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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute (UC LMRI), is a multi-campus research unit of the University of California that was established in 1984, in response to the California Legislature's request that the University of California's Office of the President pursue "...knowledge applicable to educational policy and practice in the area of language minority students' academic achievement and knowledge," including their access to the University of California and other institutions of higher education.

Cover page of Promoting Academic Literacy Among Secondary English Language Learners: A Synthesis of Research and Practice

Promoting Academic Literacy Among Secondary English Language Learners: A Synthesis of Research and Practice


This report is a synthesis of research, challenges, and best practices in the education of secondary English Learners (ELs). It incorporates a summary of three days of presentations and discussions by key national experts in the spring of 2005, observations and findings from our own research, and key issues from the research literature. The report provides an overview of the most pressing issues facing schools in the instruction of secondary English Learners. It also includes the perspectives of people in the schools and in the classrooms who are attempting to meet these students’ needs, as well as individuals who have been grappling with the challenges from the world of policy. The report concludes with our recommendations for California education policy informed by all of the above: the challenges that secondary EL students and teachers face, the needs and limitations of teachers and schools in the state, and the best practices cited by both researchers and practitioners. Many recommendations were suggested. We have, however, attempted to highlight just a few that we consider to be the most immediately actionable. A list of participants in the conferences is included in the Appendix.

Cover page of The High Schools English Learners Need

The High Schools English Learners Need


Despite the best efforts of thousands of dedicated people, California’s secondary schools are failing to adequately educate the majority of the state’s English language learners (ELs). The purpose of this paper is to present a vision for high schools that will promote greater success for these students. This vision is based on Norm Gold’s 30 years of experience in the field with teachers and administrators responsible for educating English learners and immigrant students.1 In his words, “This experience leaves me with a growing sense that the problems in EL education are escalating. High schools do not work well for most of these students, and California must take definitive, comprehensive, and long-term action to change this situation now.”

Cover page of The Feasibility of Developing a California Education Longitudinal Study

The Feasibility of Developing a California Education Longitudinal Study


This paper explores the feasibility of collecting longitudinal survey data on students within California schools as a way of supplementing the information California currently collects on its students. Hopefully, this paper will be the start of a process that will lead to the institution of what we in this paper tentatively call the California Education Longitudinal Study (CELS). After demonstrating the feasibility of a CELS during a briefing with policymakers in Sacramento on April 27, 2001 (see Appendix B), my presumption is that California will either contract with other outside consultants familiar with data collection operations or use current state government staff to develop a full written design of CELS. This design should lead, in turn, to either an in- house data collection or a data collection by a survey research firm familiar with large-scale longitudinal surveys.

Cover page of The Redesignation Dilemma: Challenges and Choices in Fostering Meaningful Accountability for English Learners

The Redesignation Dilemma: Challenges and Choices in Fostering Meaningful Accountability for English Learners


This policy report focuses on the tensions and dilemmas surrounding one of the most common milestones used for defining and measuring English Learners’ (ELs) progress: their redesignation or reclassification from limited to fluent English proficient (FEP). Although reclassification can have important consequences for students and for the education programs that serve them—determining instructional services, performance expectations, and evaluative judgments of programs—the concept of reclassification, as currently defined and implemented, cannot credibly carry this responsibility. In fact, it may actually be contributing to educational inequity, lack of accountability, and student failure.

After briefly reviewing the purposes and methods of identifying, classifying, and serving language-minority students, the report identifies three problems with the current situation. First, the complex nature of what ELs must demonstrate in order to be reclassified FEP is often poorly understood by policymakers, by educators not trained to serve this population, and by much of the general public. In school contexts, FEP is expected to connote sufficient mastery of several basic and academic language skills, and also requires meeting academic achievement standards in grade-level subject matter using English. While the latter is a necessary expectation, the consequences are significant: The common misconception that EL students only need to learn English and their academic achievement will naturally follow can hamper appropriate and timely support for them.

Second, reclassification policies and procedures in many schools and districts are inadequate. Chief among the concerns examined are using standardized, norm-referenced academic achievement tests (NRTs) to “trigger” reclassification reviews. Apart from the validity issues of testing language-minority students with NRTs designed for and normed on largely monolingual English-speaking populations, using NRTs to trigger reviews can easily lead to confusion and misinterpretation about the causes of low performance and impede timely, appropriate interventions. In addition, the multiple measures used to assess the various criteria for redesignation are not administered, recorded, or reviewed regularly. Many of these measures are labor-intensive and time-consuming, and those that are not standards-based yield little of value to inform instruction. Also, most school and district databases are not currently set up to store and use these data.

Third, the methods currently used to calculate reclassification rates from EL to FEP— one of the most commonly referenced statistics in assessing effectiveness of a district or school in serving English Learners—greatly distort the reality of student progress and program effectiveness, thereby diminishing accountability. The report recommends a number of strategies to improve the current situation. Among these, it argues that, beginning long before and continuing long after reclassification, a much longer trajectory of progress — in academic language development and in access to and achievement in the academic core —must be monitored, reported, and acted upon. The implications for how educators assess language-minority students, collect and analyze data, and use them to target and improve instruction are significant; so too are the responsibilities of policymakers to ensure that adequate financial, human, and technical resources are provided to improve accountability for the success of EL students.

The number of English Learners in the nation’s K-12 student population has grown exponentially in recent decades, especially in states such as California, Texas, Florida and New York. Coinciding with this growth has been increased efforts to hold educators at all levels more accountable for students’ academic achievement, resulting in the most significant inclusion ever of English Learners (ELs) in both local and state assessment and accountability systems. Thus, monitoring the progress of English Learners has never been more important. The most common milestone of educational progress has been their redesignation or reclassification from an official status of English Learner (EL) or limited English proficient (LEP) to one of fluent English proficient (FEP).(1)

This change in status may have important consequences for students and for the education programs that serve them. For students, a classification as EL or FEP can affect what instructional services they receive, the curriculum to which they have access, how they are assessed, and the academic performance standards to which they are held. For educators, a student’s classification should help inform how they work with and assess that student. For programs, classifications affect resource allocation, and reclassification rates influence the degree to which they are judged as effective or not. However, the concept of reclassification, as currently defined and implemented, cannot credibly carry this responsibility. In fact, it may actually be contributing to educational inequity, lack of accountability, and student failure. This policy report attempts to show why.

This report begins with a brief review of the origins, purposes, and methods of identifying language-minority students and classifying some as ELs. Next, it examines several key issues that generate the tensions and dilemmas regarding reclassification. Finally, it draws some conclusions about what is needed to improve the current situation.

While this report offers no easy solutions to the problems it identifies, it does attempt to provide state and local administrators and policymakers with some guidance for reviewing their current reclassification policies and procedures. Its ultimate aim is to stimulate reflection and discussion about options for building a more coherent system to better ensure academic success for English Learners and accountability for the programs that serve them.


(1) This report uses the terms English Learner (EL) as well as Limited English Proficient (LEP) since both terms are still used interchangeably by educators, in school and district documents, and in the professional literature; also, the latter term parallels other commonly used terms (e.g., FEP).

Cover page of The Schooling of English Learners

The Schooling of English Learners


An increasing number of students entering California’s schools come from non-English speaking backgrounds. Although some of these language minority students enter school already proficient in English, the majority do not. These students are now referred to as English learners.

There are several reasons why Californians need to pay careful attention to the schooling of language minority students in their public schools. First, language minority students now constitute more than one-third of all students in California’s schools—a proportion that will grow even higher in the future. Clearly, the success of California’s students and schools will increasingly depend on the state’s ability to successfully educate language minority students.

Second, English learners require a specialized curriculum and properly trained teachers to support their development of English literacy. Complicating matters is the fact that these students, even as they learn English, must also have access to the rest of the required academic curriculum if they are to keep pace with their English-speaking cohorts.

Third, the education of English learners has been highly politicized. Controversy centers around the use of native language instruction—whether it is better to first develop the native language literacy of English learners and provide initial academic content through bilingual education or, on the other hand, to simply immerse them in English and provide initial academic content through simplified English instruction. While existing evidence generally supports the bilingual approach, the research is hotly debated and far from conclusive regarding which general approach makes more sense for which students and under what conditions. At the same time, there is a growing political movement in many states to mandate, through voter initiatives, English-only instruction. In June 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, an initiative that greatly restricted the use of bilingual education.

Cover page of The Initial Impact of Proposition 227 on the Instruction of English Learners

The Initial Impact of Proposition 227 on the Instruction of English Learners


In June 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which severely restricted the use of primary language for instructing English learners, and instead called for a transitional program of “structured English immersion” that was not normally to last more than one year. What has been the initial impact of Proposition 227?

During the first year of implementation a team of University of California researchers studied the effects of Proposition 227 in 16 districts and 25 schools throughout the state. The researchers interviewed district administrators, principals, teachers, and bilingual coordinators and observed classrooms. This study has yielded several important insights into the early implementation and impact of Proposition 227.

First, statewide, 29 percent of English learners were in a primary language program prior to 227, and only 12 percent were assigned to one after the implementation of 227. Across the districts and schools we studied, there was wide diversity of responses. Districts with a history of extensive primary language programs and significant numbers of certified bilingual staff were more likely to continue these programs than were districts and schools with weaker primary language programs and inadequate numbers of certified bilingual staff. Where strong leadership was exercised at the top of the district, either in providing parents with information about alternative options to structured English immersion classes, or in urging principals to discontinue primary language instruction, schools followed suit. However, where district leadership was less prescriptive, the decisions fell to principals, creating a diversity of responses within the district. In both situations, some teachers exercised considerable autonomy in interpreting district and school directives, resulting in a diversity of instructional strategies within the same school.

