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Policy Research of Bilingual Education

Page history last edited by Snehal Pathak 14 years, 6 months ago

   English Language Learners Policy Research 

 

            The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires each state to measure adequate yearly progress (AYP) documenting that all students meet the federally mandated state proficiency goal. Furthermore, states not only need to separately measure AYP for what the United States Government Accountability Office (GOA, 2007) identifies as NCLB’s four specific focus groups: “students who (1) are economically disadvantaged, (2) represent major racial and ethnic groups, (3) have disabilities, and (4) are limited in English proficiency” (p. 12), but they also must document that at least 95 percent of the students in each group participate in the state assessments. NCLB’s focus on disaggregation was initially widely supported because, “breaking with a long tradition of Federal education policy that ignored racial and socioeconomic inequalities, NCLB takes an express interest in the education of minorities, economically disadvantaged children, nonnative speakers of English, and other groups historically at risk of falling through the cracks of the American education system” (Baugh & Welborn, 2009, p. 46). NCLB’s fundamental principle for disaggregating between class, race, ability, and language proficiency is meant to identify groups that teachers could readily assist and to hold schools accountable for these students’ academic improvement. However, in practice, students within each disaggregated subgroup are not mutually exclusive. For example, the results for an economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, disabled, ELL student could be counted towards four separate AYP results. Moreover, of the four disaggregated subgroups, ELLs are the only students who can exit their subgroup. Kieffer, Lesaux and Snow (2008) specifically identify the irony and frustration of how “the schools that are most successful at moving ELLs quickly out of special programs are punished the most severely by losing the most successful learners from that subgroup” (p. 61). Successfully mainstreaming ELLs ends up weakening that subgroup’s AYP reports; hence successful schools are threatened with further sanctions.

 

               Before addressing how NCLB assesses and accommodates ELLs, it is important to identify the historic change in ELL policy and the ELL population that NCLB now addresses. Firstly, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), was enacted to protect ELLs in obtaining equal educational opportunity from 1968 until 2001. BEA was reauthorized five times (1974, 1978, 1984, 1988, and 1994) and was intended to assist “language deficiencies” through bilingual educational means and in the name of educational equity (García, 2009). BEA did not mandate specific programs, but instead gave financial support to develop educational programs, such as bilingual education. The 1974 reauthorization specifically addressed native language inclusion, even though earlier native language programs were BEA financed, and also included Native American children’s languages, allowing students to enroll in bilingual education to better understand their native cultural heritage (García, 2009). 

 

           Secondly, the limited English proficient (LEP) population has drastically changed in the last 20 years and will continue to grow. As Goldenberg (2008) reports, “in 1990, one in 20 public school students in grades K-12 was an ELL... today the figure is 1 in 9 [and] demographers estimate that in 20 years it might be 1 in 4” (p. 10). In the last 20 years, this population has grown from two to five million students. It may not be surprising that 80 percent of current ELLs are Spanish speakers, yet what may be revealing is that the majority of ELLs were born in the United States (76 percent of elementary-age ELLs and 56 percent of middle- and high-school-age ELLs). Of those ELLs born in the U.S., 80 percent of their parents are foreign born (Goldenberg, 2008). Of those classed as ELLs, Kieffer et al. (2008) explain that there are actually at least three different classifications that correlate with language minority learners’ stage of schooling. First, students who may have been born in the U.S. but who speak their native language at home and who have high oral proficiency may be classed as initially fluent English proficient (I-FEP) and enrolled in mainstream classrooms without additional support. The second group, which is given the most attention, is composed of ELLs who are “considered to have an English proficiency level that compromises meaningful participation in mainstream classrooms, and thus, they receive support for language learning” (Kieffer et al., 2008, p. 59). Finally, once ELLs exit into mainstream classrooms, they are re-designated as fluent English proficient (R-FEP), yet, because different states and districts identify language minority students differently, there is not a consistent formula for who is classified as an ELL, I-FEP, or R-FEP within the ELL disaggregated subgroup (Kieffer et al., 2008). 

 

            Beyond differing classifications, policy makers should be concerned about how ELLs are best served and whether NLCB provides these services to the ELL population. Prior to NCLB, ELLs could be excluded from statewide assessments; hence, schools were not held accountable for assessing their academic improvement. Therefore, as Kieffer et al. (2008) comment, the spirit of NCLB is to make sure ELLs’ academic needs are met, but ensuring beneficial implementation and assessments are difficult to achieve. In practice, Goldenberg (2008) has shown that the achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs is widening; on average, ELLs’ academic achievement is lower than their non-ELL peers. For example, on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “fourth-grade ELLs scored 36 points below non-ELLs in reading and 25 points below non-ELLs in math,” where eighth grade gaps were even larger (Goldenberg, 2008, p. 11). Data sets, alone, do not explain these differences, but this paper will briefly address how socioeconomic factors, teacher preparation, and testing assessments and accommodations all influence ELL performance.

