Monday, May 11, 2009

Into the Future

So, this semester has drawn to a close and the grade-related aspect of this blog is over. However, I want to do what I can to maintain it. After all, how many blogs are out there by British citizens either teaching or preparing to teach in the United States? Actually, given the number of blogs out there, probably quite a few. Still, this will be my own little addition to the whole. I’ve still got another year and a half of education before I venture out into the wild blue yonder that is the American classroom, so it’ll be interesting to see how much I change in the intervening time.

Over a few entries I’ll try to explain why exactly I want to teach here, rather than Britain and generally relate my attempts to get my head around how exactly the American education system works. Hopefully this will also result in an attempt to compare the two, so that anyone reading this will understand where I’m coming from as much as where I’m heading.

I can’t promise to be a very prolific writer, but I’ll do my best to keep this up. It should be interesting at the very least.

Self-Assessment

As this semester draws to a conclusion, I am inclined to consider what I have learned in the previous fifteen weeks in terms of myself, public education and teaching. Coming into this class I had put little or no thought into the former, while my opinions in regard the latter two have been to various extents both reinforced and challenged.

In terms of myself, I have realized more and more the extent to which my own unique culture will impact the kind of teacher I become. As an outsider I have always known that this will play a role in the classroom, however I always anticipated it would be a challenge to be overcome, rather than a positive force. I have learned that not appearing as part of “the system” can potentially impact upon my ability to relate to my future students.

Similarly, my work on the Community Inquiry Project has opened my eyes up to both the problems facing urban areas, but also the challenges faced by immigrants and English language learners. From something I had never really considered, to a factor at the forefront of my mind as I enter the teaching profession, it has had a major impact on me. I have learned that I want to do whatever I can to make a difference. To begin with, I would very much like to work in a school district with a substantial number of immigrants or children of immigrants, whether urban or suburban. After years of joking that I could barely speak English, so why bother trying to learn another language, I am putting serious thought into taking up lessons in one. Without this class and the research project, I would never have considered it. As it stands, I am currently torn between Spanish and Hindi given that most immigrants into New Jersey come from either Latin American countries or India.

In terms of public education and teaching, I have learned just how severe the problems faced by urban schools are, but also that all is not lost. The Schultz book, Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way, revealed that turning things around and empowering students is not something that only happens in feel-good movies. Nevertheless, I have a greater awareness of what I would face were I to find work in an urban school. The Fruchter text was certainly an eye-opener in terms of the challenges both schools and individual teachers face, while LaRue’s Unequal Childhoods made me realize the extent to which students face vastly different problems. It is one thing to say that all students are unique, but I think that this work hit home the point that each of my future students will face very different challenges that I will have the opportunity to guide them through while I am teaching them.

In fact, I have learned in far more stark terms than I have previously considered the importance of being a mentor as well as an educator is to the role of a teacher. It is something that I will take into any classroom – if I can not only give students knowledge, but also a sense of community and security, I will have done a pretty good job.

One of the initial things I pondered upon beginning this class was whether or not I would consider myself able to work in an urban environment. Given all the clich├ęs and stereotypes that I encountered only in the form of television and movies (and, some time later, from discussing things with current urban teachers) I came into the class somewhat cynical about this. Four months later I do not think I can offer a solid rebuttal to my initial qualms, but I am certainly a lot more open-minded. Were I to find myself placed in an urban school for my student teaching, I would, perhaps, be more inclined to see a positive challenge than a cause for panic. That, I suppose, is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Abstract/What I Have Learned

Abstract

The purpose of this paper was to explore role of bilingual education in the lives of immigrant students and the children of immigrants in the American education system. Data were collected from numerous secondary sources, census data and an interview with the supervisor of a bilingual education program at an urban New Jersey school with a large Hispanic population. Researched revealed a deeper understanding history of bilingual education in the United States; the problems faced by bilingual education programs in the era of No Child Left Behind where a straight transition to English is preferred; and the specific problems that urban schools encountered. In conclusion, I have attempted to detail why, despite its expense and the difficulty to initiate it, Two-Way Bilingual Education would be the best method to ensure an equitable and effective education for all students in a changing America.


What I Have Learned From the Project

Without a doubt, the most important thing I have learned from working on the community inquiry project is the expansive nature of bilingual education programs. It never occurred to me that there could be quite so many different models. Yet this makes a lot of sense. Quite simply, different communities, with students of differing cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, require a different type of program.

