The two largest public school systems in the country — New York City and Los Angeles — this week acknowledged that they had been failing to meet the needs of English language learners and promised to implement new programs to improve the situation.

The trouble in these systems underscores the depth of the problem faced by systems around the country.

In the last decade, the number of English language learners enrolled in public schools across the country has skyrocketed, from 3.5 million in 1997-98 to 5.3 million in 2008-09. That’s a 51 percent jump, and many school systems have not had resources to meet the needs of these children.

The New York Times reported that state education officials announced Wednesday that the city’s public schools are providing poor services to too many English language learners and set out a plan to improve.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Education Department announced that it had resolved the first proactive civil rights enforcement action that had been taken by President Obama’s Education Department, which targeted the district’s efforts to provide educational opportunities to English language learners and resources to African American students that were comparable to other groups.

Los Angeles schools officials have agreed to redo its program for English language learners. Among the actions it voluntarily agreed to take are:

*Develop and implement a new English language learners master plan,

*Undertake professional development that strengthens the delivery of instruction to these students.

*Communicate with parents so they understand the program and their child’s progress.

Action to help African-American students includes, according to an Education Department release:

*Ensure African-American students are more fairly evaluated and placed in gifted and talented programs.

*Take steps to report disparate discipline rates, and eliminate inequitable and disproportionate discipline practices.

*Renew its focus on identifying the academic English needs of African-American students and ensuring that they have the instructional supports necessary so that they graduate college and career ready.

The New York City school system had been ordered by the state more than a year ago to come up with a plan to improve this situation. Why it took so long was unclear.

John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, was quoted by the Times as saying at a news conference that only 7 percent of the city’s English language learners were found to have graduated on time and ready for college and careers in 2010. And reading and math standardized test scores for these students were far below city averages.

Modern school reformers have made teacher accountability their central focus, leaving issues such as these less present in the national debate about how to improve schools. Until this dynamic changes in a big way, schools, unfortunately, won’t.

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