Seeking Equity in the Education of California's English Learners

by Russell W. Rumberger & Patricia Gándara - 2004

The article provides an abridged version of a report prepared for the lawsuit, Williams v. State of California. The report first examines the achievement gap for English learners in California. Second, it reviews evidence in seven areas in which these students receive a substantially inequitable education vis-ŕ-vis their English-speaking peers, even when those peers are similarly economically disadvantaged. Third, it documents the state's role in creating and perpetuating existing inequities. Finally, it describes a series of remedies that the state could pursue to reduce these inequities.

The article provides an abridged version of a report prepared for the lawsuit, Williams v. State of California. The report first examines the achievement gap for English learners in California. Second, it reviews evidence in seven areas in which these students receive a substantially inequitable education vis-à-vis their English-speaking peers, even when those peers are similarly economically disadvantaged. Third, it documents the state’s role in creating and perpetuating existing inequities. Finally, it describes a series of remedies that the state could pursue to reduce these inequities.

Forty percent of California’s public school children speak a language other than English and 25% are identified as English learners, meaning they are not proficient in English (California Department of Education, 2003). California is home to one-third of the nation’s 4.4 million English learners, more than three-quarters of whom are Spanish-speaking (Kindler, 2002). Despite their large numbers and a widespread recognition of their special educational needs, California has largely failed both to monitor the educational opportunities of English learners and, more importantly, to guarantee that English learners have the appropriate teachers, curriculum, instruction, assessment, support services, and general learning conditions they need to successfully meet the high academic standards the state has set for all its students. Moreover, even when the state has become aware of specific substandard learning conditions for English learners, it has failed to act effectively to correct these problems. In other ways—such as the ill-planned class size reduction program and the poorly articulated implementation of Proposition 227— the state has worsened the learning conditions for these students.

This article provides a brief summary of the larger report prepared for the lawsuit, Williams v. State of California, which provides extensive support for these claims (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003; Gándara, Rumberger, Maxwell-Jolly, & Callahan, 2003).i The report first examines the achievement gap for English learners in California. Second, it reviews evidence in seven areas in which these students receive a substantially inequitable education vis-à-vis their English-speaking peers, even when those peers are similarly economically disadvantaged. Third, it documents the state’s role in creating and perpetuating existing inequities. Finally, it describes a series of remedies that the state could pursue to reduce these inequities.


Data from a variety of sources reveal that the academic achievement of English learners lags considerably behind the achievement of English background students. We examined the achievement of English learners using a number of different measures and data sets. Although we disagree with the state’s decision to administer and use English only tests with students who do not speak sufficient English to understand them, we analyzed the achievement of English learners vis-à-vis their English-speaking peers using these same test scores, as they are routinely reported as accountability measures in the state.

Rather than simply examine achievement differences at one point in time, we examined differences in achievement growth over time. Gauging the educational progress of English learners over time is complicated by the fact that, as English learners become proficient in English, they are reclassified as Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP). Failing to account for the reclassified English learner students can create the mistaken impression that English learners are performing more poorly as a group than they actually are. In order to address this problem Parrish and his colleagues (2002) compared English-only students with a weighted average of current English learners and former English learners who were reclassified as Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP). They examined changes in reading scale scoresii between the years 1998 and 2001 using the Stanford Achievement Test, Version 9 (SAT9) —a national, norm-referenced, English-only achievement testiii—for three cohorts of students:iv (1) a cohort of students who were enrolled in Grade 2 in 1998, Grade 3 in 1999, Grade 4 in 2000, and Grade 5 in 2001; (2) a cohort of students who were enrolled in Grade 4 in 1998, Grade 5 in 1999, Grade 6 in 2000, and Grade 7 in 2001; and (3) a cohort of students who were enrolled in Grade 8 in 1998, Grade 9 in 1999, Grade 10 in 2000, and Grade 11 in 2001. To compare nonoverlapping cohorts, we replaced the second cohort with one that began when students were enrolled in Grade 5 in 1998. Thus, this analysis is both more accurate and a fairer test of these students’ improvement in educational achievement over time.


The results, illustrated in Figure 1, show a sizeable achievement gap between English-only students and current/former English learners. Both groups show more achievement growth in the early years than in the later years, which reflect the increasing difficulty of learning higher levels of more academic English (Scarcella & Rumberger, 2000). The data show a slight narrowing of the achievement gap across all three cohorts, as Parrish et al. (2002) note in their evaluation study (page III–15). For example, the achievement level of English-only students in the Grade 2 cohort improved from 581 points in Grade 2 to 658 points in Grade 5, an increase of 77 points, while the achievement level of English learners and former English learners improved 80 points. As a result, this achievement gap narrowed by 3 points. Among all three cohorts and three subjects (reading, language, and math), the 227 evaluation team found that the achievement gap narrowed by 1 to 8 points (Parrish et al., 2002, Exhibits 10, 13, 16).

