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Policy Analysis of Bilingual Education

Page history last edited by Greg Wickersham 13 years, 11 months ago


 Policy Analysis

               All parties in the national dialogue over how best to serve English language learners (ELLs) agree that our nation cannot allow such a large and rapidly growing subgroup of students to lag behind their native-English speaking peers. Because  the costs of continuing to under-serve this population far outweigh the costs of providing adequate and equitable schooling to all students, policy makers must put aside ideological differences and take action to assure quality education for ELLs. Because this is a nationwide dilemma, it is the onus of the federal government to leverage its power to provide incentives to states and local school boards to improve their services. In order to do this, the federal government should target the following areas: improve instructional quality for ELLs, grant local autonomy of program design in exchange for accountability, make significant changes to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability and testing requirements, encourage external support services for immigrant families, and promote a value for bilingualism for all students. 


Improving Instructional Quality 


            Any program for ELLs--bilingual, two-way, or English as a Second Language (ESL)-- requires consistent high-quality implementation in order to be effective. ELL policy must seek to improve instructional quality. The first step is to establish an agreed upon set of standards for academic English proficiency for which districts can be held accountable. Current NCLB guidelines for assessing English proficiency do not adequately emphasize testing academic English, the more complex and vocabulary-rich language students need to access academic material (Keiffer, et. al. 2008). A national set of standards might look similar to those currently used by 19 states known as the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium. WIDA emphasizes a research-based set of tiered standards for both social and academic English language development in grades K-12, which focus on both language and content area development (WIDA Consortium website). The federal government can hold states accountable to adopt WIDA or a similar set of standards, as well as to meet established measures of progress on those standards. Adopting nationwide standards would not only keep states accountable to raising students’ academic English proficiency, but it would also assure consistency of instruction for migratory populations (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). In addition, national norms for ELL entry and exit criteria should be established. Criteria should be based not only on tests such as WIDA’s ACCESS test, but on other sources of supporting information, including academic achievement and teacher ratings (Ragan & Lesaux, 2006).


            If the federal government is going to hold schools accountable, it must provide states and local districts with the capacity to improve their instructional quality through recruitment of qualified personnel and professional development for existing personnel. First, qualified bilingual teachers, including those proficient in students’ first languages, are needed. To meet this need, the federal government and the states must find ways to supply the schools with qualified personnel. They might follow the example of The Georgia Project, which in 1997, created a partnership with the University of Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, bringing over 60 native Spanish speaking teachers to rural Georgia schools, and training U.S. teachers in Spanish, ESL methods, and culture (National Immigration Forum website, 2007). 


           Furthermore, the existing teaching force must be equipped to keep up with the changing standards and expectations. Existing Title III money can be used to provide intensive and ongoing training for ELL teachers in the approved standards, and for mainstream teachers working with ELLs using appropriate methods and strategies for making content knowledge comprehensible. Furthermore, the federal government can prod districts and teacher training institutes to utilize proven, research-based models such as the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP)—a widely used instructional model for effectively teaching content to ELLs—as training for content area teachers working with ELLs (SIOP Institute website, 2007). Furthermore, exemplary professional development models such as that of the Internationals Network for Public Schools mentioned in the previous section can be adopted by other school districts.



Local Autonomy with Accountability


           One effect of the California, Arizona, and Massachusetts measures was a severe restriction on the autonomy of localities to choose the program model that best fits their population. Dr. José Ruiz-Escalante cleverly points out that “we don’t let the general public decide how to teach reading or math”(personal communication, November 14, 2009).   In other words, it is the educators’ job to determine pedagogy, but these measures took that decision out of their hands. NCLB further eroded district’s options through its high-stakes testing requirements by forcing a focus on early testing, as well as through its removal of the term bilingual education from the law. In order to best serve their students, districts should have some flexibility with regard to the program model they choose. Thus, the federal government should grant autonomy to districts, in exchange for accountability based on strict, established standards as mentioned above. Under such a policy, areas with high concentrations of a stable, single language population might employ two-way immersion programs. For those with more linguistic diversity, intensive, content-based ESL instruction with sufficient supports for students, such as highly qualified bilingual teacher’s aides, extended school hours, academic tutoring, and strong parental outreach, might be optimal.



