January 26, 2007

English Language Learners Benefit Under The Law

By Sarah Sparks
Education Daily

The most important pressure driving No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act reauthorization is likely to come from a shift, not of politics, but of population: the swelling ranks of American students who do not speak English. Of all student groups, English language learners (ELLs) have gained the most attention and, some argue, have made the most progress in the last five years of the law, thanks to NCLB’s requirement that schools teach ELLs at the same level and in the same classrooms as their classmates.

“NCLB may be the most important piece of immigrant integration legislation enacted in the last decade,” said Jeanne Batalova, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “It not only requires districts to identify and educate immigrant students, but it holds districts accountable for what they learn.”

If ELLs have benefited the most, they also have been among the most confounding groups to assess properly. The two standards that govern their advancement, Title I’s adequate yearly progress and Title III’s annual measurable achievement objectives, seemed at times to work at cross-purposes. Moreover, the group is growing so explosively that stakeholders worry any changes in teacher preparation along with English learner identification and assessment will not come quickly enough.

NCLB is “going to drive what goes on in our schools,” said Delia Pompa, education vice president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy group. “We need to be careful and move in a reasoned way,” Pompa said. Kathleen Leos, assistant deputy education secretary for Title III’s Office of English Language Acquisition, acknowledged that ELL enrollment has already outstripped available ELL specialists in many districts. Further, mainstream teachers still do not have sufficient training in language acquisition.

The population is rapidly nearing a tipping point in which classroom teachers “can’t call on the ESL teacher; they’re going have to be the ESL teachers,” Leos warned.

While more than three-quarters of all ELL students speak Spanish, there are more than 350 languages spoken in America’s schools — 160 in New York alone. English learners have been growing 10 percent a year since NCLB took effect. In a decade or less, every American classroom is expected to have at least one English learner.

Laying the groundwork

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last summer launched a new federal-state LEP partnership to develop better assessments and professional development programs, in hopes of having more detailed options for lawmakers going into reauthorization.

However, the most common request made by ELL educators, policymakers and parents has been for flexibility in dealing with the diverse funding streams and standards, and the disparate types of English learners.

“It’s going to be critically important at the federal level that we put together a framework that leverages the support needed for this and the flexibility states need to implement this,” said Roberto Rodriguez, senior education adviser to Senate education committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “Issues of assessment accountability, instruction and teacher preparation” need to be addressed going into reauthorization.

However, local and state governments are likely to take a larger role in dealing with English learners as the ELL population soars in rural America, said Fred Carrigg, the New Jersey education commis-sioner’s special assistant for urban literacy.

Local education officials often are not equipped to answer non-pedagogical concerns from government and civic groups, he noted. “We need to develop a language and strategy for communicating to people who are well intentioned about what we can do with the resources we have,” Carrigg said.

Further, officials need to “develop a flexibility in state policies that allows us to address this in a meaningful way without opening up barriers that will lead to people saying this is just too expensive.” That’s very difficult, he added, “because we’re talking about strong interventions [and] complex solutions for a relatively small population.”

Yet La Raza’s Pompa cautioned against a more detailed LEP definition part of the law’s reauthorization. “I think it’s highly unlikely that you are going to be able to legislate that every state change its definition,” Pompa said.

More money, complexity

Pre-NCLB, ELL programs came under Title VII, a competitive grant program for local districts. Grant winners were chosen for creative programs or high-need areas, but evaluation focused on each program’s implementation, not on its effectiveness in teaching students English, or their other core academic subjects.

Ruiz said funding has never been more stable or concentrated on the students. Before, there was always the risk that a superintendent might not be in favor of LEP programs, he said. After NCLB, “it was easier to do your job because you weren’t fighting to get the programs,” Ruiz said. “They were required — so people got to concentrate on making quality programs.”

In making Title III a formula grant, Congress wanted to meet the exploding ELL population (see map and chart) with a regular funding stream and more cohesive language standards to complement Title I’s requirement that LEP students meet grade-level academic standards. Since 2001, Congress has increased its authorized funding for English learners by more than $200 million to $650 million in 2006.

Yet while Title I’s standards and testing requirements built on what already existed - nearly all states had some sort of reading and math tests in place, though of widely varying quality - the reverse was true for Title III.

Rodriguez said Congress struggled with how to define limited English proficiency from the start. As a result, the guidelines were left vague, allowing states to determine how to identify students for services. That, some critics argue, has led to wide variation in what states deem as language proficiency.

“If you are only defining based on oral proficiency,” Rodriguez said, “you’re missing the written, reading, listening literacy that’s really critical to their academic development.”

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s research arm, found some severe discrepancies in how the Census Bureau and states identified students as LEP, which may be causing grant inequalities.

New thinking

The new standards and emerging assessments are just beginning to permeate from the state to district level, and Leos said classroom-level implementation has not yet gained a strong foothold.

“I was surprised at the level of initial resistance at moving from district to state account ability. We had two years of pretty strong resistance,” Leos said.

That may have had less to do with defiance than disarray, suggested Nancy Zelasko, director of the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. “The diversity within the diversity, within the diversity of LEP students is very difficult for states and districts to understand and deal with,” she said.

For states like Florida and New York, both with strong laws on bilingual education, it has meant rethinking their own programs.

Lisa Saavedra, Florida’s Title III director, said lawsuits initially drove the state to require LEP education long before NCLB was enacted, and “most NCLB requirements Florida was already doing.”

While New York’s Ruiz agreed, he said new Title I regulations requiring states to include all immigrant students who have been in American schools 12 months or more has caused headaches.  New York will test those students for both AYP and AMAO reporting for this first time this spring.

“It has been a big change in coordinating information, making sure teachers have the training to implement it, informing the parents,” Ruiz said. “It’s been quite a challenge to change the mentality of people from feeling LEP instruction is a burden to feeling it’s an opportunity to develop better opportunities for our kids.”

Capacity problems

LEP education under NCLB “better in most every way,” said Steven Ross, director of Nevada’s Title III programs. Even so, the vast increase in reporting requirements for both AYP and AMAO has created a severe training and capacity shortage, particularly since Nevada has one of the fastest-growing LEP populations in the country.

“The problem in Nevada is, I am the Title III office,” Ross said. He gathers the LEP data jointly with Title I and all of the districts “are a little bit overwhelmed by the amount of data we have to collect,” he said. “We have to help some counties just to understand the terminology. Sometimes I feel the bureaucracy outweighs the results.”

Leos said it has taken states more than four years to create standards that encompass the four areas of language —listening, speaking, reading and writing— and test their children at least once.

The Title III office has, in the past year, begun to evaluate how well language standards align with grade-level content standards and incorporate academic language. That’s something ED estimated states would be doing by now.

It’s not as strictly defined as Title I in term of “how this world folds into the other world” of the mainstream classroom, Leos said.

“From my perspective, the Title I world has had 20 years to put together content standards and align them to assessments and live through compliance monitoring and all that. The Title III world has had four years to do all that. A lot of it is cutting edge. I don’t think we have a sense yet of how good is good enough.”

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