It is interesting to note, however, that the greatest achievement growth for the Grade 2 cohorts occurred in schools that offered bilingual instruction before Proposition 227 or continued to offer bilingual instruction after Proposition 227 (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Figure 3). In addition, the slight narrowing of the achievement gap between English only and EL and former EL students noted above was due to reductions in the achievement gap in those two types of schools, while in schools that never offered bilingual education, there was no reduction in the achievement gap.

Despite these minor improvements, the achievement gap is sizeable at all grade levels and puts English learners further and further behind their English-only counterparts. In Grade 5, for example, when many students have completed elementary school, the left-most horizontal line in Figure 1 shows that current and former English learners are reading at the same level as English-only students between Grades 3 and 4, a gap of about 1.5 years. By Grade 8, when most students have completed middle school, the next horizontal line shows that current and former English learners are reading at the same level as English-only students in Grade 6, a gap of about 2 years. By Grade 11, the right-most horizontal line shows that current and former English learners are reading at the same level as English-only students between Grades 6 and 7, a gap of about 4.5 years. This is especially striking given that many of the poorest scoring English learners have already dropped out of school by the 11th grade.v Although the increase in the achievement gap across grades can be attributed to the fact that average test score performance gets closer together in the higher grades, nonetheless, the average performance of English learners at the end of secondary school never exceeds that of English-only students at the beginning of secondary school.

Other data show similar patterns. Beginning in 2006, all students in the state must pass the California High School Exit Exam (CHSEE), a standards-based, criterion referenced test. Although the need for improving the education provided by California’s high schools is undeniable, there is early evidence that the CHSEE presents exceptionally high stakes for English learners. After two opportunities to pass the CHSEE, only 19% of English learners from the graduating class of 2004 had passed, compared to 48% of all students (California Department of Education, 2002, Attachment 1).vi

One reason for the underachievement of English learners is that they begin school significantly behind their English-speaking peers. Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) show that about half of California kindergartners from English speaking backgrounds scored above the 50th percentile in fall assessments of language, mathematics, and general knowledge, whereas no more than 17% of kindergartners from non- English speaking backgrounds scored above the 50th percentile (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Figure 4). Many English learners begin school without a sufficient understanding of oral English that English background students acquire naturally in their home environment and this clearly affects their test scores. According to the ECLS data, more than 60% of English learners who entered California kindergartens in the fall of 1998 did not understand English well enough to be assessed in English.vii And even after 1 year of school, 38% of the students were still not proficient enough in English to be assessed accurately.

Not only do English learners begin school considerably behind their English background peers, their low test scores make them more likely to be placed in remedial education, even though such a placement is unlikely to help students close the educational gap with their mainstream peers because the pace of instruction is slower and the curriculum to which they are exposed is often impoverished (Gottlieb, Alter, Gottlieb, & Wishner, 1994; Skirtic, 1991).


The achievement gap between English learners and their English-only counterparts can be attributed, in part, to seven inequitable conditions that affect their opportunities to learn.


English learners require teachers with specialized training. The current state of the art of teaching EL students employs three central methodologies for English learner instruction. The first strategy, specially designed academic instruction in English (SDAIE), is defined as ‘‘a set of systematic instructional strategies designed to make grade-level and advanced academic curriculum comprehensible to English learners with intermediate English language proficiency’’ (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 2001, p. 2). A second means of teaching EL students is through their primary language. Although the principle goal is to provide access to the core curriculum, in reality, this involves a continuum of strategies, from using the student’s primary language solely for clarification of concepts presented in English to actually providing academic instruction in the primary language. A third strategy is English language development (ELD). It is ‘‘systematic’’ instruction of English language that is designed to (1) promote the acquisition of English–listening, speaking and reading and writing skills—by students whose primary language is other than English, and (2) provide English language skills at a level that will enable equitable access to the core curriculum for English learners once they are presented with academic content (California Teacher Commission, 2001, p. 3). This second goal is often referred to as the ‘‘catch up’’ strategy: once students have sufficient command of English, the assumption is that they will be able to catch up to their English-only peers with respect to mastery of academic content.


