In the Classroom

Feds: Schools must serve English language learners better

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Three out of four schools now educate students who have a native language that is not English. More than 9 percent of all public school students across the country are English language learners.

In Indiana the statewide number is well below the national average at 5 percent, but some districts have large numbers of students still learning English, like Perry Township (20 percent), Pike Township (17 percent), Wayne Township (15 percent) and Indianapolis Public Schools (14 percent).

Even as the population of non-native English speakers in public schools booms, districts and states have sometimes struggled to ensure that those students have the same access to school programs as their peers whose native language is English.

A new set of guidelines, released Wednesday by the federal Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, sets out to clarify districts’ and states’ obligations to English learners. (The guidelines have also been translated into 10 languages.)

“The data we have reflects the increasing diversity of our schools, including the increasing diversity of English learners,” said Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for the education department’s Office for Civil rights. “We know those opportunity gaps (between English learners and their peers) are real.”

Lhamon said the new guidelines would help “avoid the need for ongoing enforcement and make sure state and district school leaders are able to satisfy their obligations.”

“I think a lot of this guidance is more of a reminder for us in Indiana as opposed to sweeping changes,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates English as a new language services for Indianapolis Public Schools. “These are things that we are already doing.”

States and school districts are required to provide English learners equal access to high-quality education under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. But the DOJ had never issued clear guidance on the issue, and the Education Department had not done so in 24 years.

The federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights has received some 475 complaints about English learners’ access to high-quality education in the past five years. And the federal justice department has agreements with more than 20 districts and states governing how they work with them.

For instance, one school district in Ohio had not advertised a program for English learners in Spanish, the most common language spoken by English learners and their parents in the area.

Many of the complaints centered around whether English learners with disabilities were being properly identified and receiving the services to which they are legally entitled, Lhamon said.

Both districts with rapidly growing populations of English learners and districts with long-established programs for students learning English were the subject of complaints.

In Indiana, the more than 55,000 students classified as English learners were identified through a home survey they take when they enter the school system, typically in Kindergarten, or when they moved into their district.

If a student’s survey indicates that English is not their native language, or that another language is most often spoken by the student, students are tested on their ability to listen, speak, read and write in English.

If they score anywhere below proficient fluency, they must be provided services.

The federal guidelines include information about how districts should identify and assess English learners and about what kinds of language assistance those students need. It details how states and districts should avoid unnecessary segregation of English learners, ensure that all students have access to school programs and activities, remove students from programs for English learners when appropriate, ensure that English learners with special needs are identified and receive services, and provide information about programs to parents whose English proficiency is limited.

The Department of Education also released a tool kit with information about identifying English learners. Lhamon said this is the first of several resource guides for working with English learners the department will release.

Indianapolis Public Schools, which has more than 4,500 English learners, is in the process of creating a four-year improvement plan with the Indiana Department of Education because it had reached four consecutive years of not meeting annual objectives for its language learners.

Forty-one percent of IPS’s English learners are considered “advanced” by the state in their English skills — nearly proficient — but Feeser said many still have trouble understanding academic terms and communication.

“It seems like they really know what they’re doing because they can talk with you, but when it comes to the academic language piece, that’s when they’re having the discrepancies,” Feeser said.

Only 9 percent of IPS’s English learners are labeled by the state as “beginners” in using English. Feeser said those students are typically in Kindergarten and first grade.

Feeser said she feels the improvement plan will start shifting the culture of serving English learners in the district. She said new standards for serving the students “encourage every teacher to be a language teacher.”

“I am very, very confident this process will allow us to grow in ways we haven’t grown previously so we can find out where the best practices are happening so we can emulate them in other schools,” she said.

buy-in

How to get teachers to believe in a new school program? Ask them to help design it.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee's revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

A veteran teacher in any school district will likely be able to tell the same story: A faddish new initiative comes sweeping in, perhaps promoted by the just-hired superintendent. Grand promises are made, and teachers get a few days of training (if they’re lucky).

Then, it slowly fades away, as teachers ignore mandates they see as unhelpful or impractical.

A new study looks closely at that phenomenon and its flip side — when teachers are bought in to programs designed to help their schools. The results, based on interviews with dozens of teachers at three high schools, aren’t so surprising: teachers are more enthusiastic if their school gets control over how a new program is designed and introduced.

Teachers leaders “were able to build buy-in from teachers in their school by customizing the design to fit the needs of their students and teachers,” write researchers Christopher Redding and Samantha Viano in the peer-reviewed study.

That involvement brings trade-offs, though. Teachers shaping the adoption of a new program often adjust a novel idea to fit into how they’ve already been working, Redding and Viano found. That could mean that promising ideas were watered down when they reached schools — or that teachers wisely avoid dramatic overhauls that would have done more harm than good.

Either way, the results hold significance for districts pushing dramatic reform efforts and wondering how to make sure they stick.

The conclusions came from talking to teachers over the course of two school years about changes at high schools in an anonymous big-city school district. The schools were all trying to increase students’ academic expectations and their levels of responsibility. To do it, schools were told to allow teams of teachers to develop ideas for ways to help students improve their work habits, understand the idea of “growth mindset,” and closely track their class grades over time.

A few things appeared crucial to winning over teachers. One was their schools not having a history of introducing and then scrapping programs.

Teachers in two of the three schools seemed enthusiastic about the new efforts, in part because their schools had recently put in place a literacy initiative that teachers believed in. But in the third school, teachers were more wary.

“We’ve seen a whole bunch of programs and it was here for like three months and it’s gone and then something else came in,” one teacher leader at the third school told researchers.

Teachers also appreciated that plans were developed by teachers within their schools.

“We had teachers to put those lessons together; it didn’t come from somewhere outside the school; it didn’t come from the district, it came from us,” one teacher said. Even in one school where a small number of teachers did most of the work to build their program, their less-involved colleagues still felt largely supportive. (In each school, though, teachers said a handful of skeptical peers largely did not implement the changes.)

A third winning pitch was framing the initiative as consistent with what teachers were already doing in their classrooms.

“That’s kind of our main pitch to them, is that this is something probably 95 percent of you are already doing, we’re just going to ask that you change your language,” one teacher leader said.

“I don’t see this as an innovation,” another said. “I see this as common sense.”

That may have made teachers more amenable to the changes, but it might have also minimized the underlying goal by suggesting that teachers didn’t have to do much differently. In that sense, “Teacher involvement risks undermining school improvement efforts,” wrote Redding and Viano. “It is conceivable that teacher leaders fail to identify more systematic changes, preferring incremental change that will be better received by the administration and their colleagues.”

A separate, forthcoming study co-written by one of the same researchers found some evidence that the program helped students, modestly reducing absences and increasing grades. That suggests the exercise wasn’t pointless.

Why did it seem to help? One of the teachers interviewed in the initial study offered a theory: consistency. By pitching the initiative as simply encouraging teachers to do things they were already doing, the school succeeded in getting teachers to commit to practices they sometimes skipped, like helping students monitor their grades.

“We should probably be doing [it] anyway,” the teacher said. “I can easily find reasons why it didn’t … but when I know that everybody is doing, you know, it kinda forces me to make sure I’m doing it.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.