Are Latinx ELLs in Philadelphia Schools Not Learning English?

A recent report by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium focused on the education of ELLs in Philadelphia. One finding was particularly troubling. Only 43% of Spanish-speaking ELLs who entered kindergarten were reclassified as English proficient within 4 years. This compared to 64% of Khmer speakers, 68% of Arabic speakers, 72% of Vietnamese speakers and 79% of Chinese speakers. Is it really the case that Latinx ELLs in Philadelphia schools are not learning English? If so, what accounts for this? If not, what is really going on here?

Local report Avi Wolfman-Arent has just published an article that seeks to explore these questions. He concludes that another of factors contribute to these academic differences. I appreciate his nuanced analysis and would like to expand on some of my comments that were included as part of his story.

It is important to begin by considering what exactly is meant by English proficient in the context of the education of ELLs in Philadelphia schools. It does not mean the ability to communicate in English. The vast majority of ELLs who have been in Philadelphia schools for 4 years, regardless of their language background, are able to communicate in English. Indeed, many may even feel more comfortable using English, especially in academic settings. What schools typically mean by English proficient is that ELLs have demonstrated the ability to engage with grade-level content in English. In the case of Philadelphia this means scoring at least a 5 on the ACCESS for ELLs.

The ability to engage with grade-level content is a rigorous standard for being considered English proficient. The fact that non-Spanish speaking ELLs are more likely to achieve this goal than their Spanish-speaking peers suggests that the schools that these students attend are more successful at providing them access to the academic skills being targeted by the ACCESS for ELLs.

Why might certain schools be more successful than others at supporting ELLs in achieving these goals? It is likely because they are more successful at supporting the academic needs of all of their students. That is, schools where ELLs perform higher on the ACCESS for ELLs are also likely schools where the general student population perform higher on the PSSA. In a nutshell, these schools are relatively “high performing schools.”

What makes these school high performing? Here is where things get complicated. Though the curriculum and instruction are certainly important, many other factors also contribute to the academic performance levels of a school. These factors include the poverty rate of the student population, the qualification of the teachers and their years of experience and staff stability. All of these factors must be considered when trying to explain the achievement differences between ELLs of different language backgrounds.

Philadelphia is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Children from these different language backgrounds rarely live in the same neighborhoods and go to the same schools.  Latinx children are concentrated in North Philadelphia, an area of the city with a long history of poverty and segregation. Schools in this neighborhood confront the many consequences of poverty while often having the fewest resources to confront these challenges, the least experienced teachers and the highest turnover. In contrast, non-Spanish speaking ELLs are more likely to attend more integrated schools that are likely to have more experienced teachers and stable staffing. Considering these differences, it is not surprising to see academic differences between these groups of ELLs.

Of course curriculum and instruction also matter. A case in point can be found in the work of Maneka Brooks a researcher at Texas State University who has conducted research with Latinx “long-term English learners,” students who reach high school without ever testing out of their ELL status. She has found that these students are actually quite proficient in the language and literacy practices they are being socialized into in their classrooms. The problem is that these do not match the language and literacy demands of the assessments that are being used to determine their English language proficiency. There are many factors that might explain this disconnect including teacher expectations and school and district-level mandates that prescribe particular remedial interventions for this student population because of broader societal attitudes about their capability.

Yet, the quality of curriculum and instruction is more a symptom rather than the cause of the problem of education Latinx ELLs. In short, the achievement differences between Spanish-speaking ELLs and ELLs from other language backgrounds is not primarily a linguistic problem, but rather a political and economic problem. This means that the solutions cannot be primarily linguistic but must include political and economic reforms. As long as Latinx ELLs continue to be relegated high-poverty and hyper-segregated areas of the city they will continue to face academic challenges. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that massive efforts at integration will happen in Philadelphia anytime soon. That said, the mayor’s office push for community schools might provide a point of entry for beginning to push for schools in North Philadelphia that are part of broader comprehensive anti-poverty efforts to support Latinx families. Decreasing the poverty in North Philadelphia would work wonders for Latinx ELL performance on the ACCESS for ELLs.

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