English learners in California are more likely than any other children to be taught by teachers who are not fully credentialed. Whereas 14 percent of teachers statewide were not fully credentialed in 2001–02, 25 percent of teachers of ELs were not fully certified (Rumberger, 2002). Figure 2, based on data from two years earlier, shows that as the concentration of ELs in a California school increased, so too did the percentage of teachers without full credentials. In as much as Figure 2 holds poverty constant, we would expect to see a flat line if the discrepancy in credentialed teachers were purely a function of poverty. These data show that English learners are significantly less likely to have a fully credentialed teacher than other low-income non-EL students.

In the larger report, we demonstrate that the shortage of qualified teachers was largely a problem of uneven distribution of qualified teachers among California’s schools and classrooms. By examining statewide data on California teachers for the year 1999–2000, we found that there are actually more fully authorized EL teachers in the state per EL student than there are fully credentialed (non-EL) teachers per non-EL student. But when we examined the distribution of teachers by schools, we found that more than 390,000 English learners in California—one out of every four—attended a school with fewer than half the state average of teachers with specialized authorizations to teach them. As a result, many English learners are taught by unqualified teachers. Data from the 2000 Class Size Reduction (CSR) teacher survey reveal that only 53% of all English learners enrolled in Grades 1–4 in California in the 1999–2000 school year were taught by a teacher with any specialized training to teach them (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 4).viii Ironically, a study of California’s costly class size reduction effort found that schools with the most English learners benefited the least from class-size reduction, at least in terms of access to fully credentialed teachers (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2002).

There is reason for the concern about the low percentage of teachers who are well prepared to teach English learners. An increasingly large body of research has established that teachers with good professional preparation make a difference in students’ learning (Darling-Hammond, 2002; Haycock, 1998; Sanders & Horn, 1995; Sanders & Rivers, 1996). At the same time that EL students are less likely than others to have a qualified teacher, the challenges associated with teaching them are even greater than for the typical student. The large number of English learners who are immigrants frequently come from circumstances in which their early lives and education have been disrupted by war, loss or estrangement of family members, poverty, and residential mobility (Ruiz de Velasco & Fix, 2000; Olsen, 1997). As such, teachers must know how to intervene educationally with students whose personal and educational backgrounds are significantly different from the mainstream English-speaking student. Moreover, the age and grade placements of these students in U.S. schools often do not match their skill levels because of varying educational experiences in their countries of origin (Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000).

Many newly certified teachers report that they do not have sufficient training to work with English learners and their families. For example, one fourth of the 1999–2000 graduates of teacher credential programs in the California State University system reported that they felt they were only ‘‘somewhat prepared’’ or ‘‘not at all prepared’’ to teach English learners (California State University, Office of the Chancellor, 2002).ix In another study, 23% of teachers of English learners who held CLAD credentials reported that they had a hard time communicating with parents of English learners about their children’s educational progress and needs (Table 9). In yet another study, one that investigated of the implementation of Proposition 227 in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), researchers noted that the largest concern reported by non-English speaking parents was lack of communication with teachers (Hayes, Salazar, & Vuckovic, 2002).


The instructional demands placed on teachers of English learners are intense. Teachers must provide instruction in English language development while simultaneously or sequentially attempting to ensure access to the core curriculum. Yet, in the state of California they have been provided very little support for these activities. Data collected for the State Department of Education’s Class Size Reduction Study (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2000) show that even where teachers are teaching a majority of English learners, the professional development they receive that is dedicated to helping them instruct these students is minimal. The percentage of professional development time that teachers reported focusing on the instruction of English learners in 1999–2000 was about 7%, and even for teachers with more than 50% English learners in their classrooms it was only 10% (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 12).

These data are corroborated by several other recent studies. Hayes and Salazar (2001), in their study of 177 classrooms in the LAUSD, noted that teachers discussed ‘‘the problematic lack of resources and training to assist them to provide quality services to ELLs " (p. 23). A report on the results of a California Department of Education survey of every California school district during the first year of Proposition 227 implementation showed that professional development to help teachers with English learner instruction was one of the most significant unmet needs in the aftermath of the passage of the proposition (California Department of Education, 1999). The later, more ambitious, CDE-sponsored study of the implementation of Proposition 227 being conducted by American Institutes for Research (AIR; Parrish et al., 2001, 2002) likewise reports a similar theme emerging from their investigation. The study documents a significant lack of guidance from the state about the nature of the instruction that should occur in the Structured English Immersion classrooms. Parrish et al. (2001) note ‘‘teachers were not provided appropriate materials or guidance on how to use materials appropriately’’ (p. 36). Again, in the most recent report of this 5-year study, the researchers concluded that ‘‘Barriers to the implementation of the Proposition include insufficient guidance for implementing regulations in the law; confusion over what the law requires and allows; and lack of a clear operational definition for the various instructional approaches for EL students. In particular, educators lack clarity on what constitutes best practice within structured English immersion instruction’’ (Parrish, et al., 2002, p. ix).

