It’s Hard to Get A Handle on Federal ELL Policy

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 03, 2011 3 min read
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More than two years after President Obama was sworn into office, I still don’t have a clear idea of the Obama administration’s approach to supporting the education of English-language learners. And a report on how to improve education for Latinos released last week by the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics doesn’t offer a lot of additional clues.

But that doesn’t stop me from trying to read between the lines. The report mostly talks about how organizations that target Latinos have received financial support under various Education Department grant programs. But it also gives a shout-out to English-language learners with a mention about ELLs and assessments, three paragraphs about “supporting English Learners,” and one paragraph about “accountability for ELs.”

What I find noteworthy is that, in contrast to the George W. Bush Administration, which steered away from promoting bilingual education, the report’s only example of a school district that is successful with English-language learners happens to be one that “has focused solely on developing students’ English-language proficiency by significantly expanding its dual language programs over the past five years.” By choosing to feature ELLs in the Saint Paul Public School District, the Obama Administration is not avoiding a mention of bilingual education.

At the same time, the report indicates that the Obama Administration doesn’t take a stance on whether bilingual education or English-only instruction is more effective. It includes this statement: “While there are certain practices that have been shown to benefit ELs, more research and evaluation is needed on the types of language-instruction education programs that are most effective for English-learners.”

The report implies that accountability for English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act has had some problems by pointing out that some states don’t have common criteria across their school districts for identifying English-language learners. The Obama Administration’s blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the recent call for consortia of states to apply for grants to create English-language-proficiency tests to align with states’ common core academic standards, both call for consistency within states or among states regarding the definition for English-learners.

Otherwise, in talking about accountability, the report draws attention to the agreement signed by the Boston school district and the Justice and Education departments to improve the education of English-language learners. My read on this: enforcement of civil rights laws will continue to play a large role in the Obama Administration’s approach to English-language learners.

Lastly, the report expresses faith that English-language learners will not be an afterthought in the creation of assessments to align with the states’ common core academic standards. It says: “From the beginning, these tests will be designed to fully include English-Learners (ELs) and to ensure that they are appropriately assessed.”

I’m not so sure this is the case. A number of experts in the field have told me that they are concerned that the needs of ELLs aren’t being considered up front in the creation of those tests. When I checked in with the two consortia developing those tests a few weeks ago, I found that while they both planned to use universal design principles so that test items would be valid for ELLs, no substantial work had yet been undertaken for the participants in the consortia to create a “common definition” for ELLs, a requirement of the grant.

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