Ed. Department Focus on English-Learners Seen Waning

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 11, 2012 10 min read
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As the number of English learners continues to grow faster than that of any other group in the nation’s public schools, concerns are mounting that the distinctive needs of those students and the educators who work with them are receiving diminishing attention from the U.S. Department of Education.

Even as the federal government spends roughly $750 million a year to help educate a population that’s grown to be one out of every 10 students, the department’s office of English-language acquisition, or OELA, has seen its clout steadily shrink.

In mid-October, the office lost its director, Rosalinda B. Barrera, who was appointed in August 2010 and became the first permanent political appointee in that post since 2008. The department did not publicize her departure, and no one has been named to replace her.

Before Ms. Barrera stepped down, OELA decided not to renew a $2 million annual contract long held by George Washington University to manage the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, or NCELA. The office did not explain why it did not renew the contract, and early in the summer, it launched a new competition for the clearinghouse. In late September, OELA awarded the contract to LEED Management Consulting Inc., a year-old company in Silver Spring, Md.

But after complaints about the process, including the final selection, the Education Department is “re-evaluating” all the proposals.

It’s unclear what work is currently being done on behalf of NCELA, which Congress created to serve as the go-to source of information for state and local administrators on research, instructional strategies, and data on English-learners.

And four years after then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings moved authority over nearly all Title III funds—the formula aid allocated to states and districts for English-language-acquisition programs—from OELA to the department’s elementary and secondary education office, several state and local officials said in interviews that they get less technical assistance and support to help meet the needs of ELLs and adhere to the relevant federal rules.

“There is a great need and role for the clearinghouse and the resources it is supposed to provide, especially because there is so much turnover at the state and district level when it comes to administrators working on Title III and English-learner issues,” said David J. Holbrook, the director of federal programs for the Wyoming education department and the president of the National Council of State Title III Directors.

“They are supposed to be a source for what works and what doesn’t work for English-language learners,” he said of NCELA. “But I think what is going on with NCELA is a symptom of a larger problem.”

All this comes as a separate arm of the federal department, the office for civil rights, has ramped up scrutiny of the instructional services that states and districts are providing English-learners.

The department did not respond to specific criticisms, but a spokeswoman said it has “raised the bar on support and standards” for ELLs. “Whether through targeted, ongoing technical assistance, or new requirements to provide specialized professional development for [ELL] educators and college- and career-ready resources for [ELLs], our department is committed to continually providing smarter, better support to all [ELL] students,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Utrup in a statement.

Opportunities Ahead?

Raúl Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-advocacy group in Washington, said ELL issues have not been front and center in the Education Department in President Barack Obama’s first term because officials have been focused on major initiatives such as the Race to the Top grant program and No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

He noted that it wasn’t until President George W. Bush’s second term that ELLs received more attention from the department, and he suggested that could be the case with President Obama.

“I think there’s an opportunity in the second term to engage the department more intensely on English-learner issues,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Complaints about the department’s lack of attention to English-learners are not new, especially since OELA lost most of its Title III authority. That restructuring—which left the office mainly responsible for NCELA and about $50 million in grants for professional development and programs for Native American and Alaska Native students—was opposed by several education groups. They worried that ELL issues would be lumped in with those of disadvantaged students covered under Title I of the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Education Department’s rationale was that combining oversight of both federal programs would provide better coordination for states and districts. Some educators and advocates thought the merging of the two programs—with the $14.5 billion Title I dwarfing Title III’s $750 million in funding—could bring more prominence to ELLs.

But an ongoing concern among several state and local directors of ELL programs is that splitting responsibility for Title III weakened the office where much of the expertise on English-language acquisition resides and has put a strain on the Title III monitors, who some state officials have said are increasingly tasked with responsibilities outside the section of the law specific to ELLs.

Hispanic and civil rights advocacy groups have urged U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to return the oversight of Title III to OELA since he took office, and, more recently, they asked him to put OELA on the front lines of major policy and oversight activity that affects English-learners, including states’ implementation of NCLB waivers.

In a September 2011 letter to Mr. Duncan about the waivers, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 210 national groups, wrote that OELA should “play a greater role in monitoring and oversight of any waivers tied to Title III or Title I obligations that apply to ELL students. Underutilizing OELA and limiting the authority of the office is unacceptable.”

And in a meeting with Mr. Duncan earlier this year, members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, an association of national groups, told the secretary that the issues OELA is focused on “appear to not make the forefront of the department’s decisions and rollouts,” according to a copy of discussion points from the Jan. 24 meeting. The group asked Mr. Duncan to return the Title III monitors to OELA and to elevate the OELA director’s position to be “part of the secretary’s management and policy-development team.”

