Friday, May 24, 2019

The Commish and Me

Last Saturday I met NY State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the UFT Spring Conference. That's her on the left, UFT VP Evelyn de Jesus on the right, and Evelyn's ESL point person Katie K. looking very serious in the middle. I don't know who that tall guy is.

Whenever I get to meet education people from Albany, I talk Part 154, which has degraded education for ELLs and  frequently turned us, their teachers, into glorified school aides.

I told Elia we needed to fix it. She said yes, but we can't lower the standards. That was a pretty simple challenge. I told her I wanted to raise the standards. After all, Part 154, in conjunction with the outlandishly poor tests issued by the state, has lowered the standards so much they pretty much have to look up to see down.

I've written here and in the NY Daily News about the abysmal quality of state tests. Elia has to bear responsibility for this along with the Regents, who actually have the tests named after them. Of course they don't really write them. Instead, they pay thousands, hundreds of thousands, who knows how many dollars to have them written by "experts." You know, they call in a few teachers, but end up having them polished by psychometricians, who are much more qualified than we are. They're so qualified they write tests so crappy we couldn't even imagine them. Give me 90 minutes and I'll write a better test than either or both the NYSESLAT or the English Regents. 

The most recent iteration of Part 154 eliminates quite a bit of direct English instruction. At a minimum, it cuts 33% from beginners. For non-beginners, it can cut up to 100%. Elia told me that the state wanted all teachers familiar with strategies to reach ELLs. That's a great idea. I have no issue with that whatsoever. It's fine that the new CTLE requirements demand 15% of all PD relate to ELLs. It's not a bad idea to familiarize incoming teachers with language acquisition.

The issue I have is that, as far as I can tell, neither Elia nor the Regents have any familiarity with what language acquisition entails. One thing it requires, especially for older learners is time. Time is precisely what this iteration of Part 154 takes away from our students. This is because when we take 33% of direct English instruction from ELLs we replace it with nothing. When we take 100% of direct English instruction from ELLs, again, we replace it with nothing.

That's a matter of interpretation, of course. Here's mine--if you lose direct English instruction, it's replaced with a blended course, i.e., a social studies or English course taught by either a dually-certified teacher, or a subject teacher along with an ESL teacher. In theory, this class will combine subject matter and English instruction.

However, this class is given no more time than the class the ELL would have taken without the newer Part 154. So if it take 45 minutes to teach chapter 12 of To Kill a Mockingbird to native English speakers, it's supposed to take the same 45 minutes to teach it to ELLs. That's absurd, and you certainly don't need to be an expert to see why. There is no strategy to make English instantly comprehensible to people who don't yet understand it. There is no strategy to produce instant fluency.

When I teach ELLs, I spend a great deal of time on vocabulary. I have no idea how many PowerPoint and Keynote presentations I've written to introduce vocabulary. Here's something Albany doesn't know--it takes longer to teach vocabulary to people who know fewer words. I'd argue that's common sense, and I'd further argue that's something short supply in Albany. (Maybe something happens to you when you breathe in all those cement fumes.)

Let's go a little further. Not only do you need to learn the vocabulary, but you also need to learn how to use it. For example, you may be wearing a white shirt. In Spanish, though, you'd be wearing a shirt white, because they use adjectives differently than we do. In fact, they make adjectives plural. And then there are all those conventions. We usually tell stories in the past tense. There are all those irregular verbs. Does Albany expect us to teach them to integrated classes, wasting the time of students who already know them? Really?

Here's the thing--Albany is right that it's healthy to mix ELLs with native English speakers. They're right that kids will learn from their peers. But they are 100% wrong that the way to promote that is by killing direct English instruction. The fact is ELLs were already in those mixed classes before Albany allowed myopic, money-grubbing administrators to stop offering direct instruction. Albany has given ELLs absolutely nothing, and taken away their lifeline, sometimes the only classes they could actually follow and participate in.

In case you wonder why kids don't like school, it's frequently because they get the message school doesn't like them either. 
blog comments powered by Disqus