The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


In a recent Learning Curve, I looked at what children will need to be ready for kindergarten under the new Common Core State Standards. Parents might be relieved to know the skills children need today – how to recognize words and numbers, socialize with other students and regulate their emotions – aren’t so different from what they needed before the new standards came out.

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This week, let’s take a look at what the new standards mean for the 1.4 million students in California who aren’t considered fluent in English.

Education officials have pitched Common Core State Standards as more rigorous than the old ones. English-learners already struggled under the old standards, so there’s reason to worry the new standards will be out of reach.

But there’s nothing about English-learners brains’ that prohibits them from mastering difficult concepts. Knowing another language isn’t a disability. In fact, many English-learners who score well enough on tests to be considered fluent in English go on to outperform students who’ve spoken English all their lives.

The more relevant change is that students will be expected to talk a lot more. They used to have to know the right answer. Now they’ll have to explain how they arrived at the right answer.

That poses a new opportunity and a new challenge for English-learners.

More group discussion will be built into class, so they’ll have more opportunities to practice. But if teachers don’t do enough to help students acquire a basic understanding of English, they’ll be left behind from the very beginning.

An Important Moment for English-Learners

In June, I wrote about Sherman Elementary, a school in Sherman Heights where nearly 100 percent of students come from poverty and more than 70 percent are not native English-speakers.

In 2008, the year the school opened, Sherman’s test scores were among the lowest in the district. By 2013, test scores stood well above the average in San Diego Unified. The test-score turnaround is impressive, but the real surprise is that Sherman students were mastering the same skills as children across the district. Only, Sherman students have been able to show they could do it both in English and in Spanish.

Sherman is a bilingual immersion school where students spend half the day learning in English, and half the day in Spanish. The overarching goal is that students leave fifth grade biliterate – able to read, write and converse in both languages.

Sherman has shown the value of educating students in both their native languages and a new language simultaneously. But Sherman is more the exception than the rule.

Despite the fact that roughly one in five San Diego Unified students is considered an English-learner, bilingual immersion schools like Sherman Elementary are rare.

About 20 years ago, driven by concerns from parents and lawmakers that bilingual programs were too slow in helping children acquire English, California all but abandoned bilingual programs. Owing to state law established in 1998, the vast majority of English-learners across the state now spend most of their time in English-only classrooms.

In practice, that means many schools have tried to get students proficient in English – and then start teaching them academic content like math and science.

The problem with this model is that it contradicts what researchers know about the way we acquire language. We don’t learn language in a clean, linear fashion. Research shows it takes at least four years to reach full academic proficiency in a new language.

Yet, California schools still base instruction on getting kids to speak English as quickly as possible. And that’s had major implications for English-learners.

If students can’t demonstrate fluency in English by the time they get to middle school, principals may relegate them to remedial courses where they spend time practicing basic English. They build up academic deficits while their English-speaking peers take courses to prepare them for college. By the time they get to high school, they can be years behind their peers. It’s not surprising, then, that English-learners consistently make up an outsize portion of high school dropouts.

Ironically, many English-learners continue to speak their native languages at home, or with friends, over the course of their schooling. But because they didn’t receive a formal education in their native language, they may not be able to read and write in both languages.

This means at a time when a growing number of employers are looking to hire bilingual professionals, English-learners are coming out of California high schools without enough knowledge – in either language – to make them competitive in the job market.

A Blessing or a Curse

Nothing in education is more polarizing than the Common Core State Standards, writes Amaya Garcia, a senior researcher at New America. Unsurprisingly, Common Core standards have been pitched both as the best – and worst – thing to happen to English-learners in recent years.

The new standards recognize that oral and academic-language development is important for all students, including English-learners. Teachers will weave more discussion and small-group activities into the school day. For that, some educators are confident English-learners could thrive under the new system.

On the other side, Laurie Olsen, a researcher and advocate who unsuccessfully fought for bilingual education in 1998, told Garcia the new standards could be the “final nail in the coffin” for English-learners in California because they assume kids enter school with a baseline level of English. And if educators don’t know how to help kids acquire basic English, students will fall quickly behind.

Talk to Your Kids: It’s the New Hot Thing

To support districts in the Common Core rollout, the California Department of Education developed standards for what students should know at each grade level and paired them with guidance for how to help English-learners access the material.

The resulting framework is written for lawmakers and school district officials. It’s long and wonky. But it says students need language instruction in both a targeted way – which might mean a teacher separates students by reading levels, then supports them in small groups – and an integrated way, where teachers weave vocabulary-builders into lessons throughout the day.

Olympia Kyriakidis, who works for the San Diego County Office of Education and helps districts support English-learners, said the most important piece to understand is that the new standards encourage educators to see the knowledge with which students enter school – whatever language in which they acquired it – as an asset.

Think of it this way. As parents, we teach children not to touch a hot stove. It doesn’t matter if we say it in English, Swahili or Chinese, so long as they understand not to touch that stove!

In the same way, all knowledge children get from their parents before they enter school is a building block for later learning.

That’s instructive for teachers and parents alike. A Spanish-speaking mother might worry if she talks to her kids in her native language, they’ll have a tougher time learning English once they enter school.

But that’s not true. When children understand how to construct sentences in their home language it helps them understand how to construct sentences in a new language.

And, in fact, if parents speak less often with their children, it will actually disadvantage them by withholding building blocks of knowledge that will help them learn once they get to school.

So, for parents who don’t speak English, it turns out the most important thing they can do to get their kids ready for kindergarten is the same thing all parents should do: Talk to children. Turn off the TV. Try to focus their attention. Read to them. Ask questions. Try to fill up their brains in whatever language you speak.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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