Changes to the No Child Left Behind Requirements


           Positively, NCLB has focused attention on ELLs, forcing schools to prioritize the achievement of these students. However, the increased focus on high-stakes testing has largely put ELLs at a disadvantage (Keiffer, et. al, 2008). Several changes will have to be made to this bill as it is reauthorized. First, the disaggregated subgroup should be changed to include the whole population of Language Minority students, not just ELLs (Keiffer, et. al., 2008). For one, this would mean that schools will no longer be punished for having success with ELLs who then test out of the subgroup. It will also force schools to be accountable for the students’ performance throughout their schooling, an important issue because all language minority students are considered an at-risk group. Finally, it would create uniformity across states and districts in the definition of the subgroup, which currently does not exist (Kieffer, et.al., 2008).


            Second, high-stakes testing must be reconsidered. In order to accurately test students’ content knowledge, some tests, where feasible, should be provided in the native language of students who have not had adequate time to acquire sufficient academic language skills for the tests, as Texas does for students up through fifth grade (J. Ruiz-Escalante, personal communication, November, 14, 2009). Admittedly, this cannot be done for students in every language, but can be done for larger linguistic populations. When testing is administered in English, sufficient accommodations must be made to assure that the tests accurately assess the students’ content knowledge and skills (Suarez-Orozco, 2009). Furthermore, testing for language minority students must measure both academic language development and content knowledge. An assessment such as WIDA’s ACCESS test, which measures academic language proficiency in language arts, math, social studies, and science, is a step in the right direction (WIDA Consortium website). Benchmarks for progress must be grounded in language acquisition research. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect students to gain academic proficiency in English after one year in an ELL program when research shows that academic proficiency takes 5-7 years. Furthermore, additional measures of proficiency such as student portfolios, classroom performance, and teacher recommendations, should be balanced with test scores to obtain more accurate measures of student progress (García, 2009; Suarez-Orozco, 2009).



External Support Services


             While ELLs come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, a significant number of immigrant ELLs come from families of low socio-economic status, and often grow up in linguistically isolated communities. As a result, they enter school at a significant disadvantage to their native English-speaking peers, not only in language, but also in social capital. Federal policy towards ELLs, then, should encourage external social support structures, such as early childhood programs and pre-school programs that are accessible and tailored to meet the language and cultural needs of immigrant children (Suarez-Orozco, 2009). Such programs might start as early as age three, and should emphasize social and linguistic development, with an eye toward preparing children for their entry into schooling. In order to receive federal support, these programs must be staffed by appropriately qualified individuals and use a research-based model of early childhood intervention. Furthermore, since such programs might be culturally unfamiliar to many immigrant parents, they must be accompanied by an aggressive community outreach campaign (Suarez-Orozco, 2009).


           Furthermore, to assist students throughout their schooling, the federal government should encourage the increase of community-based supports such as mentoring and after-school programs for immigrant youth. It has been shown that students who are supported through mentoring relationships are more likely to stay in school, perform better academically, and are less likely to engage in anti-social behaviors (Rhodes, 2002). In addition, after-school programs, such as those provided by community organizations or churches, also support student outcomes by providing academic tutoring and assistance with homework, as well extra-curricular activities that promote positive identity and self-confidence (Suarez-Orozco, 2009). The federal government should use its influence to encourage the replication of such programs.



Promoting the Value of Bilingualism


           In a globalized economy, proficiency in more than one language is a growing asset for an individual and the nation. Language minority students losing their native language is both unnecessary and unfortunate. Even some opponents of bilingual education models, such as. Dr. Rosalie Porter, believe that it is a worthwhile goal to graduate students proficient and literate in two languages (personal communication, November 13, 2009). It behooves our leaders to encourage bilingualism and multilingualism where possible. C. Snow suggests that to accomplish this, proficiency in a second language, determined by a rigorous standardized exam, be made a high school graduation requirement, which would give schools and parents an incentive to work to maintain immigrant children’s first language (personal communication, November 10, 2009). At the same time, it would impel districts to improve foreign language programs for native English speakers. While it might not be feasible to impose such a requirement uniformly, the federal government could create incentives for states and districts to offer something like a special diploma add-on for students who attain bilingualism. For example, the number of students graduating with a bilingual endorsement on their diploma could be used as a district measure toward adequate yearly progress, much as the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes is used now.


           To further encourage bilingualism, districts that have demographics that favor the two-way bilingual immersion model should be encouraged to utilize that model. It is “the best practice we have for English Language Learners” (J. Ruiz-Escalante, personal communication, November 14, 2009) at the elementary school level. This model best prevents the loss of the home language and supports academic and cognitive development in two languages, so it is the most promising model for developing students who are bilingual and biliterate. 


           By establishing uniform standards, providing states and local districts with the capacity to meet those standards, allowing sufficient flexibility to districts, and assuring that students have the support they need, the federal government can significantly impact the academic outcomes of all students, not only ELLs, and boost the nation towards greater global competitiveness in the 21st century.




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