Second, in the initial months of implementation, there was considerable confusion across the state about the role of the district and the schools in informing parents of their rights to seek waivers from the structured English immersion program provided under the provisions of Proposition 227. Statewide, only 67 percent of districts formally notified parents of this option. Some districts interpreted the initiative as barring any proactive dissemination of waiver information while others considered it their duty under the law to provide parents with information about their program options. Schools and districts that facilitated access to information about the waiver option were more likely to continue to provide primary language instruction for significant numbers of students.

Third, what teachers chose to do in their own classrooms in the post-227 period depended to a great extent on what they had done prior to 227, and on their own skills, experience, and beliefs about students’ learning. However, it was rare to encounter a teacher who contended that his or her instruction and class organization had not been affected. Teachers who were certified and experienced in bilingual instruction were more likely to continue to provide some level of primary language support for their students, although this varied greatly depending on the climate in their schools. These teachers were careful to keep primary language support within the strict confines of providing instruction “overwhelmingly in English,” as defined by their district. Although many teachers who taught in waivered classrooms, using bilingual methods, contended that their teaching had not changed significantly, they worried that they would be required to change their practice in the future. And many experienced bilingual teachers who were no longer in bilingual classrooms reported feeling frustrated by not being able to use the full range of skills they possessed to instruct their English learners.

Cover page of How Long Does It Take English Learners to Attain Proficiency

How Long Does It Take English Learners to Attain Proficiency


One of the most commonly asked questions about the education of language minority students is how long they need special services, such as English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) and bilingual education. Under the U. S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Act in Lau v. Nichols (1974), local school districts and states have an obligation to provide appropriate services to limited-English-proficient students (in California now referred to as EL or English learner students), but policy makers have long debated setting time limits for students to receive such services. The purpose of this paper is to pull together findings that directly address this question.

This study reports on data from four different school districts to draw conclusions on how long it takes students to develop oral and academic English proficiency. Academic English proficiency refers to the ability to use language in academic contexts, which is particularly important for long-term success in school. Two of the data sets are from two school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other two are based on summary data from reports by researchers in Canada. The data were used to analyze various forms of English proficiency as a function of length of exposure to English. The clear conclusion emerging from these data sets is that even in two California districts that are considered the most successful in teaching English to LEP students, oral proficiency takes 3 to 5 years to develop, and academic English proficiency can take 4 to 7 years. The data from the two school districts in Canada offer corroboration. Indeed, these estimates of the time it takes may be underestimates, because only students who remained the same district since kindergarten were included. While critics of bilingual education have claimed that use of the native language delays the acquisition of English (a claim that is without foundation in the academic literature on bilingualism), it is worth noting that only one of the three districts offered bilingual education. The analysis also revealed continuing and widening gap between EL students and native English speakers. The gap illustrates the daunting task facing these students, who not only have to acquire oral and academic English, but also have to keep pace with native English speakers, who continue to develop their language skills. It may simply not be possible, within the constraints of the time available in regular formal school hours, to offer efficient instruction that would enable the EL students to catch up with the rest.

Alternatives such as special summer and after-school programs may be needed. The results suggest that policies that assume rapid acquisition of English – the extreme case being Proposition 227 that explicitly calls for “sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year” – are wildly unrealistic.

A much more sensible policy would be one that sets aside the entire spectrum of the elementary grades as the realistic range within which English acquisition is accomplished, and plans a balanced curriculum that pays attention not just to English, but to the full array of academic needs of the students.

Cover page of Review of the Research on Instruction of Limited English Proficient Students: A Report to the California Legislature

Review of the Research on Instruction of Limited English Proficient Students: A Report to the California Legislature


The following report was written at the request of the Latino Caucus of the California Legislature and was completed in April of 1997 as the debate surrounding Proposition 227 was getting underway. The impetus for the report was the concern of the caucus that much of the rhetoric in the press and on the street was that "bilingual education had failed." The Caucus asked the question, "Is there research evidence that bilingual education works?" Hence, the task that was put to us was "not" to provide an accounting of studies and essays on all sides of the issue, but to essentially "present the case" for bilingual education.

We called upon many of the most distinguished researchers in the field and asked them to provide guidance in answering the question that had been posed to us. (Their names are listed at the end of the report). This report represents a synthesis of their recommendations along with some analysis of basic education data. Our essential conclusion is that while no single program is best for all children under all circumstances, a well-implemented bilingual program can provide outcomes "at least" as positive as a well- implemented English only program, and has the added advantage of potentially providing students with a second language --a considerable asset. It is only fair to note that had we been challenged to provide all sides of the debate, our conclusions would not have differed greatly, given that they are based on a considered analysis of the best empirical data we have been able to locate in the literature.