Researcher Argues NCLB, Common Core Emphasize English-only Approach

By Holly Kurtz — May 09, 2014 7 min read
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Kate Menken and Cristian Solorza have a nickname for the nickname of the nation’s main federal education law. In the title of their recent article in the peer-refereed journal Educational Policy, they refer to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as “No Child Left Bilingual.”

"[A] central finding from the research we report here is that schools in New York City are choosing to eliminate their bilingual education programs and replace them with English-only programs because of the law’s accountability requirements as enacted in the state and city,” write Menken, an associate professor at the City University of New York and Solorza, an instructor at New York’s Bank Street College of Education. “Based on this finding, in this article we show how NCLB is actually a restrictive language education policy--even though this is rarely discussed and nor is the law presented to the public as such.”

For No Child Left Bilingual: Accountability and the Elimination of Bilingual Education Programs in New York City Schools, Menken and Solorza interviewed 20 principals, assistant principals, and teachers in order to investigate the story behind the statistics, which clearly demonstrate a decline in the percentage of New York City English-learners enrolled in bilingual education and an increase in participation in English-only programs in the years since No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002.

Source: Menken, K. & Solorza, C. (2014). No Child Left Bilingual: Accountability and the elimination of bilingual education programs in New York City Schools. Educational Policy, 28, 96-125.

Is this a national trend? It’s hard to say because national data does not exist. However, a U.S. Department of Education analysis from the pre-NCLB era suggests that participation in bilingual education was already on the decline between 1993 and 2003, when the proportion of English-learners receiving “some” or “significant” native-language instruction decreased from 53 percent to 29 percent.

Evidence does suggest that, at least in certain states and localities, participation in bilingual education has continued to decline, both as a result of NCLB and of state initiatives adopted in the past decade and a half that emphasized English-language immersion.

For their study, Menken and Solorza already had data on the decline of bilingual education in the nation’s largest school district, which enrolls 1.1 million students, 14 percent of whom are English-learners and 41 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home.

In order to find out why, they interviewed educators at ten elementary, middle, and high schools that had experienced the city’s largest declines in bilingual education participation rates. For the purposes of comparison, the authors included two additional schools with thriving bilingual education programs. They also analyzed policy documents and school performance data.

The educators, most of whom were administrators, told remarkably similar stories. They had faced tremendous pressure to improve performance on accountability indicators associated with No Child Left Behind, most of which were directly or indirectly based on English-language tests. (For instance, English-learners may be tested in English for the direct purpose of determining whether the school is meeting NCLB accountability standards and then those test results help determine whether the student graduates, in turn, affecting graduation rates, another indicator measured for the purpose of NCLB.) Most of these administrators had little or no background in research on educating English-learners. So when this group of students performed poorly, they immediately blamed bilingual education. Generally, the researchers found, they eliminated or reduced this program without collecting data on its effectiveness or lack thereof. For instance, in a school in which one third of the students had been in bilingual education and the remainder had been enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes, no one had compared the relative effectiveness of the two programs. Instead, the principal had just decided to eliminate bilingual education because, he said, “our scores weren’t as successful as they should have been.”

Menken and Solorza’s piece, which was officially published in January, has been the most-viewed article on the Educational Policy website now for months.

“This is a hot topic,” Menken said. “Bilingual education is a hot topic in general. NCLB and the impact of accountability is an enormous influence on schooling in general. I would love to say NCLB and its accountability policies are being put to bed but they’re only ramping up with the common core. That’s nothing that’s going to change.”

Menken suggested that the Common Core State Standards marginalized bilingual students by failing to mention them anywhere other than in a 2.5-page addendum that she is currently analyzing for another study.

“The Common Core State Standards themselves promote an English-only agenda,” Menken said. “Embedded within them is an English-only orientation continuing that of NCLB. I see no shift in the orientation towards language between these policies. Really, these educational policies turn into language policies, particularly when [it comes to] the testing piece.”

While one of the major consortia creating the common core-aligned tests (Smarter Balanced) will offer Spanish translations of math assessments, the other (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) will require states to request and then pay for that option. The consortia will also permit accommodations, such as glossaries, for English-learners. But Menken says the overall focus on assessing literacy and other subjects in English and then adding accommodations creates a de facto nationwide education policy of English-only instruction.

“If you don’t offer testing in the language of instruction, people tend to assume the best way to prepare for English-only tests is English-only instruction,” she said. “If you have a bilingual test, you’re more likely to see bilingual instruction maintained.”

Ester de Jong is an associate professor of education at the University of Florida. She served as a member of a task force that made recommendations about English learners for that state’s NCLB waiver.

“ESEA [another name for NCLB] and Common Core assessment will negatively affect bilingual education programs as long as they do not allow these programs to document learning in the languages of instruction,” she said. “Add to that the erroneous assumption that second-language acquisition is a linear process that can be completed within two to three years, regardless of grade level or student background experiences. Finally, the use of standardized tests for ELLs whose proficiency in the test language is still limited for high stakes purposes, school grades, teachers’ evaluation and so forth, needs to be questioned. It is not a valid and reliable way of assessing ELLs’ actual learning but becomes a language test instead.”

Despite the concerns raised by Menken, de Jong, and others who study English learners, a report issued in September by the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC, suggests that the Common Core State Standards present “opportunities” as well as “challenges” for English-learners.

“The CCSS promote attention to language in the content areas for all students, thus English-learners may now be more likely to experience language-focused instruction in content classrooms, the school setting in which they spend most of their
time,” the report concludes.

As for New York, the picture has grown rosier for proponents of bilingual education in the time since Menken and Solorza conducted their study. Menken is a co-principal investigator of a state-funded project that provides “an intensive institute to prepare principals of approximately 40 schools in the state to meet the needs of emergent bilinguals.” This grew, in part, out of her finding that principals were eliminating bilingual education programs without analyzing their results or understanding their function.

In addition, in the wake of state pressure to better serve the needs of English-learners, the New York City Department of Education announced in 2011 a plan to create 125 additional bilingual education programs. As of 2012, about half had been launched, the news site Chalkbeat New York reported.

With the November election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York schools have a new chancellor, Carmen Fariña. Fariña’s pledge to end the practice of retaining students in grade based on test results is a win for bilingual education since the testing often occurred in English, which unfairly penalized English-learners, Menken said.

“There’s just been a policy shift in New York City leadership in general,” she said. “I’m not sure where they stand on bilingual education per se.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.