Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Start of a Necessary Conversation

Every year at the AACC, I make a point of attending the Community College Research Center reception.  The CCRC folks are terrific people doing crucial work; I’ve been a fan of theirs, publicly, for years.  They’ve always been gracious enough to let me in.

And every year I nudge them about the same topic.  “What about ESL?” Whether I had anything to do with it or not, I’m happy to report that they’ve taken up the topic with a new report that I hope is the first of many.

Developmental education reform, guided pathways, and ASAP-style programs have been the (deserving) subjects of study for years.  But when it comes to ESL, many of us who aren’t specialists in that field have been flying blind for a long time.

That’s because it’s “sorta” like many things, but not really.  It’s sorta like remedial or developmental English, except that some of the students are much more fluent in another language than they are in English, and that those other languages may differ from each other in significant ways.  (For example, Russian doesn’t have “articles” in the way that English does. There’s no equivalent of “the.” Try to explain why we go to college, but we go to the university. Why the article in the latter case but not the former?  It’s harder than you’d think.) It’s sorta like American students taking French classes, except that there’s more urgency to it, given the location, and it’s much less likely to count for degree credit or to transfer.

It comes in different flavors, too.  There’s basic life English, which is often taught by local NGO’s.  There’s contextualized occupational English, such as what might be taught in a CNA program.  (In three years of high school French, I don’t think I was ever taught the word for “gauze.” But a CNA probably needs to know that right away.)  And then there’s academic English, taught with the goal of enabling a student to get an academic degree here. That tends to mirror the remedial model most closely, though sometimes with more emphasis on American culture and idioms.  

ESL students aren’t all the same.  As the report notes, some are illiterate in two languages, some (“Generation 1.5”) are fluent in spoken English but shaky in written, and some are college-educated in other languages, but weak in English.  Some may have grown up here and even graduated high school here; others may be new arrivals to America. That mix presents both a teaching challenge and a management challenge. Interventions that work for one student profile may not work for another.

The report notes, too, that there’s no broadly accepted placement tool for ESL.  Some tools exist, but there’s no consensus around one or two. That can make large-scale comparisons difficult.  It also may explain why there’s such variation in the number of levels of ESL offered at various colleges. In my observation, the range is much broader than it is with remediation.

The report doesn’t cover financial aid, but I hope its sequel will.  Financial aid and ESL are a tricky fit. That trickiness forced many colleges to move the lowest levels of ESL to the non-credit side, and to pay for them differently.  Anecdotally, financial aid has had more direct impact on ESL than on remediation. When the current wave of xenophobia passes, I’d like to see some policy clarity on it.  But given where we are, for the moment, ambiguity may not be the worst thing.

I commend the report to your reading.  It’s complicated, and it doesn’t offer any quick fixes, but it does some much-needed groundwork to start an intelligent conversation that we desperately need to have.  My thanks to Julia Raufman, Jessica Brathwaite, and Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian, the authors of the report, whom I hope to meet at the next conference, and to the CCRC generally for stepping up.  This is exactly the sort of thing community colleges need to get right.