How English Learners Figure in States’ Waiver Proposals

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 13, 2011 3 min read
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Several of my Ed Week colleagues have pored over the applications that 11 states have filed with the Education Department seeking waivers from the No Child Left Behind law to analyze exactly what’s in the proposals.

For a look at how teacher evaluations figure into the states’ proposals, read Stephen Sawchuk’s piece. To understand how each state has planned to deal with turning around their poorest-performing schools, read Alyson Klein’s story. And tomorrow, you’ll be able to read Catherine Gewertz’s analysis on how each state addresses college- and career-readiness, beyond just adopting the common standards.

So how are the waiver-applying states proposing to specifically address the needs of English-language learners?

Many of the applications would move away from focusing on English learners as a stand-alone subgroup, (along with the other traditional subgroups) by folding them into a “super” subgroup, or lowest performing 25 percent, for example. Michele McNeil explains this approach thoroughly in this story.

Let’s take a closer look at how two states address (or don’t) ELLs:

MASSACHUSETTS—Like six other states, Massachusetts’ flexibility proposal would create a combined subgroup that in its case would include ELLs, former ELLs, low-income kids, and students with disabilities. This approach is worrisome to ELL advocates who fear that schools will be able to easily get around accountability for how ELLs are doing because their performance will be swept into the larger category of “high needs.”

When it comes to improving instruction in the state’s most troubled schools, the waiver proposal explains how, in a school with ELLs, English-learner coaches would be assigned to work closely with math and literacy coaches as they all help regular content teachers improve their practices for students learning English. The English learner coaches would identify “language needs, develop and support sheltering strategies for all English learners in the [low-performing] schools and monitor language development,” according to the proposal.

Finally, the state is one of 28 that has joined the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, or WIDA, to adopt English-language proficiency standards and create new assessments of English-language proficiency that will measure the language demands of the common core academic standards.

NEW MEXICO— Just over 20 percent of this state’s public school population consists of students who are English learners, according to the data in New Mexico’s application. Yet, somehow, this group of students barely registers a mention throughout the application. I read the application through and did numerous searches for terms such as “English learner,” “ELL,” and “limited English proficient,” but turned up only a few references and none that gave any substantial treatment to this significant group of students.

How could this be?

One observer suggests it’s connected to the state’s outreach efforts as it crafted the waiver application, which really irked groups that advocate for ELLs—so much so that several of them sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urging him to reject the state’s proposal because it did not meet the department’s requirement for engaging in meaningful consultation with stakeholder groups.

About the only thing I can gather for sure about ELLs in New Mexico is that the state, like Massachusetts, is part of the WIDA consortium, so will be using the English language proficiency standards that WIDA has already developed, as well as the new generation of assessments for English proficiency that it will create.

(Snarky aside about New Mexico’s application: On page 8, there’s a rather embarrassing mistake in a paragraph that explains the state department of education’s efforts to do outreach regarding the waiver proposal. Here’s the sentence, you find the error: “While there are multiple components to this agenda, two imparticular are directly related to New Mexico’s flexibility request: 1) Real Accountability, Real Results and 2) Rewarding Effective Teachers and School Leaders.” That’s right. “Imparticular” is not a word.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.