This New York Times story about a high school in Virginia and its program for ESOL students is incredibly detailed and illuminating, but really, really buries the nut graf. So you don’t have to read the entire thing (although I would recommend it), here it is, with some commentary after the jump:
Hylton’s program has become a source of pride for helping immigrant students succeed in school, but also a target of criticism that segregated classes have handicapped students by isolating them and “dumbing down” the curriculum.
“High schools have to make a pragmatic choice when it comes to these kids,” said Peter B. Bedford, a history teacher who supports the program. “Are you going to focus on educating them, or socially integrating them?”
“This school has made the choice to focus on education,” he added. “The best tools we can give them to function in this society are their diplomas.”
But Amy Weiler, an assistant principal, worried whether the program had turned high school into more of an end than a beginning. “If you ask whether our program is successful at getting our students to pass tests, the data would indicate that it is,” Ms. Weiler said. “But if you ask whether we are helping our students to assimilate, there’s no data to answer that question.”
“My fear,” she added, “is that if we take a look at where our ESOL students are 10 years from now, we’re going to be disappointed.”
Studies suggest that English learners in separate, so-called sheltered classrooms perform better in school than do the majority of their peers who are immersed in the mainstream with little or no language support. There has been no systematic tracking, however, of English learners beyond graduation to determine whether schools are leveling playing fields or perpetuating the inequalities of a stratified society.
Some students, of course, successfully climb into the middle class and beyond, as generations of immigrants before them have. But Hispanic college graduation rates — 16 percent of 25- to 29-year-old Hispanics born in the United States hold a college degree, compared with 34 percent of whites and 62 percent of Asian-Americans — suggest that many recent immigrants and their children are not going to college.
The story basically indicates the program teaches to the test even more than most other schools do and then gets at one of the fundamental problems of teaching to the test: it leaves kids unprepared for college, where professors have no test to teach to and aren’t going to go out of their way to hold the hands of any student in their 200-person lecture.
What I know about urban schools indicates they do a lot more teaching to the test than my suburban high school did.* Basically, kids know what they need to pass the test, but they don’t really know the material and have to go through remedial education when they get to college. This, I think, is probably a major reason for the racial graduation gap, both in Maryland and nationally.
University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan explained this pretty well in a recent Diamondback article:
But Kirwan said the problem may be out of universities’ hands. He said often the problems that lead to students dropping out of college have their roots at the K-12 level – national high school graduation rates have fallen from 77 percent in 1972 to 67 percent today – or lie with state-controlled standards that are inconsistent across the country.
“There’s a huge gap between the material students learn in high school and what they are expected to know when they start college, and as a result, colleges across the country are spending too much time on remedial education,” Kirwan said.
*At Wilmington, we basically would take on practice MCAS test a month before the actual test, and then go over test-taking strategies the day before, but non-college prep courses may have done things differently.