The needs of dual language learners (DLLs) rarely get a foothold in education debates. Perhaps even worse, when we do talk about DLLs, our conversations are often centered on questions about instructional language. Are DLLs being instructed in English or their home language or a mix? Which should it be? What should policymakers mandate that districts, schools, and teachers do?

This is understandable, since language differences are at the heart of what defines DLLs (from a policy perspective). It’s even more understandable in light of the United States’ relatively shabby track record when it comes to providing DLLs with adequate language supports (for an account of that history and a critique of Obama Administration policy in this regard, see this report from the BUENO National Policy Center for Bilingual and Multicultural Education). But this focus can also obscure other, related levers that could improve DLL education in American schools.

A new Institute of Education Sciences (IES) report largely sets aside the English versus home language battles. Instead, it analyzes a set of 11 schools serving a high percentage of DLLs and receiving federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) with an eye towards chronicling how they are serving these students. In particular, the report highlights ways that the schools’ ability to serve their DLLs is connected to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of adults working in the schools.

The schools in the study have especially high percentages of ELLs, with a median of 45 percent (the nationwide median for SIG schools is 6 percent). The schools also primarily serve students who come from low-income families, with a median percentage of 90 percent (the nationwide median for SIG schools is 72 percent).

The researchers conducted teacher and administrator surveys to gather multiple perspectives on how each school was working within the SIG framework to serve DLLs. Based on these data, they rated schools on a 24-point scale according to their commitment to serving DLLs in a targeted way.

Unfortunately, the report rates only three schools in the “moderate attention to DLLs’ needs” category, and eight in the “limited attention” category. To get an idea for how dispiriting this is, check out how the researchers described the “limited attention” group: “Schools in this category did not appear to neglect [DLLs] entirely… [However, their] needs appeared to be on the periphery of these schools’ efforts to improve student outcomes.” That’s a pretty low hurdle.

The “moderate attention” group, meanwhile, was able to articulate “some [DLL] needs” and show “that their schools made efforts to address those unique needs as part of their improvement activities.” At the end of the day, however, DLLs at these schools “did not receive primary attention in the schools’ improvement efforts.”

Administrators in schools in both categories reported having teachers with little to no training in supporting DLLs’ language development and unique learning needs. No surprise, then, that administrators in all but one of the schools surveyed reported “challenges with teachers’ expertise and skills for meeting the unique needs of ELLs.” Teachers, meanwhile, reported disorganized implementation of DLL support programs, limited training and guidance, and limited materials.

However, when asked about their own capacities, teachers responded somewhat differently:

Teacher survey data suggest that teachers held a mixed but generally favorable view of their own expertise regarding [DLLs]. In all nine [DLL] sample schools with reportable survey data, a majority of teacher survey respondents reported having adequate knowledge about how students learn an additional language.

Interestingly, there was little correlation between schools paying “moderate” attention to DLLs’ needs and their teachers’ average years of classroom experience. As you see in the chart below, one of these schools had teachers whose median classroom experience was less than five years—and their median experience with DLLs was under three years. In other words, effective instruction of DLLs may have less to do with the length of a teacher’s career to date, and more to do with a thoughtful, intentional focus on DLLs’ needs.

Credit: IES

Credit: IES

We should be careful reading too much into these findings, given the study’s small sample size. What we should do, though, is take them as a salutary reminder that teacher, administrator, and district capacity for serving DLLs is a critical variable that can’t be overlooked. As we’ve suggested in the past, better rules on how schools must serve DLLs—and/or what language they should use— are no substitute for attracting, training, and retaining an effective education workforce.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams