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Transforming Schools to Match the Needs of a Minority-Majority Nation

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In a recent Op-Ed for the Washington Post, New America Foundation's Maggie Severns urged states to rethink teacher preparation in light of our country's ongoing shift to a minority-majority nation. As Severns explains, immigrant youths and the children of immigrants are among the lowest-performing groups of students in U.S. public schools, AND they will account for virtually all growth in the workforce over the next 40 years.

Severns lauds the work in Illinois, where teachers are being given special training to meet the needs of bilingual learners, something preschool teacher Christina Gomez appreciates:

"Before, I felt like I was kind of in survival mode," she explained, "just trying to get them through. It's not just a challenge for monolingual teachers but for bilingual teachers. Just because you speak the language of a child doesn't mean you know the strategies or best practices for teaching" them.

This is an essential issue, and it's great that Severns has raised it. I've spent all year in two DC-area schools, both of which have Spanish-immersion programs, and I've seen first-hand not just the challenges of supporting the needs of children who don't yet speak English, but also the benefits of having all children learn in a biliterate environment. Different students possess different strengths and weaknesses in different settings. Brain-based research is starting to demonstrate that the benefits of being bilingual go a lot deeper than knowing another language. And the schools -- and states -- that are ahead of the curve are acting accordingly.

But what else can we do? We might start by heeding the advice of University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela, a founding member of the Forum for Education & Democracy (an organization for which I served as National Director) and a leading scholar on education policy. I recall asking Dr. Valenzuela what specific policy changes she'd like to see, and here is some of what she recommended.

1. Ensure more appropriate assessment for special education students and bilingual learners (BLLs) by underwriting efforts to develop, validate, and disseminate more appropriate assessments in the content areas for these students, and by ensuring that the law and regulations encourage assessments that are based on professional testing standards for these groups. This would include helping to develop and requiring the use of tests that are language-accessible for BLLs and appropriate for special education students, and evaluating their gains at all points along the achievement continuum. Additionally, assessments for placement for bilingual learners must occur before we devise assessment criteria for outcomes. In order to do this, consistency in bilingual learner classification must occur. We need a measurement classification that is sensitive to the within-group variability of bilingual learners. This means that an initial assessment of bilingual learners must be conducted to gauge their command of both English and their native languages, mastery levels across core content areas. And we must improve monitoring of bilingual learner student progress, by establishing effective and valid methods of data collection that enables schools to monitor bilingual learners' progress at all points of their education. This includes tracking fluent English-proficient (FEP)-classified students to ensure that they do not require programs or services later in their academic careers. Appropriate instructional strategies that address areas in need of improvement must be quickly addressed long before testing occurs.

2. Strengthen supports for bilingual and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students. Under Title III of ESEA, schools and districts are accountable for the academic achievement of bilingual learners and for enabling these students to reach English-language proficiency. However, these students face a unique set of challenges compared to other students. For example, it is difficult to generate advanced conceptual understanding from bilingual learners and LEP students when they are being tested or taught in a language in which they are not proficient. The federal government can encourage teachers, schools, and districts to provide equal education opportunities for these students by:

  • Investing in the development of fully-qualified bilingual teachers who are sensitive to language barriers and cultural differences among students and able to effectively teach bilingual and LEP students;
  • Aligning Title II and III by requiring that state local education agencies (LEA's) demonstrate how their second language acquisition programs meet the academic and linguistic needs of bilingual learners;
  • Lifting the cap on the amount of money appropriated for preservice preparation of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teacher candidates, combined with restoring fellowship opportunities (Title VII) for graduate study in those same areas provided in earlier versions of ESEA;
  • Encouraging states and localities to increase the pool of highly qualified bilingual teachers and personnel with expertise in working with BLLs;
  • Supporting high-quality, research-based professional development opportunities for BLL/LEP teachers;
  • Providing all staff with continuous professional development in effective practices, particularly as they apply to bilingual learners. Teacher candidates, and those already in the profession, should be provided financial support to complete higher education coursework in ESL methodology, or equivalent professional development in sheltered instruction in the subject areas. For those teachers already in the profession, meeting this goal should be fulfilled by the end of their second year in the classroom.
  • Supporting early school intervention programs that help prevent bilingual students from falling behind academically, and
  • Prohibiting districts and schools from testing bilingual student exclusively in English until they have become proficient in the English language.

What I appreciate about Dr. Valenzuela is her sensitivity to the ways in which we need to view bilingualism as a strength, not a weakness. That's why she prefers the term "bilingual learner" to the more commonly used English-language learner, or ELL. The former describes the central aspiration we should have for all students. The latter describes the central deficit we see in some.

Perhaps that sounds like mere semantics; but I agree with Angela -- it's a crucial distinction, and one we should all become more attuned to if we hope to create a society worthy of, and prepared to take advantage of, its own rich diversity.