 

                Many social and economic factors can contribute to ELL educational risk. As previously noted, 80 percent of ELLs are Spanish speakers which “is an important fact to bear in mind, since Spanish speakers in the U.S. tend to come from lower economic and educational backgrounds ... for example, nearly 24 percent of immigrants from Mexico and Central America are below the poverty level” (Goldenberg, 2008, p. 10). Peterson (2009) examines how students’ backgrounds relate to high school dropout rates in Chicago; students from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups, which some ELL students belong to, have a 50 percent high school graduation rate. As Kieffer et al. (2008) note, “just as students of color and students coming from economically disadvantaged homes are at elevated risk, the entire population of language minority learners is at educational risk for reading difficulties and for school failure, more generally” (p. 61, emphasis added). This risk can be exacerbated if ELLs are placed in programs that do not provide them with the proper support.  

 

           Goldenberg (2008) summarized 2001-2002 school surveys to conclude that the majority of ELLs, approximately 60 percent, are placed in English-only instruction. Of these, one-fifth does not receive support services, while four-fifths receives all-English instruction with limited English proficient services.  This raises concerns as to whether mainstream classroom teachers are being specifically trained for the growing ELL population in their classrooms. August (2006) reports that public school mainstream teachers working with at least one ELL has grown from 15 percent in 1991-1992 to 42.6 percent in 2001-2002. Of those teachers whose primary responsibility was ESL instruction, 77.4 percent held an ESL certification; however, most teachers whose main responsibility was not ESL instruction had not received proper training of how to best serve this population. Furthermore, six out of ten mainstream teachers who worked with at least three ELLs had a median of four hours of in-service training within the previous five years (August, 2006).

 

          The way in which ELL assessments and accommodations serve ELLs is also questionable. NCLB abstains from making ELLs participate in state assessments during their first year in U.S. schools, but during their second and third year, ELLs must take the state assessment, and schools can decide whether or not to include ELL scores in their AYP reporting. After three or more consecutive years, NCLB mandates annual assessments in English for all students, including ELLs (García, 2009).  GOA (2007) explains that NCLB policy “requires that students with limited English proficiency receive reasonable accommodations and be assessed, to the extent practicable, in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on their academic knowledge” (p. 11). However, accommodations for ELLs in the form of bilingual dictionaries, reading items aloud in English, extra time, small group administration, or native language versions of the exams, do not necessarily “even the playing ground.” GOA (2007) acknowledges that, “research is lacking on what specific accommodations are appropriate for students with limited English proficiency, as well as their effectiveness in improving the validity of assessment results” (p. 18). Without proper guidance or conceptual understanding, ELLs do not benefit from such accommodations. 

 

          It is important to understand the different approaches to teaching ELLs: approaches that encourage fluency in English and native languages, and approaches that prepare students for monolingual (English-only) classroom instruction. There are multiple forms of bilingual education models. Firstly, two-way bilingual education programs emphasize cultural respect and understanding and usually, gradually increase instructional language until the needs of the students meet half-time instruction in English and the native language (Brisk, 2006). Dr. Corinne Váron-Green, a second grade English teacher at the Amigos School (a two-way bilingual immersion school in Cambridge, MA) argues that two-way programs benefit ELLs because they enhance the cognitive development of students, and encourage learning academic English while not forgetting their native language. She argues that whereas Structured English Immersion (SEI) programs segregate ELL students, do not allow them to have native English speakers as friends, and promote a “them vs. us” mentality, two-way programs help students develop more advanced critical thinking skills and metacognitive understanding of language and culture.  When students are immersed in a multicultural, multilingual educational environment, they are able to understand things at a deeper level. She also states that two-way bilingual education programs promote interdependence between students, where status roles get reversed and majority students become a minority and need help from their non-English speaking classmate (C. Váron-Green, personal communication, November 12, 2009). As stated above, because many ELLs are at risk for poor school outcomes not only because of language, but also because of socioeconomic factors, Dr. José Ruiz-Escalante, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, advocates for dual language education to help level the academic gap. He argues that all children can learn regardless of where they come from and that pobrecito (“poor little child”) should be eliminated from vocabulary attached to ELLs. Instead, he argues for a solid emphasis on content development, more than linguistic development, to encourage ELL students to think, to learn, and to succeed academically (J. Ruiz-Escalante, personal communication, November 14, 2009). 

