Teaching the English Learners

Last week I posted a map showing the wide variability between school districts in the rate at which economically disadvantaged students passed the Standards of Learning (SOL) for English reading. By comparing students from comparable socio-economic backgrounds, I suggested that that some schools do a better job of teaching disadvantaged students than others. But any conclusions were preliminary because any analysis, it can be argued, needs to be adjusted for such factors as, say, spending per pupil, concentrations of poverty, or the prevalence of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students in the school districts.

As follow-up, I present the map above showing the wide variability in the rate at which ESL students pass the English reading SOLs. School districts with the highest pass rates out-perform the schools with the lowest pass rates by a two-to-one margin.

Again, this data, drawn from the Virginia Department of Education, is consistent with the notion that some school systems do a better job than others. But it’s important not to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions. I can think of a number of reasons that might explain the variability. School districts that teach English learners from multiple ethnic backgrounds may be more difficult to teach than ESLs who all speak the same language, such as Spanish. Some schools might have higher concentrations of ESLs than others. Schools might vary in the percentage of ESL students who come from disadvantaged households.

Bacon’s bottom line: Think of this data as a starting point for asking more probing questions.

Cry for help! I’m using Datawrapper software, but I can’t get the map to display the name of the locality or the numerical value when the cursor moves over the locality. Online tutorials don’t help. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong. If someone out there knows how to use Datawrapper, please help!

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


17 responses to “Teaching the English Learners”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is GOOD! Kudos! Also – your bigger, better-funded districts can afford highly level/better qualified/more competent instructors… even have a multi-person staff such that the loss of one is not the fail than if there was one instructor – which is the case for many of the smaller and poorer school districts.

    A very similar thing happens when teaching ordinary low-income, at-risk kids where the skill of the instructor and the number of skilled instructors can dramatically affect results.

    When you don’t have adequate competent staff – it shows in the results.

    So that’s something you can also show if they have the data and that is how many years of experience for the instructors. I bet there is a significant correlation.

    It’s a competition. If Fairfax will pay you 70K versus 30K in Clarke – guess what it’s reflected in the data. Would you call the newbie earning 30K in Clarke – a “bad” teacher because the SOLs are bad?

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    And again, we’re looking at county level data and if you did the comparison for all schools – you’d find that even within a single school district – there will be school-level differences in the SOLS and the reason is that districts will have staffs with different years of experience…and competency and the district makes decisions about which schools get the higher qualified instructors and which schools get the lower/less experienced newbies.

    So – now that you have the tool – how about running numbers for multi-school districts to see what the “spread” is? My suspects are than in places like Fairfax and Henrico – there are individual schools that score lower and perhaps on par with some of the lower scoring school districts in Va.

    1. I’d like to run the numbers on a county by county basis, but it’s very tedious and time consuming. I’ll give it a shot if I can the chance.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Jim, you very likely will find no meaningful difference (absent large extenuating external circumstances) except in those public schools with large amounts dual language learners that also are buttressed by privately operated after school programs that supplement and often overcome shortfalls in public school learning. These programs can be quite elaborate, and deploy a variety of strategies and tactics, as I discussed at length here in a comment to an earlier post.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Yesterday, I sat down with a “master teacher” (John) of 40 years experience in teaching 8th and 10th graders English in private (college prep) schools in Wash. DC region – places like St. Albans, Sidwell Friends, National Cathedral, Holton-Arms, Georgetown Prep, Landon, Bullis, and Potomac schools.

          This master teacher, now semi-retired, for the first time tutors public school 11th graders whose parents have hired him to prepare their kids for college level work. John does not teach to kids to pass tests. He has no interest whatsoever in that. What he does is teach kids who are willing to work hard to learn how to read and write at the college level.

          Hence, beyond their ability to pay his tutoring fees by the hour, John has one hard and fast condition before he agrees to tutor a kid. The kids he tutors must convince him that they want (are truly motivated) to learn to read and write at the college level. John makes that judgement at the first session. There is no second session if he determines the kid is now willing to work hard to learn to read and write at the college level. This is all that John does, nothing more or less, so he refuses to take people’s money on a fool’s errand. Hence the kids are self – selecting.

          So, given this, I asked John to describe the typical public school 11th grader that he tutors. Here are his answers.

          The typical public school kid he tutors arrives at his doorstep struggling to read at the 8th grade level (as defined by the private schools he earlier taught it.)

          “What does that mean,” I asked.

          John answered, ” the boy cannot identify the nouns and the verbs, and clauses, their rolls and functions, in complex sentences. For example, how the word “play” can be used in alternate rolls. The idea of a “Participle”, or a subordinate clause, is totally foreign to him, so quite beyond his easy reach. Hence he struggles reading an 8th grade novel such as Shane. An he lacks all confidence needed for true literacy.”

          “Why are these kids so incompetent?” I asked.

          “What is obvious to me is that no one bothered to bring these kids to the 11th grade level of reading and writing until they ran into me,” John said.

          “How can you be so sure,” I asked.