The state funded the University of California to provide professional development for teachers through Professional Development Institutes (CPDIs). This is not the only professional development activity in the state; in fact, many districts sponsor extensive professional development programs, but it is the largest state-wide effort, with more than 45,000 teachers participating in these workshops in 2000–01. In that same year, a total of $50,866,000 was provided for this purpose. Of this amount, only $8,358,104 was earmarked for professional development in the area of English Language Development (University of California Office of the President, 2002). This constituted about 16% of the professional development budget, although English learners constitute fully 25% of the students in the state and are arguably the most educationally disadvantaged of all students. The AIR study of the implementation of Proposition 227 in California found that only 18% of the teachers in their sample had even heard of the ELD CPDIs, and only 8% had attended one or more (AIR, 2002, pp. IV–40), suggesting that relatively little is being done to disseminate information about resources that may be available to teachers of English learners.


While English learners must be incorporated into the state’s accountability system in order to ensure that their educational needs are being met, the current system is of little value for monitoring their academic progress. The reason is that the only measures of achievement for English learners are tests administered in English.

The current state accountability practice for English learners is as follows:

● All EL students in Grades 2–11 must take both a nationally normreferenced test that measures general subject matter knowledge and a standards-based achievement test aligned to California’s grade-level content standards administered in English unless parents or a guardian provides a written request for a waiver;

● English learners who have been in the district for 12 months or more may not use nonstandard accommodations (e.g., using a parallel form of the same test content in the native language, translating directions, using word lists or dictionaries--see National Research Council, 1999, p. 218) unless they have individualized education plans (IEPs) or other exemptions that allow accommodations;x

● Test scores for English learners who have been in a district for less than one year (except for entering ninth graders in high school districts as of 2000) are excluded from the Academic Performance Index (API), which is used to measure each school’s performance and to reward and sanction schools;xi

● Spanish-speaking English language learners who had been enrolled in California public schools less than 12 months when testing began [are] required to take the SABE/2 in addition to taking the English-based tests, even though the results are not used to judge student or school performance;xii

● Finally, beginning in 2006 English learners and other students with exceptional needs must pass the California High School Exit Exam to receive a high school diploma, despite that many such students are never taught the curriculum on which it is based (Wise et al., 2002).

According to several research and professional organizations, testing students in a language in which they are not yet proficient is both invalid and unethical. According to the National Academy of Sciences, ‘‘when students are not proficient in the language of the assessment (English), their scores on a test in English will not accurately reflect their knowledge of the subject being assessed’’ (National Research Council, 1999, p. 214). Therefore such assessments provide neither accurate data for accountability purposes, nor do they help teachers to enhance their instruction. These tests can, moreover, have serious negative effects on the schooling of English learners in at least two ways: (1) positive changes in test scores over time can give the inaccurate impression that students have gained subject matter knowledge when, in fact, they may have simply gained proficiency in English. This misperception that EL students are making academic progress can lead schools to continue providing a curriculum that fails to emphasize comprehensible subject matter; (2) on the other hand, consistently low scores on tests can lead educators to believe that students need remedial or even special education, when in fact, they may have mastered the curriculum in another language, but are unable to express these competencies through an English language test. As the National Research Council noted, ‘‘if a student is not proficient in the language of the test, her performance is likely to be affected by construct-irrelevant variance—that is, her test score is likely to underestimate her knowledge of the subject being tested’’ (NRC, 1999, p. 225).

The exclusive reliance on an English-language norm-referenced achievement test for EL students is not only inappropriate for these students,xiii it violates several standards established by the authoritative AERA/APA/ NCME, Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Research on second language acquisition shows that it takes English learners on average between four to seven years to meet various standards of English proficiency (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000; Thomas & Collier, 2002). The burden is on the state to demonstrate that test scores for English learners who have been in the United States for less than four years are valid, yet the state has not made any attempt to obtain information to shed light on this question.xiv The only cautionary statement by the CDE on the interpretation of standardized test scores appears on a web page and says: ‘‘Since the Stanford 9 norming sample was representative of the United States as a whole, it does not necessarily match California’s student population.’’xv Since the test scores are reported with respect to the national percentile rank (NPR), failure to issue an explicit warning with respect to Hispanics and to English learners is a clear violation of this standard.


