Federal

Groups Say ELLs Got Short Shrift in Race to the Top

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 27, 2010 5 min read
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Three civil rights groups contend the U.S. Department of Education failed to give adequate attention to the needs of English-language learners in the $3.4 billion Race to the Top state grant competition and say they plan to hold federal education officials accountable for promises they will give them more attention in the future.

“The applications [for winners] rarely mentioned English-language learners, except in passing and rarely fleshed out any thought to how they were going to close the achievement gap for ELLs,” said Roger L. Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy of Somerville, Mass., in an interview last week.

In a Sept. 15 meeting with high-level Education Department officials, Mr. Rice said he argued that reviewers for the state applications for Race to the Top didn’t adequately consider the needs of ELLs in two regards: They didn’t pay attention to whether states had narrowed achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs and they didn’t consistently examine whether states had buy-in from ELL advocacy or Hispanic advocacy groups in their states.

Mr. Rice highlights selection criteria spelled out in the Race to the Top regulations published in the Federal Register last November that say states would have to show in applications if they’d narrowed the achievement gap for subgroups, which he stresses includes ELLs.

Those criteria say a state will be evaluated in part on its ability to improve student outcomes overall and by student subgroup since 2003. They say states must show the connections between “data and action” that led to “decreasing achievement gaps between subgroups in reading/language arts and mathematics, both on the [National Assessment of Educational Progress] and on the assessments required by the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act].”

The final score sheet for the competition allocated a possible 30 points to states for “demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps.” That’s broken down further to 5 points for “making progress in each reform area” and 25 points for “improving student outcomes.”

In addition, the scoring system allocated 10 points for “using broad stakeholder support,” which Mr. Rice argues should include support from Hispanic and ELL advocacy groups.

Mr. Rice points out that Massachusetts, which is one of the 12 grant winners, received a score of 25 out of 25 for having improved student outcomes even though achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs in that state widened from 2003 to 2009. He said reviewers didn’t pick up on the fact that Massachusetts had not provided in its application 2009 reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that would have shown widening gaps in reading in both grades 4 and 8 between 2003 and 2009.

He added that reviewers criticized New Mexico for not including formal letters of support from tribal leaders but said nothing about the fact that Massachusetts showed no support in its application from any Latino- or ELL-advocacy group in that state, even though Latinos are the largest racial or ethnic minority group in Massachusetts’ schools.

Learning Process

Delia Pompa, the vice president for education for the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, also participated in the Sept. 15 meeting. She agreed with Mr. Rice that “it was a point of concern that a lot of states weren’t very specific [in their applications] in how they were going to serve ELLs.” But she added that, “We made good strides in figuring out how to include ELLs in the future,” though she did not elaborate what those strides were.

The Education Department officials who met with Mr. Rice and Ms. Pompa included Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education; Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary of civil rights; Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy development; Gabriella Gomez, the assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs; and Rosalinda B. Barrera, the new director of the office of English-language acquisition, according to Mr. Rice and Ms. Pompa.

Mr. Rice said federal officials responded to his critique by saying the competition had been a learning process and they planned to increase attention for ELLs while providing technical assistance to the winners of the competition.

Members of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials have also been urging the Education Department to give consideration to the needs of ELLs and Latino students in the Race to the Top competition. Representatives of the group have met twice with top-level Education Department officials, including Ms. Melendez and Martin, and have another meeting scheduled for today according to Maryland State Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Democrat and the co-chairwoman of the group’s education task force.

The NALEO sent a letter Aug. 12 to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying that “future competitive selection grants processes should place more weight on the ELL criteria in the scoring and review process.” In addition, the letter said the association’s members “are concerned that state applicants are not required to offer a comprehensive ELL strategy as part of their application for [Race to the Top] funds.”

Mr. Rice points out that the states with the highest numbers of ELLs in the country were not winners in the $3.4 billion competition. The winning 11 states plus the District of Columbia, he said, have a total of nearly 873,000 English-language learners according to their reports to the federal government. Mr. Rice estimates that’s only 16 percent of all the ELLs in the country.

“If California loses, and Texas doesn’t compete, and Illinois and New Jersey don’t get funded,” he said, which is what happened in the competition, “by far most of the ELLs are not going to benefit from that $3.4 billion.”

Delaware and Tennessee won the first round of the Race to the Top competition. The ten winners of the second round, selected from 19 finalists, and announced in late August, were Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Groups Say ELLs Got Short Shrift in Race to the Top

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