In a special state Senate hearing last month, California’s system of classifying, reclassifying, and teaching English learners came under heavy criticism from educators and advocates, who cited inconsistent and ineffective policies and practices for teaching students who comprise one-quarter of the state’s schoolchildren. On Wednesday, parents and teachers in a small Central Valley town added an exclamation point to the criticism by filing suit against the state and their school district over a curriculum for English learners they say is damaging their children’s chances to learn to read and write.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in California, charges that 6,000-student Dinuba Unified and the state violated their children’s constitutional right to equal education opportunity and federal law mandating sound instruction for English learners. The district adopted, and the state rubber-stamped its approval of a curriculum that “contradicts everything we know about how children learn language,” ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum said in a statement. Teachers in the district who have taught Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction, or SLADI, concluded it was “nonsense,” the lawsuit said.
The ACLU is asking the court to order the district to stop using the program and the state to follow the law and thoroughly evaluate and monitor programs that districts adopt for English learners. Through the lawsuit, attorneys are prodding the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which is also a defendant, to begin to face up to flaws in the system for English learners. “As Dinuba goes, so goes the state of California in terms of English learners.”
More than half of elementary school English learners score below basic on the state’s English and math tests. Only 56 percent graduate from high school, and annually only one in ten English learners is redesignated as fluent in English and no longer needing extra help.
In naming Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as a defendant, the ACLU also quoted from Torlakson’s Blueprint for Great Schools. English learners, it says on the CDE website, “fall further behind the longer they are in California schools, as do low-income students. The curriculum and teaching supports currently in place are not preparing these students for the higher-order skills expected in high school and beyond.”
In a short statement, the state Department of Education said it was reviewing the allegations, then added, “It is unfortunate that the parties chose to file suit rather than making a good-faith effort to meet with state officials to address their concerns.” Since Dinuba Unified has been a Program Improvement district for a half-dozen years for failing to make its standardized test targets under the No Child Left Behind law, the lawsuit notes that the district, through consultants, must approve the curriculums that the district uses for English learners and verify that teachers are trained in them. CDE spokesperson Paul Hefner said that he could not verify if the department sanctioned Dinuba’s use of SLADI.
Dinuba Unified declined comment as well on the allegations. In a statement, Superintendent Joe Hernandez said that he had a “productive conversation” on Wednesday with the plaintiffs, “and the parties have agreed to work together in good faith to avoid costly and excessive litigation.”
Dinuba is a city of 24,000 east of Route 99, midway between Fresno and Visalia. More than 90 percent of Dinuba Unified students are Hispanic and one third are English learners; 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Syntax, not picture books, for SLADI kids
Adopted by the district in 2009, Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction is apparently an unorthodox and not a widely used curriculum for English learners. (ACLU’s Rosenbaum said he knew of no other district that uses it.)
SLADI takes a grammar- and spelling-intensive approach to learning English, starting with first and second graders, who learn parts of speech and sentence construction. What students don’t get is exposure to texts that are rich with vocabulary and picture books – fun stories that motivate children to want to learn to read, said Nona Rhea, a 23-year elementary teacher (15 of those years in Dinuba), who was trained in SLADI and has taught it for two years. She is also one of five teachers who signed on as plaintiffs, along with two children, their parents, and a resident of Dinuba worried about the district’s English language programs.
“It cost me sleep at night. I don’t want to see children separated from other kids where they don’t learn the state’s English language arts curriculum,” said Rhea. “I wouldn’t want it for my children or grandchildren.” It also has a scripted curriculum with diagrams of sentences and a K-6 vocabulary and an approach that is inappropriate for first and second graders, she said.
Rosenbaum called SLADI “a ‘Hunger Games’ approach to education whereby adults madly crush the futures of children. SLADI is the equivalent of attempting to teach children how to swim by having them memorize the chemical formula of water.” The district’s Q&A on its SLADI website says that two of the six principles of SLADI are: 5) “Language growth occurs in deliberately created states of productive discomfort. Students must be pushed to a level of discomfort; 6) Error correction is crucial for building language accuracy.”
Before the adoption of SLADI, English learners and English speakers were mixed in heterogeneous classes. Under SLADI, the least proficient English learners attend separate SLADI classes for 2-and-a-half hours daily for half a year, then return to regular classes in January. For more advanced students, as measured by CELDT, the California English Language Development Test, students are pulled out for 45 minutes daily.
The assumption was that students who went through SLADI could then be integrated back into the classroom. But these students have missed a half-year of the state curriculum, Rhea said, without extra help to catch up. “Students assume they are the problem, but they’re not.”
The lawsuit says that the two unnamed 8-year-old plaintiffs’ reading scores on CELDT regressed considerably after taking SLADI. One child was assigned the program in first and second grades. Both children’s parents say they’re worried their children have not learned how to read.
The lawsuit also says that test scores for English learners as a whole have declined as a result of SLADI. Last month the Dinuba Teachers Association took the position that the district should not have adopted a program that “defied accepted research and common sense,” the lawsuit said. The teachers added, “(F)or our K-2 students this is a backwards model that could prove detrimental to their futures. Teachers cannot reconcile this in their minds and hearts.”