There is a significant body of research that shows a clear relationship between increased time engaged in academic tasks and increased achievement;xvi however, there are many ways in which English learners experience less time on academic tasks than other students:

First, with the passage of Proposition 227, English learners who enroll in a California school for the first time must remain in a structured English immersion program for at least 30 days before being assigned to a permanent classroom. In a recent study of schools implementing the proposition, many teachers complained that they did not know what to do with students during this interim period and that a great deal of instructional time was lost trying to accommodate students who would not be continuing on in the same classroom. Particularly where parents had sought a waiver to have their child attend a bilingual classroom, teachers reported not knowing how to instruct these students. They lacked the necessary curricula and materials for the 30 days of all-English instruction before they began what would be their bilingual program for the remainder of the school year (Gándara et al., 2000).

Second, a common way that elementary schools organize instruction for English learners is to take them out of their regular classes for English language development. This strategy has been demonstrated to create further inequities in the education of ‘‘pulled out’’ students because they miss the regular classroom instruction (Cornell, 1995; Fleishman & Hopstock, 1993; Anstrom, 1997). Nevertheless, the practice continues to be relatively routine for English learners. There is generally no opportunity for students to acquire the instruction they have missed during the pull out period (Lucas, 1997; Ovando & Collier, 1998).

Third, as we elaborate later, English learners attending secondary schools are often assigned to multiple periods of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes while other students are taking a full complement of academic courses. When not enough courses are available, students are often given shortened day schedules, resulting in significantly less time devoted to academic instruction (Olsen, 1997).

Fourth, classrooms with large numbers of English learners also have fewer assistants in them to help the teacher provide individualized time for the students (see Table 1). While the district is apt to provide more bilingual aide time for classrooms with high percentages of English learners, there is significantly less time spent in these classrooms by parents or other adults. The result is that classrooms with no or few English learners enjoy a lower student-to-adult ratio, which means that they will receive more individualized instructional attention, exacerbating the gaps in instruction and achievement outcomes between English learners and English speakers. While it is not necessarily the school’s or the district’s ‘‘fault’’ that some schools enjoy more parent participation, it is a fact that must be considered in distributing resources among schools. Furthermore, bilingual teachers are often provided much less paraprofessional assistance than their non-bilingual colleagues who are seen as being in greater need of such support. In the view of many bilingual teachers this constitutes ‘‘penalizing’’ the most prepared teachers, and their students, for their extra expertise.

Finally, English learners are also more likely to be assigned to Concept 6 year round schools—a schedule in which students attend school for only 163 days per year, instead of the 180 mandated by state law.xvii English learners comprise fully half of the students assigned to Concept 6 schools (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 14). Students on the Concept 6 calendar attend school for 4 months twice a year, with two month breaks in between. This provides English learners less time to assimilate critical academic material and to be exposed to English language models. Just as important, however, is the loss of learning that occurs with a 2-month breaks in school every 4 months. A significant body of research has now established that low income children (and English learners) are more disadvantaged by these lengthy breaks from school than middle income children, and that there is a demonstrably negative effect on their achievement (Cooper et al., 1996). Thus, the very students who need the most exposure to schooling, to English language models, and to opportunities to ‘‘catch up’’ to their English speaking peers are more likely to be assigned to school calendars that provide them with fewer school days than other students and less exposure to English in a school setting.



All students need appropriate instructional materials, but English learners need additional materials in two areas. First, all English learners need developmentally appropriate texts and curriculum to learn English and to master English Language Development standards. Second, English learners receiving primary language instruction need appropriate texts and curriculum in their native language. However, the evidence suggests that many are not gaining access to such materials. In the second year report of the AIR study, researchers reported that 75% of the teachers surveyed said they ‘‘use the same textbooks for my English learner and English-only students’’ and fewer than half (46%) reported using any supplementary materials for EL students (Parrish et al., 2002, pp. IV–34). This raises the question of how much EL students can be expected to learn without materials adapted to their linguistic needs. It is not particularly surprising then that only 41% of teachers reported they are ‘‘able to cover as much material with EL students as with EO students’’ (Parrish et al., 2002, pp. IV–35). There is ample evidence in the research literature that when students cover less material than their peers, their skills decline relative to other students and they are prone to be placed in low academic groupings or tracks where educational opportunities are limited (Barr & Dreeben, 1983; Oakes, 1985; Gamoran, 1992; Goodlad, 1984).

