obvious of problems and solutions. So those who can fix the problems acerbate them instead, while casting blame on everyone but the guilty, so as to keep their own gravy trains rolling down the tracks, while kids lives are ruined.

  3. I agree with Jim. It is discouraging that none of the “solutions” involved trying to find out whether the methods being used to teach needed improving.

    This may sound harsh, but it seems to me that, in our eagerness to help immigrants, we have diminished the need to learn English. In the past, immigrants needed to learn English in order to maneuver in society. Now, almost all forms and instructions have versions in at least Spanish and, often other languages as well. It is surprising that children are needing ESL lessons. In the past (I continue to sound like a throwback), TV was the great homogenizer. Children of immigrants learned English by watching TV. Now, most TV shows have subtitles in several languages and there are numerous cable shows in Spanish. Kids can watch cartoons in Spanish, rather than English.

    • There could be something to your speculation. For whatever reason, Spanish ESL students are having a much tougher time than other ESL students. If your native language is Farsi or Korean, you probably don’t have the TV-watching options that Spanish-speaking students do. You don’t have a choice — you have to learn English.

      • Likely learning English is cultural unacceptable in a society that is dominated by identity politics, including one identity cult that preaches the Hispanic reconquest of America.

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