For students of English as a second language in Florida public schools the American Dream keeps fading away like a falling star.
Instead of fostering the progress of students who carry the heavy burden of adopting a new language and culture, state and local education policies have become an obstacle to their academic and professional future, jeopardizing their productivity as adults and the quality of life for the families they eventually create.
The alarm has sounded among Hispanic teachers and activists who fear that a majority of the 243,684 children in classes of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in the state — 67,842 in Miami-Dade County — will not qualify to graduate from high school or go to college.
In a meeting last week between a group of school superintendents and Florida’s Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, criticism resurfaced for the lack of action by educational authorities to improve accountability policies for these students who often require different learning approaches due to the difficulties inherent in schooling through a second language. This is all the more troubling since recommendations to improve the process were crafted more than a year ago by the former Education Commissioner’s Taskforce on Inclusion and Accountability.
Research has confirmed that it may take an ESOL student four to seven years not only to master the language for everyday purposes but also the academic version of the language needed for school success.
Yet in Florida, after only a year of having entered the school system, they are evaluated under the same criteria applied to their schoolmates who are native speakers of English. This means that results for ESOL students in middle and high school on state tests like the FCAT are disastrous, foreshadowing widespread academic failure and increased numbers of school dropouts.
A report presented in June to the Florida State Board of Education by Lydia Medrano, the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), reflects this sad trend. It affects the entire school community because it has an impact on the school’s rating and therefore on the funds they receive.
In 2012 barely 9 percent of ESOL 10th grade students passed the FCAT 2.0 for reading, a test that they must pass in order to graduate with a traditional diploma. Meanwhile, in eighth grade, only 17 percent had a passing grade on the FCAT 2.0 for math. This appalling performance will only get worse next year after more rigorous instruction and evaluation parameters, known as Common Core, become effective.
School districts fear that the new system will multiply the number of schools with an F School Report Card grade because they will not have had enough time or resources to help children reach the new goals.
A school grade is reached by combining test results and the learning gain curves, among other elements. Then a school’s performance is compared to that of other schools. In my opinion, this is not a reliable barometer to measure the quality of a school because demographic differences are not taken into account in the evaluation.
While the standards become stricter for students, the state plans to reduce its requirements for teachers to obtain ESOL and Reading Endorsements with a 50 percent reduction of the number of hours of training required for each credential. Authorities allege that it’s not a reduction but merely the elimination of duplication in the course content of the two teacher training programs.
Reading teachers benefit from the additional flexibility gained by also having an ESOL license and vice versa. The claim of duplication results from comparison of the new sets of teacher preparation courses.
But the option of obtaining a license under reduced requisites also will be offered to teachers who have never taken those courses. As a result, their preparation to help their students learn will be incomplete at the same time that their students need more help than ever.
This confluence of factors will result in an even lower academic performance for students and schools.
Florida not only fails Hispanic students in their secondary education who are not fluent in English.
These and other students also lack adequate opportunity to develop their Spanish, in part because authorities have not allocated more funds to expand bilingual and dual language education and, in Miami-Dade, Spanish classes dedicated exclusively for children whose first language is Spanish are actually disappearing.
The beauty of the language — and our identity — fades in the metropolitan region.
Moreover, the outlook has gotten complicated for those without a high school diploma hoping to follow the example of prior students who often managed to obtain high-school equivalence as adults through a GED test and certificate.
Late in June, Adult Education administrators participated in a conference held on the west coast of the peninsula. One of the hot topics was the reduction of enrollment in the ESOL and GED adult programs in Miami-Dade and in the rest of Florida after modifications in state law restricted the eligibility of candidates and raised registration costs.
Seeing doors to a promising future close on them, both young and adult ESOL students are left without the basic requirement to move up to higher education and the American Dream.
It is now up to Gov. Rick Scott and the members of the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus to change course before dragging our community down a cliff.