, Salem, MA

October 26, 2012

Column: Closing the achievement gap

Julie Whitlow
The Salem News

---- — As I mentioned last week, English Language Learners have failed to achieve academically at the same rate as their peers. In Salem, a staggering 93 percent of ELLs have been identified as low-income; 42 percent of ELLs and former ELLs failed the 10th-grade English Language Arts portion of the MCAS exam in 2011. Overall, there was a 95 percent pass rate on this test, meaning that almost all of the failing students were ELLs. MCAS passing rates for ELLs at the lower grades are equally disheartening and have been stagnant for years.

How can we help close this achievement gap?

With the number of ELLs predicted to increase even more over the next decade, it is imperative that we overcome the challenges of educating students from ethnically, linguistically, culturally and psychologically diverse backgrounds. This will not be easy. It will take a collective will and a concentrated focus on the part of every teacher, every family member and every student. As we know, the schools cannot eliminate poverty or its effects. But we can make a difference.

Research has shown that it is not so much the method of teaching but the quality of instruction that is important. Studies have shown that “two-way” bilingual education, such as the program that began at the former Federal Street School, is the most effective way to educate ELLs. However, Sheltered English Immersion programs that use only English also have been successful. The type of instruction that leads to improved academic performance in ELLs includes small-group instruction, focused tutoring, more meaningful time in the classroom and extended literacy blocks. Teachers also must have the time to work together and have opportunities for useful professional development. The few licensed ESL teachers cannot do it alone.

High expectations

lead to high achievement

Perhaps the most important factor for at-risk ELLs is school personnel who expect high achievement. There are too many disheartening stories about kids who were never encouraged to go to college. Too many were counseled to drop out, get a menial job or go to vocational school to learn a trade. Far too few were told at an early age that they could excel, that they were smart and that a college education could become a reality. More teachers must believe in the potential of ELLs and structure their teaching around methods and approaches that work for English Language Learners.

We also often hear grumbles about the lost days of past generations. “My grandfather didn’t speak English, but he made it. If he did it, why can’t they?” The reality is that this is not your grandfather’s time. We live in an information and digital age where high-wage jobs demand advanced literacy skills and specialized training, especially in Massachusetts. Many of our grandfathers did come to the U.S. not speaking English, but most of our grandparents were able to make a living wage in a manufacturing job, or by opening a small business. That does not mean that they could pass the 10th-grade MCAS or write an essay. Most of our grandparents did not have to “make it” in college or in a high-tech economy.

No more business

as usual

Mayor Kim Driscoll recently said that the turnaround of Salem’s schools cannot be “business as usual.” Dr. Roland Fryer Jr., MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and Harvard economist, spoke to the Salem community a few weeks ago. He has successfully led the turnaround efforts of school districts as large and diverse as the one in Houston. He told us that we are just beginning to take “baby steps” toward significant change here in Salem. He has found that measures such as smaller class size, spending more per student and hiring more teachers with advanced degrees have not helped students excel. Instead, he and his colleagues found five qualities that were 50 percent responsible for an effective school:

Frequent teacher feedback

Data-driven instruction

Regular tutoring

Increased meaningful instructional time

A relentless focus on academic achievement

In Salem, certainly some of these practices are being implemented through our “turnaround plan.” We also have many innovations under way and successful summer partnerships to model such as the one between Bentley School and Salem State that helped raise the reading scores of many children. But we have to work hard to keep up our momentum if we are to ensure that every student in Salem reaches his or her potential. If we are going to effectively implement quality ESL programs or revive our once-successful two-way bilingual instruction, we have to make changes in both our practices and our attitudes. We have to believe that ALL children can achieve at comparable levels. We have to change our school clocks and calendars, as well as our daily routines. It is language that makes us human. It is adaptation and innovation that has allowed us to excel. Success for English Language Learners must be part of our renewed commitment to Salem’s schools if our district is going to reach its potential.


Julie Whitlow is a professor in the English department at Salem State University. She coordinates the graduate programs in teaching English as a Second Language. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools. The first part of this column ran last Friday and can be found at