In reform, real focus on needs on students 

Oklahoma’s education debate spends a lot of time on a few familiar subjects: education funding vs. tax cuts, vouchers and charters vs. traditional public schools and high-stakes testing vs. letting teachers teach.

What’s too often missing from these debates is any consideration of the needs of real students. We’ve lost sight of the reasons kids struggle in the classroom and what teaching strategies might overcome those barriers.

A recent Oklahoma Policy Institute report, Education Action Items for Oklahoma, attempts to remove that blind spot. Among other proposals, the report calls for Oklahoma to focus on teaching English Language Learners (ELLs).

Oklahoma’s Hispanic population has nearly doubled over the last decade. By 2011, almost 1 in 7 (14 percent) of K-12 students in Oklahoma were Hispanic. The percentage in large urban districts is far higher, already 46 percent of the Oklahoma City school district.

Contrary to the stereotype, 72 percent of Oklahoma Hispanics, and 93 percent of those under 18, are American citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These children are a lasting part of the state’s community and future workforce; if they do not succeed, the entire state’s prosperity will be diminished.

Hispanic children create special edu cational system challenges. According to the census, a significant minority (19 percent) of them in Oklahoma reported speaking English “not well” or “not at all.” Educators define these students as ELLs, and test results unsurprisingly show they face difficulties in school.

The gap in fourth-grade reading scores between ELLs and the state average is many times greater than the gap between the state average and the nation as a whole. If we want to improve the state average, we need to tailor interventions to help those who are falling behind.

Multiple studies have found that ELLs need an intensive focus on language learning in pre-kindergarten through third grade to reach the fluency of native English speakers. English-only education has been shown to reduce English proficiency for ELLs compared to those who receive bilingual instruction.

The good news is that, when provided the right educational environment, research shows ELLs are just as capable of learning a challenging curriculum as any other student. In fact, fluency in multiple languages helps promote creativity, a focus on details and understanding of how language is structured. For these reasons, bilingual education has been shown to benefit ELLs and native English speakers alike.

Students bring very different backgrounds and challenges to school.

Acknowledging this fact does not mean we have given up on their ability to learn. It does mean that education reforms should begin not with our political ideologies but with the simple question, “What do students need?” For a constructive debate, we should all take a step back and bring the students most in need of help to the front.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

Gene Perry is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute (

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