English-Language Learners Q&A

English Learners Could Gain Support and Clout Under Ed. Secretary’s Plan, Expert Says

By Ileana Najarro — March 17, 2023 6 min read
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From 2002 to 2008, federal formula grants to support English learners’ language development and academic achievement were run by the Office of English Language Acquisition, or OELA, within the U.S. Department of Education.

OELA was established by Congress through the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, which also created the Title III program—the federal aid that school districts receive to support English learners.

In 2008, those Title III grant funds moved over to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, which also oversees Title I funds—the much larger pot of federal money that flows to schools with high concentrations of students from low-income households. Now, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, wants to move the Title III program back to OELA to strengthen the program of under $1 billion.

Kathleen Leos is a former assistant deputy secretary and director of OELA, having served in OELA from 2002 through 2007. She recently shared with Education Week her reflections on how the Title III program used to work, how it’s going now, and how it would benefit English learners if it were shifted back to OELA.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did Title III formula grants work when they were managed by OELA?

In [2002], we brought all of the state Title III directors and Title I directors and anybody else they wanted to bring from the state level—all 50 states were represented, including Puerto Rico—and they came to Washington and we spent two and a half to three days explaining exactly what the requirements were that came with the funding.

If I’m a state Title III director, if I’m going to receive funds at the state level for all of my [English learners] in my state, then I’m being trained in Washington, with a team of experts, on how I put this world together for the first time ever in my state. We went through intensive training, initially, and then followed up with every single state. We sent teams out multiple times throughout the year, over this six and a half, almost seven year period.

We would make sure that every single state had a program officer in our office, so that that state director, or the state superintendent, or commissioner could just call up and get a question answered immediately. So there was ongoing professional support. We were constantly training in the office, as well as providing training out in the field. It wasn’t monitoring, it wasn’t compliance, it was really, here’s how you’re going to structure what your accountability system looks like, which now includes language learners.

If you look at the initial language, under Title III, it says that states and school districts will be held accountable for the acquisition of language, and the academic achievement of language learners. It wasn’t just language, and it wasn’t just content knowledge. It was both. The expertise really does lie in OELA, when you talk about language development/acquisition integrated with the acquisition of content knowledge.

Why were Title III formula grants moved out of OELA?

I honestly don’t know. I never heard what the actual intent was, not from anybody in a leadership position within the department.

Even toward the end, when I was getting ready to leave, there was no indication that they were going to make a move. What we talked about at the leadership level was making sure that there was good collaboration and communication between [Title I and Title III programs].

That’s kind of where it was left. And I think that’s why the deputy at the time who then became acting, and myself, were really, really surprised that a move like that would be made, because there was a lack of understanding of what it really meant to fully implement the Title III requirements at a state to district level. And by handing it over to the Title I office, the focus [there] is primarily on content knowledge. And that’s different. It just doesn’t quite go far enough.

Kathleen Leos

How have Title III formula grants worked since then?

I can tell you as the move was being made, or after the move was made, the concerns that the program officers shared [were] about minimizing the importance of accountability for academic achievement for language learners by making the move.

The concern was that [states] didn’t want to be held accountable for both academic achievement and language acquisition. The biggest impact during [the 2008 to 2015] time period was that the language learners got lost. There was a lack of expertise in Title I around language development, language acquisition, combined with content knowledge, and I would say students in general kind of got lost in the shuffle.

You have to understand that process [of learning content and language at the same time], you have a dual process going on cognitively. And the experts in OELA understood that and understand it. I’m not saying that all the Title I program officers don’t have some fundamental understanding. But what I am saying is that you have to really hone in and focus on that in your accountability systems, and you have to weigh them equally at the national level and at the state level. And the people who are executing those funds with the programs have to understand what does that really mean. So I think that particular type of deep expertise was lost in the shift.

What I read in the legislation in 2015 [Every Student Succeeds Act] was the fact that they basically dropped accountability measures for academic achievement for language learners. The legislation allows [states] to decouple [academic achievement and language acquisition].

Language learners are also learning content at the same time. You have to be looking across the whole spectrum at the same time. Your teaching has to be that way, your accountability, the back end, the results have to reflect that. Since that was dropped in 2015, the signal, I think, to the states was, well, then how important is the academic achievement of language learners, since we only need to focus on language development and language acquisition?

If the grants move back to OELA what advice would you offer the agency?

I would say [to Secretary Cardona], please make an effort to elevate the leadership level of OELA to assistant secretary, not assistant deputy secretary. When I was there, I was very fortunate to report directly to the secretary of education. So whether it was Dr. [Rod] Paige or Margaret Spellings, I had a direct report. And that was very, very helpful. I know titles aren’t supposed to matter in that sense, but in a lot of ways they do because you then go into leadership meetings.

My second recommendation is, of course, to move all the funds to OELA. They need to be there. And they need to build out teams of experts that understand not only grant funding and overseeing that grant funding, but the implementation of accountability systems that include reorganizing or rethinking the accountability measures back to [an] equal weight of language acquisition, and academic achievement for language learners by grade level.

The other one is to focus on the N-size for this group so that states aren’t allowed to group students in a way where they fall through the cracks.

I would have a Title I representative, sit in on an accountability and assessment committee [and other committees] in OELA. So OELA regains and maintains the lead on this, because this is where the expertise lies.

I would promote dual-language programs. They’re research based, they’re scientifically proven, both from the research perspective of behavior scientists, but also there’s a whole body of neuroscience around language development, multiple language development, and dual-language programs that really could be very powerful and come through that office, out to the field.

And I would also ask [Secretary Cardona] to think about whoever he puts in the position at OELA to include someone that really does come from an education, neuroscience language background, to be part of those discussions and giving professional guidance to the states down to the districts because the whole world of academic achievement and language learning has changed based on this new science.


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