ELL Programs Often Focus on Basic Skills, Not Higher-Order Thinking, Study Finds

By Corey Mitchell — November 09, 2015 3 min read
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This blog was written by Sarah D. Sparks and originally appeared on her Inside School Research blog


Efforts to improve students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and other “higher order” skills have been behind many of the recent education reform efforts, from Common Core State Standards to project-based curriculums. But two new reports from Jobs for the Future and the newly launched Palo Alto, Calif.-based Learning Policy Institute argue that pushes for “deeper learning” must be coupled with efforts to break down structural inequality that can prevent low-income and minority students from seeing the benefits of it.

“There has been a long tug-of-war about who is going to get access to a ‘thinking curriculum'--a curriculum that empowers,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education researcher and president of the institute, during a symposium in Washington on Friday.

In the first report, part of a research series for Jobs for the Future, Darling-Hammond and co-authors Pedro Noguera and Diane Friedlaender, also of Stanford, found that schools that effectively promote deeper learning tend to include:

  • Instruction and assessment connected to the world beyond school, such as project-based learning, collaboration, and performance assessments;
  • Personalized supports for students, such as advisory systems and social-emotional training; and
  • Support for ongoing teacher learning, with both time and resources for reflection and collaboration.

Funding formulas, accountability systems, and staffing policies all tend to make it more difficult to implement these underlying structures in high-poverty and high-minority schools, and instruction associated with deeper learning is often relegated to advanced and honors classes, which remain disproportionately whiter and wealthier than other classes.

Reframing the Strengths of Vulnerable Students

The nation’s 17 million children of immigrant parents are a case in point. In a second report released at the same symposium, author Patricia Gándara, a research professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found policies and programs for children of immigrants and English learners tend to focus on their need for remediation and basic skills, to the exclusion of ways to expose them to higher-order thinking or build on their strengths.

Children of Mexican immigrants, for example, have the highest rate of intergenerational mobility of any immigrant group in U.S. schools, Gándara found, suggesting that as a group the students respond well to educational opportunities.

“The problems here are differences not of culture but of opportunity,” Gándara said. “We need to reframe our English learners and our children of immigrants not through a deficit lens but as children with tremendous assets,” including the potential for full biliteracy.

Lara Evangelista, principal of the Flushing International High School in New York City, agreed. Her school serves students who have entered the United States in the last four years, 90 percent of whom live in or near poverty and all of whom are still learning English. The school uses a project-based curriculum, with students of different native languages and English proficiency levels paired regularly. By the end of high school, the students not only take the same Regents test required for all New York students, but also must produce an original research project, science experiments, a native-language project, and an oral presentation before a board of teachers.

Many of the newcomers have had significant interrupted schooling, and Evangelista told me she often hears doubt that they can handle complex content. But, she said, she has found it easier to motivate students to learn English and catch up on needed skills when they are actively using what they learn.

“Every one of our teachers is a language teacher,” Evangelista told me. “Language is something learned in context; it’s not something you learn outside of content, and we firmly believe you don’t need to be proficient in English before students can learn challenging content.”

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