Large urban school districts that are successful with English-language learners provide strong oversight from the central office for educating those students, ensure that general education teachers as well as specialists receive professional development on how to work with ELLs, and use student data in a meaningful way to improve instruction for that population.
By contrast, districts that haven’t had that success with English-learners lack a coherent vision for educating them, limit access to the general curriculum for such students, don’t use disaggregated student data in a systematic way, and haven’t given authority and adequate resources to the district office in charge of ELLs.
Those are findings released last week by the Council of the Great City Schools in a report on the common best practices of four large urban districts that have significantly improved ELL achievement, compared with two urban districts that have not. The four districts deemed successful are Dallas, San Francisco, New York City, and St. Paul, Minn. They were selected in part based on strong growth in achievement by ELLs in the 3rd and 4th grades on state reading tests between 2002 and 2006. The study did not name the two districts that have produced lackluster achievement.
“There was really a palpable difference between cities where the kids were making gains and places where kids weren’t,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based council. “It wasn’t a matter simply of adopting this program or that one. It was a broader set of issues that the district needed to address.”
One of the glaring limitations in the unsuccessful schools is a lack of access to the regular curriculum, Mr. Casserly said. “There are lots of situations where districts are not terribly cognizant of how the design of their programs excludes some kids,” he said. “We saw that not only in the districts [in the study] where the kids weren’t making progress, but we see it as we do our technical assistance in cities that were not included in this study.”
Even in the four districts studied that the council considers to be attentive to the needs of ELLs, Mr. Casserly said the researchers did not find a program that was exemplary in educating one particular group of students, them—those who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for seven or more years and have yet to test “fluent” in English.
‘A Whole System’
Joel Gomez, the associate dean for research at George Washington University’s graduate school of education and human development, in Washington, said the report rightly points out that it’s not just one component of education that makes for a district’s success in educating English-learners. “It’s not just curriculum, not just teacher preparation, not just assessment—it’s a whole system, an integrated approach to educating a large segment of the population.”
Mr. Gomez, an expert in the education of ELLs, added, however, that while the report’s spotlight on the district level is meaningful, “more needs to be made out of the fact that the system includes the state, not just the school district. Many times the school district needs to dance to the tune of the state.”
For example, state requirements on the preparation of teachers to work with ELLs are crucial, he said.
Mr. Casserly said the researchers did, in fact, ask districts about the role of states, but “didn’t find any common themes among the states that appeared to affect how the kids were doing at the district level.” Unfortunately, he said, the study doesn’t indicate that states are playing an important role in the academic progress of ELLs.
Candace Harper, an associate professor of education at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, said she appreciates the report’s acknowledgment that districts need to recognize professional expertise on how to educate English-learners in making both curricular and administrative decisions. “This emphasis on alignment and integration of ELL issues with general school policies and practices is an important shift from the isolated intervention approach and generic ‘best practices’ that ignore ELL-specific needs,” she wrote in an e-mail.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Study Cites Four Urban Districts for Successful Policies on ELLs