Learnin’ the Language

Imagine entering your educational pipeline, not understanding a single word uttered by the teacher in front of the classroom.  Listening to classmates having conversations that you can’t participate in.  Attending a school district where dozens of languages can be heard in the hallways of a particular school.  In a growing number of school districts across the nation, these imaginary situations are all too real.

English Language Learners (ELL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs have never been more important than they are today.  Our student populations is rapidly shifting, and those students entering the schools speaking only Spanish or Hmong or Chinese are increasing.  According to Education Week, our public schools are now looking at educating 5.1 million English-language learners.  How do we ensure that those 5.1 million individuals, along with every other student, are getting the high-quality education we expect?
EdWeek takes a look at that question in this year’s Quality Counts.  The 2009 focus — ELL.  In addition to its regular state-by-state look at education achievement, the staff at EdWeek takes a look at a range of issues facing the ELL community, including “current research, specialized teacher preparation, screening and assessment of English-learners, and ways in which state funding resources and priorities affect programs for English-learners.”
The full Quality Counts report can be found here — www.edweek.org/ew/toc/2009/01/08/index.html.  What are the highlights?
* There is a significant math achievement gap between ELLs and all public school students.  On NAEP, for instance, 34.8 percent of 4th and 8th graders scores proficient or higher, while only 9.6 percent of ELLs hit the magic number. 
* The achievement gap is just as significant in reading, where those scoring proficient or better on reading was 30.4 percent nationally, but just 5.6 percent among ELLs.
* There is no national standard for dealing with ELLs.  According to EdWeek, only 1.4 percent of ELLs in Connecticut failed to make progress toward English-language proficiency.  In Maine, that number was nearly 45 percent.
* Thirty-three states set standards for ELL teachers.  But only three of them — Arizona, Florida, and New York — require prospective teachers to demonstrate competency on those standards.
What does all of this mean?
* We have a long way to go, as a nation, on ELL.  In New York City alone, the number of ELL students is expected to increase by more than 20 percent this year.  We need strong policies tied to real outcomes to deal with the increases in the ELL population.
* We need better data and research on English-language learning.  The breadth and depth of research related to ELLs, including how they transition literacy skills in their primary language to English, is lacking.  if the population is increasing, and our spending on the population is increasing (presumably), we need a better sense for what we do, how we do it, and how we ensure return on investment.
* And while we’re on the subject of data, we need more bilingual researchers involved in the mix.  If we are going to study ELLs with Spanish as a first language, we should have researchers who are fluent in Spanish and English involved in the process.  And it doesn’t hurt to have researchers who understand the social and cultural parameters that are facing today’s ELL communities.
* Like everything else, effective ELL instruction begins with effective teachers.  We should be looking at those states that have standards for ELL teachers, particularly those where teachers must demonstrate competency in those standards, and use that to model effective ELL teaching. 
* Whether we want to believe it or not, virtually every teacher is now becoming an ELL teacher.  Regardless of the subject or grade taught, if you have ELL students in the class, you are an ELL teacher.  It doesn’t matter if you are a designated ELL or ELA teacher.  Every educator must learn how to bridge the learning gaps for ELLs and ensure that student proficiency in math, science, and even the arts continues to move forward and English-language skills are developed.
* The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition is in desperate need of the spotlight.  OELA has long been a red-headed stepchild over at ED, failing to get the full attention it deserves in the K-12 debate.  Now that early childhood education is likely to get greater focus at ED and K-12 will continue to be priority number one, we need to do a better job to integrate OELA into both and ensure that ELLs are a factor in policy and funding for both preK and K-12.
Nationally, we talk about closing the achievement gap, boosting high school graduation rates, and getting increasing the number of first-generation college goers.  ELLs are a common instructional link to all three.  We can’t deny the population is growing.  So we must look for real, practical solutions to improving ELL instruction.  It’s time to talk the talk, in multiple languages.

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