The quality of instructional materials appears to differ by concentration of English learners in the school as well. Data from a statewide survey of California teachersxviii show that teachers with high percentages of English learners are less likely than teachers with low percentages of English learners to have access to appropriate textbooks and instructional materials, in general, and materials needed by English learners in particular. Almost half of teachers with high percentages of English learners reported that the textbooks and instructional materials at their schools were only fair or poor compared to 29% of teachers with low percentages of English learners (Table 2). Teachers with high percentages of English learners were also almost twice as likely as teachers with low percentages of English learners to report that the availability of computers and other technology was only fair or poor. Moreover, almost two-thirds of teachers with high percentages of ELs in their classes reported not enough or no reading materials in the home language of their children, and more than one quarter reported that they did not have any or enough reading materials at students’ reading levels in English.


In addition to inadequate instructional materials, English learners are often shortchanged because of the lack of appropriate course offerings in their schools. In secondary schools, for example, English learners are often assigned to multiple periods of ESL or ELD classes while other students are taking a full complement of academic courses. Commonly, when not enough courses are available in either SDAIE or other formats, students are given shortened day schedules (Olsen, 1997). We investigated this issue further by selecting a random sample of transcripts of secondary English learners from two different northern California districts. We found many instances where secondary English learners, even those with college preparatory coursework in their countries of origin, were assigned to nonacademic and remedial courses, and shortened days in their high schools. Because the state does not effectively monitor the quality of instruction that English learners receive, or the amount of time they spend in Structured English Immersion settings, we do not know to what extent the educational services provided for these students meet high standards of quality. We can guess at this figure, given the large number of unprepared teachers who teach them. It is worth noting, however, that more than 82,000 English learners in California receive no special instruction whatsoever.

The persistent and pervasive inequities in access to well-prepared teachers, school resources and facilities, appropriate assessment and time to accomplish learning goals result in large and growing gaps in achievement for English learners vis-à-vis their English speaking peers, and ultimately for some misplacement into special education classes. In the consent decree resulting from the Diana v. California State Board of Education (U. S. D. C., ND, Cal. 1970), a class action suit on behalf of English learners inappropriately placed in special education, the state agreed to address this problem. Thirty years hence the state of California has still not acted to implement the consent decree with respect to the development of appropriate assessment for English learners that could stem the over diagnosis and placement of these students in special education. Nor does California keep reliable data on the numbers of EL students in special education. A recent study based on data from eleven school districts and over 700,000 students in the Los Angeles area for the 1998–1999 school year found that ‘‘ELs are over-represented in special education, particularly in specific learning disabilities (SLD) and language and speech impairment classes (SLI), especially at the secondary grade level where language support is minimal’’ (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2002). As was the case with the 1982 report by the National Academy of Sciences (Heller, Holtzman & Messick, 1982), the study found that where few, if any, primary language support services are offered, special education misdiagnosis and misplacement occurs at higher rates. Placement in special education, especially when it is not warranted, can have devastating effects on students’ access to opportunities later in life. Evidence has existed for years documenting the massive rates of high school non-completion, underemployment, poverty, and adult marginalization of special education students after they leave high school (Guy, Hasazi, & Johnson, 1999). Placed in a special education track, it is unlikely for students to rejoin the mainstream. Robert Peckham, the presiding judge for the Diana case, summarized the evidence on the effectiveness of California’s special education program, calling it a ‘‘dead-end educational program’’ (Crawford v. Honig, 1988).


Teachers of English learners are more apt than teachers of English speakers to respond that they do not have facilities that are conducive to teaching and learning. In the Harris survey close to half of teachers in schools with higher percentages of English learners reported the physical facilities at their schools were only fair or poor, compared to 26% of teachers in schools with low percentages of English learners (Table 3). Teachers in schools with high percentages of English learners were 50% more likely to report bathrooms that were not clean and open throughout the day and to have seen evidence of cockroaches, rats, or mice.

ECLS data show the same picture with regard to facilities. More than a third of principals in schools with higher concentrations of English learners reported that their classrooms were never or often not adequate, compared to 8% of principals with low concentration of EL students (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 19).xix

In addition to poor facilities, schools with high concentrations of English learners have poorer working conditions for teachers, such as more overcrowded classrooms, less parental involvement, and more neighborhood crime (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 10). Given the opportunity, teachers will relocate to schools with more favorable working conditions. In fact, recent research suggests that working conditions influence teachers’ decisions about where to teach more than salaries (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2001; Loeb & Page, 2000).