          “Because, almost without fail, I can bring these kids most assuredly well on their way up the 11th grade level within a month or two, to the point of reading and comprehending well novels like the Great Gatsby. But remember” he said, “these are not your severely disadvantaged kids. Just your normal everyday public school kids who, along with their parents, want them to learn, and understand by the 11th grade the importance of their learning to read and write for college. But all this is very rewarding for me. I feel like I am saving kids who could easily otherwise be lost.”

          1. Fascinating story!

            When you say “public school kids,” are these suburban Maryland public school kids or inner-city kids? Or a mix of both?

          2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Jim –

            These kids would best be described as generally middle class suburban kids in a school district ranked in the upper third of the state in terms of school safety, student diversity, and teacher quality. I’ll have more to say on the story later today as time permits.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        You may well be able to better illustrate just by ADDING columns to what you have that better show other factors at the school systems you do show LIKE the overall percentage of free-reduced on a county basis…

        Showing the AVERAGE SOL scores at the county level also does not really show the difference between the higher schools and the lower schools. A scatter chart or a histogram would better show that and give a much better picture of why Poquoson does so well and Clark County does so bad – BEYOND the idea that they have mostly “good” or “bad” teachers or parents, etc. At the end of the day it’s very hard to believe that a WHOLE school system has mostly bad or good teachers or that the kids come from mostly good or bad parents. There are other much more relevant factors that in play and we just don’t see that with data snapshots.

      3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        There was another interesting aspect of this conversation that I failed to mention. At one point I asked John if he had any idea why no one in these public schools had “bothered to bring these kids he tutored to the 11th grade level of reading and writing …”

        He would not comment further on the schools of his students. But he did relay the story of a long time former college prep school teaching colleague. Some years ago the guy had retired to a small but thriving and attractive city in the deep south. His wife had been born and raised there. Once settled in, his former colleague missed teaching so much that he volunteered to teach at his local public school, in the sense that he was paid the salary of a 1st year teacher, without credit for his 40 year long experience teaching at one of the best private schools in the nation.

        The local public school was a fine facility physically in all respects. But, once in the classroom, although he liked the kids, knew they had good potential to learn, and while he also respected his fellow teachers in the school, John’s former colleague knew within a week that he had made a mistake, and described problem this way. The great majority of kids in his classroom were “chronically distracted and distractable.” And as a teacher in that school, “I was not empowered, or given the tools, in the classroom to insist upon, and maintain my students’ attention on, learning. Nor was I given the time to really teach. I had to spend so much time trying to maintain order and quiet as if a hall or playground monitor, I had not the time to not teach my students, only police them. The problem was prevalent throughout the school. Most kids simply had stopped serious learning, and most serious teaching fell by the wayside. I resigned as soon as a replacement could be found, and took up tutoring with success.” This is paraphrasing the conversation, but it is close.

  3. Inthemiddle Avatar

    You might want to include Alexandria in your study. We’re an upper income district, in the top five in expenditure per student, with a lower income student body, half of the students receiving subsidized meals. Despite the high expenditure per student, Hispanic students score lower than the average for Hispanic students statewide.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    The premise is that when low-income kids are concentrated in neighborhood schools – it’s similar to concentrating the poor in “projects” and when there are so many in the classrooms that it’s hard to attract well-qualified instructors who can and do choose better situations to have a career.

    Several school systems including one of the largest consolidated systems in the country – Wake County NC (Raleigh) are setting up attendance zones based not only on geography but socio-economic status so to minimize the number of low income at any one school.

    There is push back. This may well fail or end up a work in progress but the essential point is that they DO recognize that when schools are organized around neighborhoods – and neighborhoods become stratified due to socio-economic demographics… that you end up with these schools that are overwhelmingly populated by low-income kids from broken families and economically distressed homes.

    And MY POINT here is that if we look at SOL/test data on a county basis – that that problem is hidden by “averaging” in school districts with multiple schools. It’s much less a problem in smaller systems where there really are no “neighborhood” schools but if you go to places like Henrico and even Fairfax and Alexandria – this is what you’re going to see.

    Then we also have places like Richmond and Lynchburg – core cities where the poor are stranded and the more prosperous flee to the suburbs so you’ll see schools on the boundaries like those in Henrico that mirror the Richmond city school problems.

    So – the bigger point is – is that if we really want to address these issues – we have to truly understand the data and we cannot look at the data in a way that hides or misrepresents what is really happening. Actually trying to fix the problem as Wake County is – is even more difficult because many folks buy their homes SPECIFICALLY near a “good” school if they can and they are not happy when their kid gets sent to a farther school. It’s a powerful force and affects elections of both school boards and BOS.

    But if we do not deal with the realities and continue to “believe” what we want to believe – then we’re not serious about what we say want to see happen. We make excuses and affix blame but won’t actually and seriously seek to address the problems.

    I congratulate Jim for moving on the data side of things. That’s much much better than blaming parents, teachers, and race and the like.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry – I think you are ignoring the fact that both the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia provide extra funding for low-income students. Some localities add even more money. Society is addressing these problems.

