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The rigorous new Common Core standards represent both a daunting challenge and a promising pathway that could help close the achievement gap for the growing number of American students who enter school knowing little or no English.

So concludes a new yearlong study released today by the California-based arm of Education Trust, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group that has repeatedly voiced concern that the new national standards might prove to be an additional burden for students whose native language is not English, particularly those who come from low-income families.

Related: With new standards, will California’s youngest English learners lose their edge in math?

After analyzing state and federal data from the 276 California unified school districts that have more than 100 English learners, researchers identified top performers that are producing enviable results by embracing and adapting to the demands of the new standards. Even among these top districts, however, the researchers also found that schools with high proportions of students whose native language is Spanish and who live in low-income households do not do as well as other English learners.

“Rigorous standards are definitely something all students haven’t been accessing before,” said Jeannette LaFors, director of Equity Initiatives at the Education Trust-West. “Most disproportionately, English learners and other students of high need have been lacking access to that kind of college prep curriculum, so this is a heavy but necessary lift.”

The report focuses specifically on how the Common Core is affecting the 1.4 million English learners in California, which educates more students who are less than proficient in the English language than any other state. Currently, almost one in four California students are English learners, and 37 percent of the state’s enrollment comes from homes where a language other than English is spoken. Nationally, there are about 5.3 million students in grades K-12 who are English learners. Their numbers are on the rise in most states and are expected to grow to 40 percent of the nation’s school population by 2030.

Related: When “proficient” isn’t enough: A California school rises to the Common Core challenge

While the report’s authors conclude that too few districts in the state are adequately transitioning English learners to these new standards, they spotlight 11 California school districts that have been particularly successful in boosting achievement for these students and describe the specific practices tied to the Common Core that have made the most impact.

“Effective districts are consistently evaluating how successful their interventions are, working at the individual level, at the grade level, at the school level and across the district,” said LaFors. “Most programs that are successful are adaptive. They don’t just drop it after the first wrong turn. They analyze what is not working, and ask, ‘What can we do better, how can we better serve kids?’ ”

Championed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new national standards stress critical thinking and more sophisticated vocabularies, with the aim of setting a higher bar for American students and making them more competitive with their peers from other countries in an increasingly global economy. While the Common Core standards spell out what American school children should learn at each grade level, curriculum and textbook decisions are left to the district.

Second-grade teacher Vickie Boudouris goes over a work sheet her students were doing in an English Language Learner summer school class at the Cordova Villa Elementary School, Wednesday, June 12, 2013 in Rancho Cordova, Calif. File photo. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Second-grade teacher Vickie Boudouris goes over a work sheet her students were doing in an English Language Learner summer school class at the Cordova Villa Elementary School, Wednesday, June 12, 2013 in Rancho Cordova, Calif. File photo. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

However, the Common Core has become controversial in many states, partly because critics fear it will negatively affect local control of schools. Some education advocacy groups have also expressed concern that these higher standards might inadvertently widen the achievement gap between students whose native language is English and English learners. As a group, these mostly Hispanic students have long scored significantly lower than their white peers on standardized tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. They are more likely than other students to come from poor families (in California, 85 percent of English learners live in low-income households) and they tend to start school behind their English-speaking peers.

“Some people don’t want to scare people about the Common Core,” said LaFors. “They say it is not that much harder. Well, actually it is. The Common Core standards for language arts and math are a more rigorous set of standards for all kids to reach. But more so for English learners who are simultaneously becoming proficient in English.”

That task has been made all the harder, said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman of Californians Together, an education advocacy group, by the lack of timely advice or direction from national or state proponents of Common Core. “School districts and teachers have had to figure this out on their own,” she said. From the start, “there should have been a laser-like focus on English learners and the Common Core.”

Related: In California, a fairly easy transition to Common Core

The new standards require all students to do more evidence-based writing and encourage them to use more sophisticated vocabulary, even in math class. For example, the Common Core standards expect students to do more than get the right answer to a math problem; they require students to explain their reasoning, in writing as well as orally.

“That’s a much greater level of challenge than students had in the past, especially for English learners,” added Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at Education Trust-West and the lead author of the study.