English learners are highly segregated among California’s schools and classrooms. While most schools have some English learners, the vast majority of these students attend a relatively small percentage of public schools. Thus, English learners are much more likely than their English-only peers to attend schools with large concentrations of EL students. As shown in Table 4, whereas 25% of all students in California attend elementary schools in which a majority of the students are English learners, 55% of all English learners are enrolled in such schools. Although middle and high schools do have such high concentrations of English learners, English learners are nonetheless more likely to attend such schools. Thus, the distribution of English learners across schools is uneven and these students tend to be clustered in a relatively small percentage of schools. English learners are even more concentrated at the classroom level. Data from a representative sample of California teachers in Grades 1–4 in 2000 show that almost two-thirds of English learners attended classrooms in which more than 50% of their fellow students were English learners (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 21).

The concentration of California English learners in classrooms and schools compromises their opportunity to receive an education that is comparable in quality and scope to that of their English background peers because: (1) the lack of peer English language models limits the development of English, (2) the lack of models of children who are achieving at high or even moderate levels inhibits academic achievement, (3) the inequitable environmental conditions and resources of segregated classrooms and schools, and (4) the lack of highly qualified, experienced, teachers in these particular classrooms depress learning.


The first two sources of inequity stem directly from the segregation itself—English learners are more likely to attend classes and schools surrounded by other students who are not proficient in English and less likely to be surrounded by peers who excel in school. The first condition hurts English learners’ ability to become proficient in English because research has shown that the composition (relative numbers of English-language learners and fluent English speakers) and structure (opportunities for interaction) of the classroom can inhibit meaningful second language acquisition (Hornberger, 1990; Rumberger & Arellano, 2003; Wong Fillmore, 1991). The second condition, evidenced by data showing that classrooms with high concentrations of English learners also have a higher number of students who are below grade level in reading and math (Gándara & Rumberger, 2003, Table 22), hurts English learners’ ability to achieve academically because research has shown that the academic achievement of peers influences students’ own academic achievement, in part, because students learn from each other (Epstein & Karweit, 1983; Hanushek, Kain, Markman, & Rivkin, 2001; Hoxby, 2001; Mounts & Steinberg, 1995; Hurd, 2004). Thus, the concentration of English learners in California’s schools and classrooms not only makes it more difficult for them to learn English, it also makes it more difficult for them to achieve academically.

If students were clustered into these classrooms to provide core academic instruction in the primary language and mainstreamed for part of the day to receive instruction in English (preferably in highly interactive and non-high stakes settings like arts, music, physical education), the segregation of EL students would not only be defensible, but would constitute a valid educational treatment. However, in the wake of Proposition 227, most English learners are simply segregated into classrooms populated disproportionately by other English learners where the opportunity to learn both English and academic content is compromised by the lack of appropriate models and instruction targeted to their linguistic strengths.

In addition to the effects of peers, as shown earlier, the segregation of English learners is accompanied by more challenging classroom conditions, by a lack of resources, and by a lack of appropriately trained teachers. Moreover, these conditions are not independent, but rather highly interrelated and cumulative, and exacerbated by segregation.

In the full report, we argue that the state has played a major role in both creating and perpetuating these inequities through the lack of suitable policies (1) to recruit, train, and certify teachers who can effectively work with English learners; (2) to provide valid assessments of the academic skills of English learners; (3) to address the poor and inequitable schooling conditions for English learners; and (4) to monitor the nature of the instruction and educational experiences of English learners in California schools.


There are many things that the state could do to create a more equitable education for English learners. Among these are:

● The state should provide all English learners with qualified teachers who have the appropriate skills to teach them.

● The state should ensure that the CTC standards are sufficiently high to guarantee that EL teachers are qualified to teach these students.

● The state should provide appropriate professional development for teachers of English learners focusing on strategies for developing early literacy and closing the achievement gap with English-speaking peers.

● The state should provide materials and instruction for students and their parents in English, and in the primary language, to the extent possible, to strengthen emergent literacy skills.

● The state should provide real opportunities for non-English-speaking parents to become involved in their children’s education.

● The state should provide preschool educational opportunities for English learners.

● The state should provide more time during the school year to learn English and close the educational gap with their English-speaking peers.

● The state should eliminate placements in Concept 6 schedules for English Learners.

● To the extent the state is using test-based accountability vis-à-vis English learners, it should develop valid and meaningful assessments geared to the needs of these students.

● The state should monitor the administration of primary language tests where they are currently mandated, and mandate that this information be used to help design appropriate curriculum for these testtakers.

