Students at low-performing Palm Lane Elementary School in Anaheim recently scored a major victory when Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks approved a parent group’s petition to assume leadership of the school and convert it to a charter school.
The takeover is especially good news for Palm Lane’s students who are learning English as a second language, because California’s charter schools have proven more effective than traditional public schools at educating children who aren’t native English speakers.
At Palm Lane Elementary, only seven percent of English-learning fourth graders scored proficient or above in English language arts, and just 28 percent scored proficient in math, in 2013. That’s considerably worse than Orange County as a whole, where 33 percent of English learners in fourth grade scored proficient in Language Arts and 59 percent scored proficient or above in math in 2013. And while a few Orange County school districts, like Laguna Unified, have student populations with small numbers of English learners, the majority of districts have significant numbers of English learners – the county average is 27 percent.
English-learning students in Anaheim City School District and Santa Ana Unified, where more than 60 percent of students are English learners, also score below the county and state proficiency rates in language arts and math.
These statistics demonstrate the need for improvements, not just at Palm Lane, but countywide. And, thankfully, charter schools are making progress.
A recent study by the California Charter Schools Association, Success for English Learners in Charter Schools, finds that students classified as English learners in charter schools had a 19 point advantage over their traditional public school peers on California’s Academic Performance Index, a statewide accountability system.
Similarly, a 2014 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that English-learning students in California charter schools gained nearly two additional months of learning in language arts and 2 1/2 months in math compared to similar students in traditional public schools.
So how are charter schools achieving these improved outcomes? One way is through the utilization of innovative teaching practices.
The California Charter Schools Association study interviewed school leaders at 18 charter schools with above average enrollments of English learners and above average student API scores. They found these school leaders used several research-based instructional techniques with a high degree of commitment and teacher collaboration. The Institute of Education Science’s guide to effective English learner instructional practices recommends several of the instructional strategies used in the charters. For example, the charters focus on differentiated instruction to tailor lessons to students learning English, use intervention strategies that focus on the early identification of students with learning needs, break out students for small group instruction and extended English language development courses. The schools have missions that focused on inclusiveness, language mastery and college readiness for their students.
Sadly, however, Orange County has not been supportive of charter schools. Of the 1,200 charter schools in California, Orange County has only 16, or just over 1 percent of the state’s total. In contrast, Los Angeles is home to 30 percent of the state’s charters. Many other school districts in California have more than 10 percent of their students enrolled in charter schools, including San Diego, Sacramento, Inglewood and Oakland.
While Palm Lane Elementary School’s upcoming request for charter school proposals is welcome news and has the potential to improve outcomes for students, more kids in Orange County should have the opportunity to attend charter schools. And English learners at traditional schools could benefit greatly from a little competition from charter schools, which are generating a proven track record of educating these students.
Let’s hope that in coming years, Orange County’s school districts embrace these high performing charter schools, providing school choice for all students and parents.
Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.