Federal Reporter's Notebook

A Balancing Act: NCLB’s Renewal, English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 27, 2007 3 min read
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For more stories on this topic see No Child Left Behind.

For background, previous stories, and Web links, read English Language Learners and No Child Left Behind.

While expressing doubts about whether their concerns will be taken seriously in Congress, some people at a conference for teachers of English-language learners last week spoke at a breakout session about ways they believe the No Child Left Behind Act should be improved to better benefit such students.

It is not a good sign, said James Crawford, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Language and Education Policy, that a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee scheduled a hearing about the reauthorization of the federal education law and English-language learners for March 23—during the time when more than 6,500 educators convened here for the annual conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

The TESOL conference was held March 21-24.

“They chose to hold the hearing this week, when the educators are on the other coast,” Mr. Crawford said. He made no suggestion that the timing was a deliberate snub, but said that teachers may want to write to legislators, saying, “ ‘This doesn’t look very good, Congressmen, if you want to consider the views of educators.’ ”

Mary Lou McCloskey, an adjunct professor with Georgia State University in Atlanta and a former president of TESOL, said it’s a problem that the 5-year-old law requires schools within a state to meet the same adequate-yearly-progress goals for all English-language learners as for other students, but doesn’t recognize how “the starting places” for such students can vary dramatically.

Other speakers sharing the panel echoed her view that the federal law should move beyond a “one size fits all” approach to English-learners.

Ms. McCloskey complained that the law didn’t create a category for the teachers of English-learners under its requirement that schools employ “highly qualified” teachers. A statement by the TESOL organization recommends that the reauthorization of the act include teachers of English-learners in those provisions.

Beth Arnow, the director of programs for English-learners in Gwinnett County public schools in Georgia, said educators in her 152,000-student school district “have tried to take lemons and make lemonade” in addressing requirements for English-learners under the NCLB law.

One good aspect of the law, in her view, is that the requirement for districts to disaggregate test scores for English-learners, along with certain other subgroups of students. That “makes it impossible to overlook English-language learners,” Ms. Arnow said. She also is pleased that the law has required states to create better assessments for English-language proficiency.

However, she argued, the law may undermine student achievement in the long run because teachers have responded to its emphasis on testing by tailoring their lessons to what’s on the test.

Bethany Plett, a teacher of English as a second language in the Highline school district in Seatac, Wash., contends that a requirement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in its grantmaking for the small-schools movement has made it difficult for large high schools that have broken up into smaller schools to serve English-language learners after the breakups.

In her dissertation for a Ph.D in education at Texas A&M University in College Station, Ms. Plett is conducting qualitative research on three large, comprehensive high schools in the Puget Sound area of Washington state that broke up into smaller schools. She is not naming the schools or educators interviewed in her study.

She said that a requirement of the Gates Foundation that English-learners must, for “equity” reasons, be distributed throughout all of the smaller schools after a breakup of a large school prevents educators from concentrating English-language learners in one smaller school and consolidating their staff and resources to meet their needs. Her study shows that the breakup of large schools into smaller ones has led educators to place English-language learners in mainstream classes, where they receive no extra help, at earlier stages in their English-language development than was true when the smaller schools operated as one large one.

“On a Gates grant, the best you can do is to put one teacher for English-language learners in every [small school],” Ms. Plett said. In the schools she has studied, she said, that has led to less help for English-learners than they received in large schools.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week

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