● The state should provide support and incentives for school districts to develop high quality, dual language programs20 that develop proficiency in two languages for both English learners and English speakers and can help reduce economic and linguistic segregation in schools.

● The state should guarantee that teachers have appropriate materials for teaching English learners.

● The state should guarantee that every child has a safe, adequate (clean, functioning bathrooms, adequate classroom space, outdoor space to exercise, heating, cooling, lighting, electrical outlets that work, and access to technology) facility in which to learn. English learners, too, deserve this.

● The state needs to collect data at the classroom level so that it is possible to know which teachers are assigned to which children, and to know what type of materials and curriculum to which students are exposed.

● The state should provide more effective monitoring of special education placements of English learners.


Most English learners are immigrants or the children of immigrants. There is mounting evidence that immigrant students, and the children of immigrants are more academically ambitious than native-born students (see, for example, Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1996). This suggests that there is a critical window of opportunity in which to affect these children’s academic futures. If we seize the opportunity and apply the resources while they are in the public schools, we may be able to set these young people on a solid upward trajectory. On the other hand, if we allow this opportunity to slip by, the challenge will be greater in succeeding generations. English learners in California, and in the nation, represent a potentially rich social and economic resource. It is up to the education system to tap it.


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RUSSELL W. RUMBERGER is professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute. He has published widely on education issues, with recent research focused on school dropouts, student mobility, school segregation and the educational underachievement of minority students. Recent publications include ‘‘The Causes and Consequences of Student Mobility’’ (Journal of Negro Education) and ‘‘The Distribution of Dropout and Turnover Rates Among Urban and Suburban High Schools’’ (with Scott Thomas, Sociology of Education).

PATRICIA GÁNDARA is professor of education at the University of California, Davis. She is Associate Director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute, and Co-Director of PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education). Recent publications include, School Connections: Peers, Achievement, and US Mexican Youth (with M. Gibson and J. Koyama, Teachers College Press, forthcoming) and High School Puente: What we have learned about preparing Latino youth for higher education (Educational Policy).


i The report informed an expert report prepared for the lawsuit by Kenji Hakuta (2002).

ii Scale scores show growth in achievement over time based on a common metric.

iii Beginning in 1999, the state augmented the SAT9 with a test more closely aligned with the state’s academic content standards (see

iv Because of migration and mobility, the cohorts are not necessarily composed of the same students each year.

v Although neither California nor the federal government produces dropout rates by language background, most English learners are Latino and Latino dropout rates in October 2000 were 28% or three times the rate for white students (U.S. Department of Education, 2001, Table 3).

vi Students from the class of 2004 were originally required to pass the test, but in the summer of 2003 the State Board of Education postponed the requirement until the class of 2006.

vii Spanish-speaking students were given the math assessment in Spanish.

viii The survey did not identify teachers who had authorizations acquired through SB1969 or SB395.

ix The Chancellor’s Office of the California State University reports that 70% of its credential graduates completed either a CLAD or BCLAD credential.

x Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Spring 2001 STAR Administration: Frequently Asked Questions (

xi Academic Performance Index Home Page (

xii About STAR 2001 (

xiii Standard 11.22 of the AERA/APA/NCME Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, for example, note that ‘‘When circumstances require that a test be administered in the same language to all examinees in a linguistically diverse population, the test user should investigate the validity of the score interpretations for test takers believed to have limited proficiency in the language of the test.’’

xiv The United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement has recently commissioned ARC Associates to conduct a study using San Francisco Unified School District data to help answer this question. We would hope that the findings from this study will inform California testing policy.

xv See score explanations:

xvi There is a long literature on the importance of ‘‘time on task’’ for learning. Carroll (1963) devised the classic model that showed learning is a function of the amount of time needed to learn something divided by the amount of time allotted to learn it. Karweit (1989) showed that ‘‘engaged time’’ on task was more important than simply the time allotted.

xvii School districts manage to stay within the law by adding a few minutes at the end of each day to total the same number of hours as students who are on 180-day schedules.

xviii This survey, conducted in 2002 by the Lou Harris Polling group, included 1,071 California teachers, both randomly and representatively sampled to approximate a profile of all the state’s teachers; 27% were male; 84% were White (See Harris, 2002).

xix It is interesting to note that 19 percent of all principals in California reported that their classrooms were never or often not adequate, compared to 9 percent of principals in the rest of the United States.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 10, 2004, p. 2032-2056 ID Number: 11681, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:22:07 AM

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