As the influence of OELA waned, some say the clearinghouse became less useful.

“When I first moved from being a district director to a state Title III supervisor, NCELA was really useful for summarizing research relevant to teaching English-learners and for learning about instructional strategies, parent outreach, and other best practices,” said Cathy M. Nelson, a Title III/ELL specialist for the Maryland education department since 2009.

Ms. Nelson said she noticed a drop-off in resources from NCELA after her first year, including the demise of an online forum where she and her peers could ask questions and seek advice from one another and from the NCELA team.

Statutory Origins

The national clearinghouse was created more than 40 years ago as the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. The name changed with the 11-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which created Title III and sharpened the federal government’s focus on holding schools accountable for ensuring that ELLs would become both proficient in English and learn academic content.

Under federal law, NCELA is supposed to “collect, analyze, synthesize, and disseminate information” about language instruction and research on English-learners through its website, written reports, face-to-face contact, and electronic media.

For most of its existence, NCELA has been managed by a team of researchers and consultants at the education school of George Washington University, in Washington.

Kathleen Leos, who was the director of OELA under the second President Bush from 2005 to 2007, said she worked closely with the NCELA team to convene regular national meetings for Title III directors and produce and share resources with them.

“NCELA was truly an extension of the workload in our office,” Ms. Leos said. “We were dealing with a brand-new law and a shift to formula grants that required all new regulations, so we couldn’t have done it without them.”

But the relationship between OELA and NCELA has weakened in recent years, according to Judith Wilde, who was the director of NCELA from 2009 until last September.

Three years ago, at OELA’s request, the clearinghouse held 15 webinars for ELL administrators on important topics, she said. The next year, there were roughly a dozen. The number dwindled to six in 2011, and in 2012, there have been just three, Ms. Wilde said. (A fourth webinar, on grant programs for Native American and Alaska Native students, was planned for Dec. 19.)The last major initiative NCELA worked closely on with OELA was a series of “national conversations” in 2011 that Ms. Barrera spearheaded in six states with large numbers of English-learners, Ms. Wilde said. At the conclusion of the events, OELA staff members took responsibility for writing a report for the field rather than assigning NCELA to do so, a task that would have been within the scope of its duties, Ms. Wilde said.

Late in 2011, OELA officials released a request for information that signaled to the team at George Washington that its contract would not continue. In June, the office released a formal request for potential contractors to submit proposals to manage the clearinghouse project.

The most notable change was the Education Department’s specification that the potential prime contractors be small businesses with staff members who would account for at least half the labor called for in the contract.

Bidders Confused

From the outset, the competition sparked questions from potential bidders over the specifics of the project, including the precise size of a small business that would be considered eligible to compete.

One bidder, a Washington-based company called edCount, first protested the department’s decision to consider proposals from two different categories of small business, a decision that the firm contended violated federal contracting law that says, in most cases, only a single category be considered, according to documents filed with the federal Small Business Administration. The SBA hearing officer agreed.

The Education Department conceded the mistake; clarified that only businesses with a three-year average revenue of less than $7 million would be considered; and extended the deadline for bids.

The SBA rejected an attempt by a larger business, Synergy Enterprises Inc., of Silver Spring, Md., to still be allowed to bid.

After those hiccups, the department announced in September that the contract had been awarded to LEED Management Consulting.

In a protest filed with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, edCount contended that LEED Management, as the primary contractor, had not demonstrated enough expertise on English-learners to run NCELA and would be too reliant on its subcontractors, including the widely respected Center for Applied Linguistics.

The GAO dismissed edCount’s protest, but the Education Department wrote to the congressional watchdog agency, saying it would take “corrective action” and re-evaluate all the proposals for NCELA within 80 days, according to documents filed with the GAO.

Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the Education Department, said he couldn’t comment on the NCELA contract.

For Title III directors like Mr. Holbrook of Wyoming and Ms. Nelson of Maryland, meanwhile, finding other sources of technical assistance and advice has become necessary.

Ms. Nelson said she relies on World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, a 31-state consortium that Maryland belongs to, for the latest information on best practices and important issues facing the field, such as recently updated English-language proficiency standards that link to the new common-core standards.

Mr. Holbrook, the president of the state Title III directors’ group, said a meeting convened in October in Washington by his group provided vital information to the field, including updates from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Education Department’s civil rights office, as well as briefings from congressional staff members.

Title III monitors from the office of elementary and secondary education also participated, he said.

“We, as an organization, are going to be pushing for more support,” Mr. Holbrook said. “The success of these students is important.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Federal Attention on ELL Needs Seen to Wane


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