End the perverse incentive to keep kids in ELD

English Language Learners | 04/03/2014

Sue Levin
Executive Director

Just before spring break, I testified before members of the school funding task force. Now that our kids are settled back into the classroom and I'm settled back in at work, I can't help but return my thoughts to those who we're failing -- specifically the 51% of the 60,000 students learning English. It doesn't have to be that way, and I think you'll see why in my testimony:

As you know, there has been a rapid and dramatic increase in the number of children in Oregon schools who come from homes where English is not the first language. In the ten years from 1998-2008, Oregon’s ELL enrollment grew 120%. Today, there are 60,000 English Language Learners in Oregon schools--11% of total enrollment.

The achievement gap between ELL students and their native-English-speaking peers is breathtaking. In the 2011-12 school year alone:

  • Just 36% of ELL students met benchmark on 3rd grade OAKS reading tests, and just 38% met benchmark for math.
  • At the 8th grade level, only 9% of ELL students met benchmark for reading and 22% for math.
  • As measured by NAEP, Oregon’s achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers in reading is worse than national averages.
  • Oregon’s 4-year cohort graduation rate for ELL students was just 49%  -- compared to 70% for native speakers.

As you are also no doubt aware, Oregon’s school funding formula currently provides districts with an additional .5 funding weighting for ELL students.

The fact that academic results for Oregon’s ELLs are poor, stagnant, and worse than most other states creates an imperative to re-examine how we are funding and practicing ESL instruction in this state.

Unfortunately, the manner in which we connect funding to ELL status provides a perverse incentive for a school district to keep a student in an ELL program, or worse, financially rewards districts for students’ failure to progress. To frame it more generously, there is no reward to a district in which English Language Learners achieve English proficiency at an above average rate.

All of these problems are compounded by the fact that monitoring of how districts use ELL funding is minimal, especially compared to other categories of supplemental funding. This lack of transparency and accountability breeds community mistrust.

The perverse incentive is not news. We have known for years that this was an unintended negative consequence of the original funding formula. What is news is that we now have data that conclusively demonstrate that we are in fact paying for exactly what we don’t want.

The Oregon Department of Education recently released a report that looks at cohort graduation rates for Oregon’s English Language Learners. The report clearly shows that when English Language Learners exit ELL instruction programs before high school, they are academically successful. In fact, English Language Learners who exit ELL programs before entering high school graduate at higher rates than Oregon’s native speakers.

However, when those students don’t exit by high school, when they become long-term ELLs, their graduation rates plummet to below 50%.  And yet, we continue to provide a district an additional .5 weight for these long-term ELLs, for as many as there are and as long as they persist, without so much as questioning why students are not progressing.

The Tigard Tualatin School District, to its credit, recently reported to its school board that 14% of its English Language Learners have been in ELD instruction for at least 7 years. The district called that statistic ‘highly problematic’ and has undertaken a comprehensive, district-wide review of ELD program.

It is our hope that this committee will tackle the problem of the state’s funding of ELL instruction with a similar degree of transparency and urgency.

ODE’s data makes it clear that when we give children high quality English-language instruction in the early grades, the payoff as measured by high school graduation rates is enormous. 

It’s imperative for these children, and for the economic future of our state, that our school districts are focused on successfully exiting students from ELL programs in a timely fashion.  Modifying the school funding formula to align with this objective is absolutely critical public policy.

It’s time for Oregon to join the ranks of states that are improving academic outcomes for English Language learners. These students have proven that when we do our part, they will do theirs.


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