      What should we do? Hire private tutors for kids whose parents are here illegally?

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    @TMT – that funding is not being spent on the actual problems – effectively. It’s either not enough or it’s not being allocated to where the need is.

    Yes..I’d support non-public schools and tutors if the public schools cannot get the job done AND those private sector approaches can. I support solutions – not ideology and not blind and ignorant criticism.

    Here’s another point.

    If Fairfax and Henrico are both multi-school systems with some schools doing very well and others doing terrible – to what would you attribute this? Do you think Fairfax and Henrico are getting funds for this purpose and squandering it? If you look across Virginia in the multi-school districts and you see similar issues where there are in the same district “good” schools and “bad” schools – would you then think that – across Virginia, we have bad school administrators that are all getting additional funds and they are all squandering those funds such that we have this systemic problem – with almost every school district in Va having the same problems with “bad” schools – even though they also have good schools in the same district?

    what say you?

    I say this is a systemic problem that is associated with socio-economic factors that even with extra funding is not fixed by that extra funding – alone. It’s widespread. You can see it in almost every multi-school district in Virginia.

    So what do you do? You can blame anyone and everyone if you want but that won’t fix it. Do you just walk away?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Of course, taxpayers can never pay enough and government can never spend enough.

      How much of the problem comes from the fact that people are coming to this country who are illiterate in their own language – either Spanish or an indigenous language. Import poverty. It’s the way to prosperity!

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s not about not enough taxes and not enough spending. It’s about spending effectively.

    If the problem was ONLY about kids with English as a second language – you might have a point – about immigration – but it’s part of a bigger problem that includes native born Americans who live in families in economic distress and do not learn the way that kids of parents in better economic circumstances do.

    I do not think we need to “help” these kids because I feel sorry for them. They’re gonna grow up and they’re either going to join us as taxpayers or we’re gonna be paying for them in one way or the other.

    Folks might resent the choices – and sometimes I don’t blame them – but at the end of the day – why would we be so stupid?

    So yes.. you could make the SAME argument about taxes and spending on ANY expenditure, police and crime or taxes and VDOT and congestion… etc.. Taxes and spending have never promised nor delivered nirvana… and never will but that’s not an acceptable excuse to bail from the job. Anyone who thinks they’re supposed to get nirvana/utopia from their taxes probably also believes there are unicorns prancing in their garage…

    The simple fact that some schools DO succeed at that mission tells us that it CAN be accomplished. and that’s reason enough to not quit.

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    When I was a kid – now quite a few years ago – we all heard the message “You have a responsibility to learn” over and over again. I don’t think school administrators and many teachers pound that into kids’ heads much anymore. I guess some progressives think it’s blaming the victim.

    A contract requires performance from both parties. This includes a social contract between taxpayers, educators, students and parents. Much of what we see today is a contract that requires performance from taxpayers and many teachers. When only one side performs, the contract is breached and no longer binds anyone. How much longer do we have to pay more for people who will not discipline themselves to learn?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      TMT –

      Your insight is important.

      You say: ‘When I was a kid – now quite a few years ago – we all heard the message “You have a responsibility to learn” over and over again. I don’t think school administrators and many teachers pound that into kids’ heads much anymore. I guess some progressives think it’s blaming the victim. A contract requires performance from both parties. This includes a social contract between taxpayers, educators, students and parents.”

      I suggest that “progressives” not only break that sacred contract you mention, they replace it with a new contract that they make with the devil.

      How do they do this?

      They do it in TWO ways, each designed to work evil in tandem:

      First, the progressive ideologue twists the definition of “privilege” in ways they design to destroy those who work to achieve exceptional things of great value, things they have earned and built through their own exceptional skill and hard work as individuals. Whether it be a profitable business, or work of art or literature in the western cannon, today’s progressive ideologue, working out of hate or envy, say: “you didn’t build that, or what you did accomplish has no value as it actively oppresses others, the aggrieved. Thus your work, if you are a white male for example, is ill gotten goods gained through privilege, exploitation, and quest for power over others. So you and your identity, culture, and work, you and all of it, must be destroyed.

      Second, the progressive ideologue says that those who refuse to work and achieve within western civilization, do so because they have been aggrieved and oppressed by those who bring great credit and success to themselves, and society generally, within western civilization. This gives those who refuse to work or succeed the great scapegoat they so desperately need to escape their own responsibility. Hence the more successful western civilization is the more wealth and creatively it brings to the people of the world, the more it must be destroyed by reason of its success.

      Why do the progressive ideologues preach these lies to our youth, and engage in these destructive activities that tear our society apart? That is simple. They want power and control and wealth for themselves, at the expense of everyone else. It’s fascism in drag.

      These twin evils – how progressives define “privilege” and “grievance” – must be destroyed before they destroy western civilization. And we must go about that work without apology, or excuse making, if our children are to have a fair chance of inheriting from us anything of true and lasting value.

Leave a Reply