Tomas Rivera Policy Institute Contributes to Federal Investigation

By Cristy Lytal

Harry Pachon SPPD professor and TRPI President Harry Pachon

Nearly 30 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students in English Language Learning (ELL) programs are not reclassified as proficient by the end of middle school, according to a report by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. More surprising, the majority of these students are born in the United States.

Six months after the release of this report in October 2009, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has announced the launch of an investigation to determine whether the district’s English Language Learning students are being denied equal educational opportunities.

The San Francisco office, which is spearheading the investigation, will meet with SPPD professor and Tomás Rivera Policy Institute president Harry Pachon to discuss the report’s findings.

“The purpose of the institute is to carry out objective social science studies that have an impact on public policy,” said Pachon of the nonprofit, independent policy research organization affiliated with SPPD. “So we measure our success by the impact we’re having in political and social institutions.”

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the California Community Foundation, Pachon collaborated with Edward Flores, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of sociology; Gary Painter, an SPPD professor; and SPPD Master of Public Policy student Zachary Harlow-Nash on the study. Together, they analyzed academic records from a cohort of hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District students who were in sixth grade in 1999.

“One thing that jumps out at us when we look at the raw statistics is that about 60 percent of the LAUSD population comes in as ELL students,” Painter said. “And the other thing that jumps out at us is that there’s a significant population of these students that remains ELL during its entire educational career.”

Pachon has a good idea as to why.

“We hear from the teachers and educators themselves that it’s much easier to get into English Language Learning than it is to get out,” he said. “For example, when a parent signs up his or her child for LAUSD, there’s a question that says, ‘Do you speak a language other than English at home?’ And if you say ‘yes,’ that’s one of the factors that leads to being slotted for the ELL classes. The fact is that the longer the student is in an ELL class, the further he or she falls behind.”

At the same time, the study found that reclassifying students as fluent English proficient as late as eighth grade is associated with improved academic outcomes.

“To see that even in eighth grade when students were getting reclassified, they’re still seeing significant gains was pretty valuable,” Harlow-Nash said. “We shouldn’t be giving up on them if they haven’t learned by sixth grade and just leaving them in the ELL classes for the remainder of their time.”

The researchers are excited that the massive data set they turned into a meaningful policy report is now on the radar of the U.S. Department of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Working at Tomás Rivera — because it’s a policy institute and this sort of thing has a more immediate impact — has been really gratifying,” said Flores, who came to the institute in 2006 courtesy of a Provost’s fellowship.

Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education President Mónica García welcomed the institute’s findings, which have received coverage from the Associated Press, Voice of America, Education Week, the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.

“We share the institute’s tremendous sense of urgency to improve instruction for our English Language Learning students,” she said. “We are thankful for the attention and focus on the needs of these students and look forward to a continued partnership to better address them.”