The problems faced by LEP students in an urban area also proved eye-opening. One is given the impression that, once an immigrant masters the English language they can achieve anything in America. Yet here we see the poverty of their surroundings holding them back. During the interview I gave at Perth Amboy High, I heard of several exceptional students who had completed the bilingual education program who could not afford college, or whose legal status meant that they were not eligible for any kind of funding. Surely, I thought, by preventing these kids such an opportunity we are removing future doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs from ever gaining the skills they need to make the country a better place; all because their parents, not them, came to America the only way they could afford to, to give those very children such opportunities.

Something else that struck me was the opposition to bilingual education in the United States. I can appreciate that there is a need to save money – bilingual education in its maintenance forms being more expensive than transitional and ESL education – but the opposition at the state level over the past twenty years was surprising. Even the most liberal of states have passed laws either making English the only form of instruction, or allowing schools to opt out of bilingual education, even if they have a large number of immigrant students to accommodate. While it never made it into my final project for both length and thematic reasons, the vehemence of many towards immigrant English learners is shocking. More to the point, the anger at the fact that schools have to provide an education for illegal immigrants was shocking. Yes, it is expensive, but should these children be denied an education because of what was no doubt a very difficult decision made by their parents?

Perhaps my conclusion – that Two-Way Bilingual Education, in which all students are taught in two languages to guarantee proficiency in both groups and to foster a sense of togetherness within the school – is unrealistic and expensive. However, the aim of the project was to pose a solution to the problem of creating an equitable education for all students and there can be no doubt that this would be the best way to achieve this kind of equality of opportunity.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Summary of Findings

As I began the community inquiry project, I hoped to find out the extent to which the presence of immigrant students with their English-learning needs affected the resources available for the mainstream student population in urban schools. I quickly came to realize that this was not a valid question. Given the existence of specific funds for bilingual education programs granted by the state and federal governments, the focus of my research changed. Instead, I turned my attention to the way in which an equitable education can be guaranteed for all students in an urban school district with a large immigrant, non-English speaking population.

I began by researching the history of bilingual education in the United States, from the initial opposition, through to the creation of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 during the civil rights era. I discovered that almost from its inception there had been opposition – the main brunt of the argument being over whether bilingual education should focus on transition (a complete move from the native language to English) or maintenance (ensuring that the student maintains their native language while gaining fluency in English). This argument culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which removed any mention of bilingual education from federal law, making it a state issue while encouraging schools to focus on transition for assessment-related reasons.

Further research led to the discovery of the many different types of bilingual education – it seemed that no two programs were ever alike. Again, there was a transition vs. maintenance approach within the different programs.

Most of my data were collected from an interview with the supervisor of a bilingual education program at a New Jersey High School with a large Hispanic population. Turning my findings into a case study of this specific school (given the number of different types of bilingual education program this was my only course of action), I was able to discover the importance of maintaining a positive attitude towards students’ native cultures even when the program is transitional in nature, as well as the importance of models of success in the form of teachers within the program who are immigrants or children of immigrants themselves.

Utilizing census date I came to the conclusion that, with the immigrant population of the United States increasing rapidly (its Hispanic population even more so), effective bilingual education is essential to their success. The substantial undocumented population of immigrants can mean that many students do not get the education they need because of the fear on the part of parents about maintaining regular contact with the school, out of fear of arrest and deportation.

Ultimately, my findings suggest that in order to guarantee an effective education for all students, a bilingual education program is required that offers models of success, encourages of native culture and brings the English-speaking student population into the world of the LEP students.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Unequal Childhoods/Online Assignment

2. Turn to the NJRCL report and pay specific attention to the information provided about Essex County, and the concerns, challenges, and recommendations in the report. Review the eight families in Unequal Childhoods, and make connections between the NJRCL report and the realities these families might face if they lived in Essex County, NJ.

In Essex County, the self-sufficiency wage varies between $33,074 and $61,017, depending on the number of adults and children in the household. Many of the poorer families in Unequal Childhoods have only one parent at the head, with several children. Families such as the Taylors, Yanellis and Drivers all have a much lower income than would allow them to be self sufficient given the number of children they have. The Yanellis, while lucky enough to have healthy insurance, are still struggling with the expenses of healthcare. Clearly, Essex County is a more expensive area than where they currently reside. Neither the Taylors nor the Drivers would be able to find housing for the $650 a month they are currently spending on rent, the extra $400 (minimum) would be a substantial extra burden on their already slim earnings.

In an even worse situation are the Brindles and McAllisters, both of whom require public assistance and would be completely unable to live comfortably in Essex County and would, in fact, be regarded as below the poverty line. They are already struggling to afford food even with food stamps, so the minimum monthly cost of food - $639 – would prove devastating to them.

