When English Proficiency Isn't Enough

The Common Core requires more than basic comprehension.
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

COMPTON, Calif.—A large color photograph of an iceberg on display in teacher Angel Chavarin’s fourth-grade classroom at Laurel Street Elementary may not be the typical prop for a language arts lesson. But Chavarin is hoping visuals like this will help his students better understand the concept of inferences, which are, in effect, “the tip of the iceberg.”

Inferences are not an easy concept for young children to grasp, and it may be particularly difficult for the students of Laurel Street, where more than 60 percent of students are English learners.

But it’s a skill Chavarin knows his students need to master as California, along with 44 other states, transitions to the new Common Core State Standards. Created in 2010, the Common Core aims to prepare American students for college and careers by emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving. While the Common Core does not dictate a specific curriculum or reading list, it encourages language-arts teachers to expose students to challenging literature and nonfiction texts as well as sophisticated vocabulary. When writing and speaking in class, students are expected to present arguments and provide analysis backed by evidence, not opinion. Reading comprehension should include more than proof of recall; students need to demonstrate their ability to grasp big ideas as well as the nuanced inferences embedded in the text.

But some educators, including those enthusiastic about the Common Core, have publicly worried about the repercussions of raising the bar for groups of students who are already lagging behind, like those still learning English. They fear that the achievement gap between native speakers and English learners will widen, particularly in schools where teachers have little training and few resources. “Schools here have been working hard to address this issue for some time,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education. The Common Core “adds extra complexity. We’re worried that people will get overwhelmed.”

The number of English learners has grown by about 50 percent nationally since the late 1990s, and currently accounts for about 10 percent of all American students. The proportion of English learners is on the rise in most states, and national projections indicate that by 2030, 40 percent of the K-12 population will be English learners. Whether schools can successfully take on this challenge is likely to be a key measure of success for the Common Core.

California is home to far more English learners than any other state. “Three quarters of the districts here are trying to serve English learners,” said Amber Banks, who is researching a report on Common Core and English Learners for the nonprofit Education Trust.

Among the schools likely to rise to this challenge is Laurel Street Elementary in west Compton. Laurel Street has an enviable reputation for academic achievement with both English learners and low-income students. Despite years of state budget cuts and rising class sizes, 83 percent of Laurel Street K-fifth grade students scored at the proficient or higher level on a recent state language-arts exam, and 91 percent scored that high on the state math test.

Teachers at Laurel Street are well aware that those state tests are about to be replaced with new and more ambitious tests pegged to the Common Core. “Some English learners survived those tests just by knowing the basics,” said third-grade team leader Alejandra Monroy. “The Common Core tests will go beyond that. Students will need to apply what they’ve learned to new situations. They will need to show that they understand the material on a higher level.”

To prepare for these changes, Laurel Street’s teachers have been strategizing for months, trying to identify effective ways to incorporate the new goals into their school day without losing any of the ground they’ve gained in recent years. They agreed to let a reporter follow their transition to the Common Core over the school year.

To build on their successes, teachers have begun creating lesson plans that aim to preserve the best of the old approach while weaving in the best of the new. On a recent Thursday, third-grade teacher Monroy tried out a new writing lesson with the Common Core in mind. Taking a break from the fiction they’d been reading, she asked the students to turn their attention to two nonfiction texts on the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s.

The students discussed the articles, paragraph by paragraph, as Monroy encouraged them to use the new vocabulary words in full sentences, first in small groups and then in all-class discussions. “English language learners have to work through the four domains when they learn something—listening and speaking, reading and writing—in order to retain the information,” she said. “I used to go through readings faster. I didn’t spend the time I’m spending now, but I can see that all the students understand the information better when we take more time to talk about it.”

Next she gave them a writing assignment: an essay about the causes, effects and consequences of the eruption. Monroy had the students plot out the beginning, middle and end of the essay with the help of an organizing tool they call a  “thinking map” that Laurel Street students use starting in kindergarten. The essay prompt includes “academic language,” sophisticated words, like “deduce,” “quotes” and “transitions” that young children don’t typically use on the playground but are crucial for school success. As they start work, Monroy reminds them that any examples they use in their essay have to be backed up by the facts found in the texts. “I wouldn’t have done that in the past,” said Monroy. “I’m doing that because the Common Core wants them to cite the evidence.” An unexpected plus to this approach, she said, is that it prompts students “to use their new words immediately in sentences that make sense,” adding that repetition is one of the keys to mastery for English learners.

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Pat Wingert is an education reporter based in Washington, D.C.

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