Noted biliteracy expert takes over CDE’s new English learner division

Despite decades struggling to educate the nation's largest population of non-native speaking students, the California Department of Education has only within the last few months benefitted from a new division dedicated to the needs of English learners.

Also noteworthy is that the new head of the CDE's English Learner Support Division is a leading expert in biliteracy and English language acquisition - that is, the use of a student's native language to support and enhance English proficiency.

Creation of the new unit, as well as the appointment of Karen Cadiero-Kaplan - who until January was a professor of cross cultural education at San Diego State - comes at a critical time.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders are becoming increasingly anxious about the plight of English learners and their lack of progress in closing the achievement gap, despite billions of state and federal dollars in targeted spending on a variety of programs and strategies.

This spring, state officials also have begun work on a landmark update of the K-12 English Language Development Standards - the benchmarks for what students must know and be able to do on their path to full fluency. The revision comes in support of and alignment with new English Language Arts frameworks being driven by adoption of the national common core standards two years ago.

Meanwhile, there is the work of implementing the State Seal of Biliteracy - a statewide honor granted to high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing one or more languages in addition to English.

The new designation - first of its kind in the nation - isn't just another way to recognize student achievement. It also marks the emergence of bilingualism on the educational stage as a component of preparing students for the competitive global economy.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is deeply invested in both activities and was a sponsor of the bill that created the biliteracy program. But - like most of his predecessors - getting all students in California to become proficient readers by the third grade is a top priority.

One out of every four students in California is an English learner," he said in an interview last week. "This is a group that cannot be left out of our education system.

"If these students are not proficient in English they are going to fall behind in every subject - not just reading but social studies and science, and that will lead to a lot of frustrations," he said. "More importantly, it will lead to dropouts and all sorts of problems that we know we can help avoid."

In terms of more specific goals, Torlakson said he envisions the division's role to be a resource for the state, as well for as local school districts.

"We want to be able to collect best practices, to serve as advisors to districts and teachers," he said. "Our other big mission is to sort through what works and promote those practices in all of our schools."

Cadiero-Kaplan brings a wealth of insight and experience to the new post, as well as the strongly-held position California schools should be giving a student's native language a bigger role in English acquisition.

"Since the Passage of Prop 227 have taken a deficit view of English learners," she said. "In other words, if you don't know English coming in and have to learn it - you are coming in without something. Rather than taking an "additive" perspective," where currently the research has shifted the view in the eyes of the public in the last six or eight years to focus on models of biliteracy where the primary language is no longer viewed as a deficit - but an additive."This is not, she makes clear, a return to "transitional" bilingual education - a system largely tossed out by California voters with the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 - but a new approach.

"In the past, what we have talked about was transferring from one language to another," she said. "We never spoke about integrating languages - that is what is new."

She said most studies have concluded the English-focused approach has not worked - but there is clear evidence, particularly among K-12 students, that using a student's primary language will promote English acquisition.

Cadiero-Kaplan said she senses a subtle societal shift around the question of English only.

"Look at the number of English-speaking parents that have enrolled their children in these dual language programs," she noted. "I think we as a society are starting to see the value of having these other languages today - 15 or 20 years ago, I don't think we did."

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