AUSTIN, Texas — When public school teachers return to classrooms this month, they know one of the biggest challenges they’ll face is the growing number of students who will speak little or no English.
The proportion of students who need extra attention and schooling because of their limited language skills has been growing for years, adding to the workload of teachers who have seen per student spending by the state slide over the past five years.
Meanwhile, the percentage of what educators call English language learners — the most expensive children to teach — has grown from 13 percent in 2001 to 16.2 percent in 2012, numbering about 838,000 kids, according to the Texas Education Agency. But researchers have discovered another worrying trend: these children attend the state’s most segregated schools, where the vast most of their classmates are minorities and their districts among the most impoverished, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin.
Every educator knows that a child’s performance in school has more to do with what happens in their home than with their teachers. A child who doesn’t speak English at home or whose parents are not educated will not do as well on tests. A child who has to work to support their family has less time to study.
The Texas Education Agency reports that the number of economically disadvantaged students has risen from 50 percent in 2001 to about 60 percent in 2012. That’s 3 million children in Texas public schools. Meanwhile, gifted and talented programs dropped from 8.2 percent in 2001 to 7.6 percent in 2012. And this is not because of immigrants, since that population has dropped nearly 35 percent over the same period.
The study by education professors at The University of Texas at Austin found that minorities, English language learners and poor kids have become concentrated into low-performing schools and districts, decreasing their chances to overcome these impediments. In two-thirds of the schools that are intensely poor, English language learners are the majority of students.
“Our research revealed that schools where students are segregated by race/ethnicity, (socio-economic status) and language are overwhelmingly rated as low-performing,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, associate professor in the College of Education. Those schools also are staffed with some of the lowest-skilled teachers turnover tends to be high, he added.
In the past, schools and districts received ratings based on solely on how well the children scored on standardized tests. If a school or district failed to meet state expectations after three years, parents could pull their kids out and the state could shut the schools down.
That led to high turnover in struggling schools, where principals and teachers complained that they could only accomplish so much in a such a short period of time. Educators felt punished for agreeing to teach the state’s most difficult pupils.
This year Education Commissioner Michael Williams launched a new school accountability system and released new school ratings two weeks ago. Schools either meet or fail to meet standards, while some can earn distinctions for math and English. The biggest innovation, though, is that the system considers how much the students improve on standardized tests, not just how high they score.
That means school districts with lots of disadvantaged kids can still score well if they can help their poor performers quickly catch up. Williams hopes to reward educators who find ways to help disadvantaged kids.
Williams said that with 60 percent of Texas students living in poverty, this is a problem the state needs to address. But teachers can only do so much.
Despite low unemployment, the poverty rate in Texas continues to rise and that means more impoverished students who don’t speak English at home are entering the state’s schools. Meanwhile the state has dropped to 49th in the nation in per pupil spending.
Texas lawmakers restored some of the budget cuts to public schools this year, but it will still be less per capita than five years ago. The new school accountability system will give credit to schools who improve student performance, but that leaves teachers and parents to figure out how best to help Texas’ evolving student population.
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Chris Tomlinson is the AP’s supervisory correspondent in Austin responsible for state government and political reporting.