Only the middle class families, the Tallingers, Williams’, Marshalls and Handlons are above Essex County’s self sufficiency wage. However, with the extra expenses several of these middle class families have, most notably the Tallingers, the added expense of Essex County compared to their current residence would force even these comparably well off families to tighten their purse straps somewhat.

The NJRCL report, offers several suggestions in order to close the gap between incomes and the self-sufficiency wage that may be of help to some of the struggling families. The report argues that enhanced adult education services, including job training, would give many poorer families more options and the ability to earn higher wages. However, given the fact that many of the poor and working class families Unequal Childhoods are struggling to make ends meet in existing jobs, as well as raising their children, very few of them would be able to make the time for extra classes. One suggestion that would help a lot of the families would be to encourage low-wage jobs to introduce subsidized child care and paid family leave. This would give more options to parents, like CiCi Brindle, who are waiting until their youngest child is of school age before trying to find employment.

3. Look at the two reports from the LSNJ on living in poverty. What further information can you glean from the reports regarding the struggles the poor families in Unequal Childhoods might face if they lived in NJ?

As previously stated, the Brindles and the McAllisters would fall below the poverty line, the federal poverty wage being $17,600. Even with the public assistance they receive, the higher cost of living in New Jersey would make it almost impossible to get by. Both families being headed by single mothers, they fall into a large proportion of families below the poverty line. Their problems are compounded by the fact that, according to the LSNJ report Not Enough to Live On, “women and people of color need more education to achieve the same level of economic self-sufficiency as white males.” Quite simply, they have an extra barrier in order to climb out of poverty and become self-sufficient just because of their gender and race. As depressing as it may sound to those of us entering education in order to give children all backgrounds a chance to succeed, CiCi Brindle’s GED, and the high school diplomas of the Taylor, Driver McAllister mothers would, by these standards, do very little to aid them.

It is also important to note that according to Not Enough to Live On, the 2008 Federal poverty level for a family of more than two would be closer to $21,000. This would place the Taylors with their four children, who were already below the self-sufficiency wage, below the poverty level. Their lives would be that much harder if they lived in New Jersey with all the extra costs.

The availability of public transport in NJ’s cities may reduce the need of families like the Brindles from owning and maintaining a car, however it would still prove an additional cost when only one of their children is young enough to qualify for free rides. They would be effectively trapped in the city in which they live.

4. Finally, turn inward and think about who you are as a budding urban educator. In what ways is this information useful (or not) for you? In terms of better understanding a community? What do you need to learn, or what skills and dispositions (frames of mind) do you need to develop related to demographics and economics to be a successful urban educator?

Whether teaching in an urban environment or not, it is essential to gain a greater understanding of the community in which one is teaching. Knowing the problems that students’ families face on a daily basis is essential to ensuring that each and every one of them gains the best education that you can possibly give them. While each individual student is unique, each and every one of them is the product of the community in which they have been raised. As a teacher who will be an outsider within any community in the United States, I will have to do all that I can to gain a greater appreciation of the problems that face students and their families.

Knowing the demographics and economic background of an area will help me, as an educator, to develop the curriculum that speaks to the students. All too often, a white middle class ideology permeates the education system and it will be my job to make the material that I present easy to relate to for my students. This will involve putting any examples that textbooks, essay questions and journal topics into a context with which they are familiar. If I am not willing to understand and appreciate the lives of my students this will simply not be possible.

Similarly, I will need to develop the skills that allow me to reach out into the community, to communicate with the families of my students. It is clear from Unequal Childhoods that many poor and working class parents find it hard to relate to their children’s teachers. Doing all that I can to foster a relationship that would make such parents feel comfortable confronting me about issues their children are facing would be incredibly beneficial. It is one thing to develop an effective relationship with a student, but in order to do the same with parents is another matter entirely. It will require a greater open-mindedness; an awareness that I will encounter situations in homes with which I am completely unfamiliar. Understanding the unique aspects of the community in which I work will prevent me from being judgmental, as I hope to create a working relationship with families that will, in turn, aid my students’ achievement.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Project Update

So far, my investigations have given me a while new insight into bilingual education in the United States, as well as the unique problems faced by urban schools with a large number of immigrant or first-generation American students. I admit, that entering my research I knew very little about bilingual education, beyond the existence of ESL and its attempts to integrate new students into English-speaking classrooms.

My initial readings have taught me much about the history of bilingual education, from the Education Act of 1968 (and its subsequent amendments in the 1970s), as well as the important Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols in 1974, in which Chinese-speaking, American-born students argued that they were not being given an equitable education because of their inability to speak English.