 

             Secondly, maintenance programs only serve ELL students; they promote cultural heritage and build-up towards English proficiency by using the native language and English for literacy and subject matter comprehension, but unlike two-way programs, ELLs are segregated from their non-ELL peers. Lastly, transitional bilingual education (TBE) uses the native language for content instruction at the same time students learn English until they are totally mainstreamed. This can vary from 90 percent native language and 10 percent English instruction, to half-time native language and English instruction. Yet, because TBE is deemed successful by how quickly students exit, there is pressure to mainstream ELL students (Brisk, 2006). On the other hand, English-only instruction models are not designed to retain native languages or to promote cultural heritage. Instead, their only goal is to enhance English proficiency. English as a Second Language (ESL) programs provide additional instruction for English proficiency on top of ELL students’ normal mainstreamed day, and SEI programs segregate same language groups for personalized English instruction where content instruction is taught using simplified language to enhance English proficiency (Brisk, 2006).

 

          Even though there are different approaches to teach ELLs, NCLB policy mandates and tests English proficiency. Therefore it is important to analyze from within this policy to summarize what Goldenberg (2008) identifies as three practices to best improve ELL English proficiency. Firstly, “teaching students to read in their first language promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English” (p. 14). Transfer, or learning skills in one’s native language assists better understanding of literacy, vocabulary, and conceptual frameworks in English. Professor Catherine Snow explains that for elementary-aged children “instruction that mostly occurs in the native language and introduces oral English slowly and literate English only after oral English has achieved a reasonable level of fluency, is safest, most risk free, and not any less efficient, and also better at protecting the home language” (personal communication, November 10, 2009). Educators who support native language instruction also point out the cultural value of allowing students to maintain fluency in their home language. Jamy Stillman, a professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, says that students’ cultural and linguistic diversity adds value to the class, and that good teachers are able to encourage learning through this avenue (personal communication, November 10, 2009). However, teachers cannot assume that transfer is automatic because students may not know a concept in their native tongue and still need to learn it.

 

         Secondly, Goldenberg (2008) highlights “what we know about good instruction and curriculum in general holds true for English learners as well” (p. 17). All instruction that benefits non-ELLs, instruction that is labeled as simply good teaching, also benefits ELLs. Such direct and indirect instructional techniques include explicit vocabulary, phonetics, cooperative learning, oral instructional conversations, and skill building. Heather Clements, who teaches at the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, CA, recommends word-banks, visuals, pre-teaching vocabulary, writing sentence starters, structured outlines, and to contextualize the information and make it apply to students’ lives; if you’re talking about Romeo and Juliet, you can make it apply to either a telanovela or Twilight. (personal communication, November 11, 2009). J. Stillman also emphasizes the importance of contextualizing language instruction. In her opinion, the scripted curricula used for English immersion by many urban schools with high numbers of ELLs not only treat students as though they have a cultural deficit, but also teach the English language as though it is simply a laundry list of discrete skills, rather than an adaptive tool one uses to derive meaning from words in context (personal communication, November 10, 2009). 

 

         Lastly, Goldenberg (2008) identifies that “when instructing English learners in English, teachers must modify instruction to take into account students’ language limitation” (p. 18). ELLs have a double challenge of learning skills and content at the same time as the language of instruction. Therefore, mainstream teachers need to modify their instructional practices to include word recognition, vocabulary development, cognate identifiers, and clearly pronouncing letter sounds to better scaffold ELL progress. 

 

         It is also imperative to better prepare ELLs for academic English. ELLs must distinguish academic English from conversational English, understand academic vocabulary, perform reading comprehension activities, and connect scientific and mathematical concepts, ideas and facts to compete on standardized exams (Kieffer et al., 2008). Academic language directly relates to what is being assessed as proficient on NCLB mandated standardized exams and therefore the same academic language needs to be practiced in mainstream classes. NCLB’s Title III mandates monitoring English proficiency beyond just mainstreaming students and is usually tested in alignment with English language standards. This is problematic because overall academic success includes content areas of math, science, and social studies, not just language arts. Therefore, if language proficiency exams do not measure the same challenging academic language needed for content area academic success, the proficiency tests are a disservice to ELLs and fail to prepare them with the necessary academic language needed to close the content area achievement gap between their non-ELL peers (Kieffer et al., 2008). Thus, since NCLB policy holds schools accountable for assessing ELL subgroup progress towards English proficiency, to better serve ELLs, Kieffer et al. (2008) recommend high-quality instruction that better prepares ELL students for assessment in academic language, long-term assessment measurements, and “identifying the whole population of language minority students as a disaggregation category when calculating AYP” (p. 60).

 

 

 

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