But when the researchers compared California schools districts, based on their English learners’ standardized test scores and mastery of English proficiency, and then followed up with site visits and interviews with administrators, they discovered that many of the most successful districts viewed the Common Core as a means to higher achievement for these students, and used strategies in line with its goals to achieve their good results. “We tried to tease out some of the things that are consistent that we see across the successful districts,” said LaFors.

Specifically, they found that top-ranked districts offer their English learners “a full Common Core-aligned curriculum that includes rigorous expectations, frequent formative assessments and college-preparatory courses.” They tend to designate time for their teachers to collaborate, and get site-based coaching and professional development. As a group, these districts also make a point of framing students’ native languages as cultural “assets,” rather than stumbling blocks to success, the researchers said, and they prioritize the creation of “strong home-school connections.”

Related: Why is this Common Core math problem so hard? Supporters respond to quiz that went viral

In high-achieving districts like Selma Unified School District, located in the state’s rural Central Valley, teachers do not restrict English language acquisition to a specific class or period of the day. Instead, the report said, they are now “intentionally and consistently incorporating language development throughout the school day and across all grade levels,” to meet the Common Core’s goals of expanding students’ vocabularies, infusing “more rich language in their writing” and providing more step-by-step support to help them take on more demanding lessons. In other words, teachers are fostering English-language proficiency at the same time that they’re teaching all students increasingly challenging content.

“That is a big shift in the way we have been teaching English-language learners for the last decade or two,” said LaFors.

Selma teachers learned effective ways to do this through a “coaching team” created by their district three years ago, shortly after the state legislature voted to adopt the Common Core standards. “The good news,” said LaFors, is that the Common Core’s increased emphasis on language skills is encouraging “teachers to engage in more give and take with students, and that is benefitting English learners. In the past, [these students] didn’t have as many opportunities to explain their understanding or ask questions to advance their thinking.”

In another top-performing school district, suburban Los Alamitos Unified, the researchers found that administrators “continually emphasized that they hold the same high expectations for English learners that they do for all students,” including successful completion of a college-prep course load. To help non-English speakers succeed in their English immersion classrooms, the district hires “site-based English-learner coordinators” to monitor each student’s progress and develop intensive interventions that include small-group instruction, after-school enrichment and special summer school classes.

“Some people don’t want to scare people about the Common Core,” said LaFors. “They say it is not that much harder. Well, actually it is. The Common Core standards for language arts and math are a more rigorous set of standards for all kids to reach. But more so for English learners who are simultaneously becoming proficient in English.”

While the report emphasizes success stories, it also acknowledges that too many English learners in California continue to fall behind their native English-speaking peers. “Too often, English learners are labeled and tracked and stuck in a classroom with the least skilled and prepared teachers, partly because their parents tend to be the least empowered if their children are not getting services,” LaFors said.

Since the state overhauled its school-funding formula last year, Hahnel said that districts now have more resources to better fund data analysis, coaching and professional development, and effective support programs. “This should be about thinking differently,” Hahnel said. “The question is whether more districts will make the shift and think innovatively about how to serve these students. That is one of the goals of this report, getting these conversations going.”

The authors also acknowledged that none of the 10 school districts in California that educate the highest proportion of English learners — including Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, San Francisco and Long Beach — appeared on their list of the 11 top-performing districts for English learners. “The large urban districts tend to have highly disproportionate poverty, transiency, and urban problems, which must be dealt with in addition to the regular instructional challenges,” said Patricia Gardara, a research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “There are also self-inflicted wounds in the big districts, but I think it’s just a lot harder to get the kind of consistency that you can find in a smaller district.”

The report’s data analysis found, overall, that English learners enrolled in districts with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students from low-income homes tend to perform less well on state tests and to get reclassified as proficient English speakers at slower rates than similar students enrolled in districts with fewer poor students. The researchers also found that students tend to acquire English proficiency faster and score higher on state tests in districts where most English learners’ native language is Mandarin, Korean, or anything other than Spanish. It probably is not a coincidence that none of the multi-language districts were also high-poverty districts, Hahnel said.

“Students from higher poverty districts looked different than those from lower poverty districts,” she said. “The role of poverty needs to be acknowledged. Students who are learning English and come from low-income families face additional barriers that other students don’t face.”

Noting that there are high poverty schools that score higher on both state achievement and English acquisition tests than lower poverty schools, LaFors added that these general trends need to be put in perspective. “It is a predictor,” LaFors added. “But it doesn’t have to predict every outcome.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

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