Federal

Pre-K Rules for ELLs Would Break Ground Nationally

Districts Would Have to Identify and Give Support to Youngsters
By Mary Ann Zehr — April 23, 2010 7 min read
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Questions are being raised about proposed regulations that would impose the same requirements on Illinois school districts about educating English-learners at the preschool level as for older students.

The Illinois board of education is poised to adopt those regulations next month. Should the board do so, it is believed that Illinois would have the most prescriptive regulations in the nation for ELLs in preschool. Accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act don’t apply to preschoolers.

“We’ve been very proud [of Illinois education] on two fronts, the transitional bilingual education that we provide our students and our early-childhood-education programs,” said Jesse Ruiz, the chairman of the state school board. The proposed ELL regulations would bring the two strengths together, he said, to ensure preschoolers get the support they need.

While some early-childhood experts say such regulations would help secure the needed educational help for the nation’s fastest-growing group of children—ELLs—others say they are not appropriate at the preschool level.

The Illinois education agency staff crafted the rules to accompany a change in state law that took effect Jan. 1, 2009. The change extended the category of “children of limited-English-speaking ability,” or ELLs, in regular public schools to include 3- and 4-year-olds. Experts in early-childhood education say they don’t know of any other state that has such a mandate.

Xiao Ling Chen practices math by counting out beans.

If approved, the rules would also require districts to give a home-language survey to parents to determine if a language other than English is spoken at home, screen all children from such homes for their English proficiency, and provide transitional bilingual education in preschools where 20 or more pupils with limited English proficiency speak the same native language. Preschools without a critical mass speaking the same home language would have to provide English-as-a-second-language instruction.

Illinois is one of the few states that require districts to offer transitional bilingual education, in which students are taught academic content in their native languages while learning English. Arizona, California, and Massachusetts have all curtailed the method.

By 2014, under the proposed rules, public schools in Illinois also would have to ensure that all their preschool teachers who work with ELLs have an endorsement either in bilingual education or English as a second language.

Darren Reisberg, the deputy superintendent and general counsel for the Illinois board of education, said the rules are necessary to spell out how the new law should be carried out. “There were many questions that flowed from it, such as, ‘What are we as prekindergarten programs supposed to do in terms of administration of home-language surveys and serving ELLs?’ ”

Bringing Continuity

Many ELL and early-childhood experts in Illinois support the proposed regulations.

Margo Gottlieb, the director of assessment and evaluation for the Illinois Resource Center, which provides technical assistance on ELLs to districts, said the rules would help address a discontinuity in language education between preschool and kindergarten. She particularly favors the proposed requirement that preschools provide transitional bilingual education. “Young children haven’t fully developed their native language at age 3, and that needs to be continued [in preschool],” she said.

Jasmine Yau, left, and Stephanie Zheng read along to The Little Mermaid, hearing both English and Cantonese narration, during preschool class at Haines Elementary School, in Chicago.

But Barbara T. Bowman, the acting chief officer of early-childhood education for the Chicago public schools, which serve about 28,000 3- and 4-year-olds in publicly financed programs, said the district submitted comments to the state board expressing concern about giving English-proficiency assessments to preschoolers.

“When you are talking about assessing a 3-year-old, they sometimes don’t talk, not because they don’t speak English, but they just don’t want to talk to you,” said Ms. Bowman, a nationally recognized expert in the child-development field who is a professor at and a co-founder of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in Chicago. “By default, they get sent to bilingual education.”

Nationally, some parents and students have contended that some districts use information from home-language surveys unfairly to determine if students should have their English proficiency tested regardless of their fluency.(“Home-Language Surveys for ELLs Under Fire,” Feb. 16, 2010.)

Ms. Bowman said she opposes a mandate for preschools to offer transitional bilingual education. In such programs, she said, ELLs are separated from native English-speakers and thus deprived of the chance to improve their English by talking with them.

In addition, Ms. Bowman said, some immigrant parents, often those of Chinese origin, don’t want their children in a classroom with home-language instruction. They prefer that their children learn English in school and study their native language in community classes, she said.

Implementation Concerns

The Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early-childhood advocacy group in Chicago that also runs preschools, backs the proposed rules but has concerns about implementation.

Diana M. Rauner, the fund’s executive director, said the tentative deadline for all preschool teachers who work with ELLs to have an ESL or bilingual education endorsement—by July 1, 2014—is too ambitious. “It’s going to take some real structural changes to what’s available in higher education,” she said.

Right now, only the Erikson Institute and DePaul University, both in Chicago, provide an undergraduate or graduate ESL or bilingual endorsement for preschool teachers in Illinois.

Luisiana Melendez, the director of the Erikson Institute’s bilingual/ESL certificate program, said she supports the proposed rules, as does Gayle Mindes, an education professor at DePaul.

Ms. Mindes acknowledged that the cost for some preschool teachers of getting bilingual or ESL endorsements would be an issue. Preschool teachers often earn far less than K-12 teachers.

“If we’re going to gear up to meet the deadline in all the places, there will need to be efforts to provide scholarships to people working in the field,” she said.

Several states have created resources to support the education of English-language learners in preschools, but they haven’t adopted mandates to go along with them.

California, which has 40 percent of the nation’s ELLs, was the first state to approve learning standards, which officials there call “learning foundations,” specifically for English-learners who are preschoolers. The foundations are for English-language development. The state expects to release a framework in May with more details on how to implement those standards, which the state schools chief approved in spring 2008.

Use of the standards by preschools is voluntary, said Cecelia Fisher-Dahms, who oversees child-care quality for the California education department. She said, however, that public preschools are required to use a specific observation assessment tool to evaluate where youngsters stand on a child-development continuum, and that tool will be aligned with the state’s new learning foundations by next school year.

By contrast, Texas, another state with many ELLs, has voluntary prekindergarten “guidelines” that have strategies for working with ELLs embedded within them.

National experts on the education of minority students are mixed in their views of the proposed rules in Illinois.

Linda Espinosa, a professor emeritus of early-childhood education at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, said she favors the proposed requirement for public preschools to identify ELLs. But, she added, education officials have “gone astray in requiring transitional bilingual education, which is rapid acquisition of English without attention to the home language.”

It would be better, Ms. Espinosa said, for Illinois to require preschools to have a goal to support ELLs in their native languages and not mandate which kind of bilingual education to use.

All English-Learners

Pedro A. Noguera, a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, observed that in some ways, all children at age 4 are “English-language learners,” implying that it may not be necessary to single out preschoolers with limited English skills.

“My concern is, when kids are identified this way, is it to bring more help, or is this another way to categorize or marginalize kids?” he said.

The Illinois board will consider adopting the proposed rules at a meeting next month. After that, the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a panel of lawmakers, must put its stamp of approval on them. They could become effective as early as one month after a vote by the board of education, according to Mr. Reisberg.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Illinois May Mandate ELL Rules for Preschool

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