It has since become clear to me that there are a seemingly infinitesimal number of different types of bilingual education programs in effect in the United States, some that focus entirely on transition from the native language to English, before dropping the students into the mainstream classroom. Others see maintenance as a priority, allowing the students to retain their native language through dual-language education. More still, focus on transition but hope to encourage a positive attitude towards the students’ native language and culture.

Gaining the opportunity to interview a supervisor of the bilingual education program at an urban New Jersey school with a large Latino population, it became obvious that my project would become very much a case study of that school’s program. Its primary purpose was transition but with a focus on culture maintenance, so I would have to use other types of bilingual education to compare and contrast with that of this school.

The interview proved incredibly enlightening as to how this individual program worked, with almost 20% of the teachers working within it, aiding almost 400 students – one fifth of the student population. The problems faced by the school are those we see facing so many urban schools: students who have to work jobs outside of school to get by; parents who are missing or also engaged in work so that they are not able to help their children no matter how much they want to; younger siblings to look after school; an inability to relate to the very “middle class” format of tests because of their background (I was reminded of the video shown about the young child starting school in Camden and how his own experiences of poverty made it hard to relate to the idea of three meals a day).

Coupled with this are the unique problems caused by a lack of language proficiency, coming from a very different educational background or, perhaps, having no prior education at all. Similarly the problems faced by the (unknown) number of students who are not in the country legally and who, no matter how successful they may become in high school, cannot get funding for college and are, therefore, left with so much potential that can remain unfulfilled.

Yet, I found a program that was able to reach out to these students. During the interview, several students came into the office to speak with the supervisor – some who had left the program the previous year, yet had retained a close link to those who ran it. These are people who care about the students and want to do everything they can to help them succeed no matter what problems they face.

As I begin to pull all of my data together into the final project, I get a sense that I will have gone from little or no understanding of bilingual education in the United States, to a deeper appreciation of how it has come into existence and continues to work for students of all backgrounds and in different schools.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Inquiry Project Introduction

Immigration policy has always created many problems for the United States, from regulating the influx of those from other nations, to questions regarding the status of those already here. In recent decades, however, the education of the children of immigrants has posed increasing problems for both the government and school districts. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2050 one in five Americans will be an immigrant (Pew Research Center, 2008). An increasing number of schools will have to change to accommodate the particular needs of students who either come from another country, or have parents who made the journey. Right now, there are many urban school districts across the United States that are already dealing with the issues related to the education of the foreign-born who may be able to offer lessons to the rest of the country as the face of the nation changes.

One of the primary issues regarding the education of foreign-born students is supplying those who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) or use English as a Second Language (ESL) with the facilities required to bring them up to the standards of their native-born peers. Improved English-speaking abilities are undoubtedly required for academic success in the United States. While suburban school districts with a large immigrant population may have access to the resources that aid these students, the apparently limited resources available to urban schools may prove a barrier to the effective transition of limited-English speaking students.

Of course, schools do not have to make up all of these costs out of their own pockets. The federal government has been required to supply funds for bilingual education since the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and its subsequent amendments. Similarly, there is state funding available for LEP students. However, it is up to schools, based on their own individual needs, to decide how these funds can be proportioned. The question becomes a matter of where should these resources be spent to ensure the best education for all students.

This piece is going to look into the use of resources for foreign-born students and the children of immigrants in an urban school district in New Jersey that has an overwhelming number of students who fit into this category. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, Perth Amboy City school district had “approximately 1,300 LEP students in the Bilingual Program in grades K-12” in 2007. (NJDoE, 2008) This is a substantial program that handles a large number of immigrant as well as first generation American students who do not speak English as a first language. Coupled with the ESL program that the schools in the district also offer, they amount to a substantial amount of expenditure. Being an Abbott District, the school receives a large portion of its funding from the state to aid the education of students with special needs, including many of those in the bilingual education program.

My project will look at how these funds are allocated per student, as well as physical resources such as technology and available teaching staff. Through data analysis and a series of interviews with people involved in the bilingual education program, it will look at the extent to which the extra resources required to educate immigrants in urban schools have proven effective, and whether the extra focus that these students require can result in problems for the native-born minority.

Ultimately, my research aims to discover the best ways to ensure an equitable solution to the education of all students in American public schools, no matter their origins. The inevitable increase in immigration will mean that a large number of starting teachers will find themselves in a classroom with many LEP and ESL students as they progress in their careers. It will be essential for them to find a way to utilize the resources that they are given to ensure that both immigrants and native-born students are able to find success in changing schools within a changing nation.