Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Closing the English achievement gap

The challenge in 2010 for our county’s public schools continues to be closing the achievement gap between most of our students and those students who are not yet proficient in English.

English learners perform about 30 percentage points lower than the average for all students in the county on state tests. Our English learners represent about 15 percent of the 34,700 students in our schools, and this number is increasing.

The consequence of not narrowing this gap is a colossal waste of personal, social and economic potential for the future of our community, state and nation. We simply cannot afford to have significant numbers of students who leave our schools, often dropping out, unprepared to be contributing citizens and economically competitive.

The good news for 2010, just like 2009, is that we know what works to substantially narrow this gap.

Quality teachers

The most important factor, hands down, in narrowing the achievement gap for English learners is the quality of the teachers who stand before our students daily. This is no surprise because the quality of teaching is also the most important factor for the success of all students.

Building and retaining a quality teaching staff requires a long-term, steady commitment to continuous training and improvement, quality time for planning and collaboration, supportive and knowledgeable leadership, reasonable working conditions such as low class sizes, access to current performance data and adequate materials and, yes, competitive compensation. Simplistic proposals for merit pay or evaluating teachers based on student test performance serve only to distract us from the real work of providing quality teachers for our students.

Quality assistance

English learners come with a variety of skills. Some are from bilingual and biliterate families and need limited assistance, some come from families where no English is spoken and need greater assistance and a few come from families whose literacy skills in their native language are low. We need targeted assistance based on each student’s circumstances. This means additional tutorial or small-group assistance under the guidance of skilled staff.

Quality preschool

The research is clear that young English learners benefit greatly from a quality preschool experience at ages three and four. Early English language development under the guidance of a skilled preschool teacher provides English learners with skills they need to enter kindergarten ready to learn rather than starting school already behind their peers. Georgia Brown Elementary School in Paso Robles and Oceano Elementary School in the Lucia Mar Unified School District are local examples of the power of quality preschool for English learners.

The bad news for 2010 is that our schools simply do not have the resources necessary to apply these solutions because our state legislators and governor continue to underinvest in public education. Even before the current recession, California was number 47 out of 50 states in per pupil expenditures.

We cannot attract and support quality teachers, principals or assistants, and we cannot offer quality preschool for all children. Our teachers and principals struggle admirably to make do with existing funds, knowing full well that we are not making the progress needed to narrow the achievement gap for English learners.

My wish for 2010 is for legislators and a governor who are committed to their moral obligation to invest in California’s future by investing in our children today.

Julian D. Crocker is the county superintendent of schools for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.

Editor’s note

This is the last in a series of perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that San Luis Obispo County will face in 2010.

We asked local experts to weigh in on a variety of areas — including government, the economy, the environment, social services and education — by offering some advice, along with their forecasts.

Today, county Superintendent of Schools Julian Crocker talks about the challenges facing local educators and students.