How To Revamp No Child Left Behind for Dual Language Learners

Republicans in the House of Representatives spent a chunk of the end of last week trying to pass the Student Success Act, their party’s rewrite of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal government’s core PreK–12 education law. But after hours of debate and a pile of amendments, well, things didn’t quite come together. At the last minute…

(For what it’s worth, I more or less predicted this…in November.)

Meanwhile, bipartisan NCLB negotiations continued in the Senate. Since we’re waiting on those—and have no idea how long the House will take—the education policy world is in a holding pattern. So why not use it to leave the tawdry, disappointing world of legislative politics behind—and talk substance?

In keeping with Laura Bornfreund’s recent posts on how to improve NCLB’s early education provisions (here, here, and here), I’m going to share a list of ideas that could improve how the federal government supports dual language learners in a future NCLB rewrite. It’s clear that Congress could use the help—of the dozens of proposed amendments the House explored last week, only one was specifically related to DLLs—and it’s still awaiting a vote (No. 39, from California Democrat Julia Brownley, would establish a grants program to support states’ creation of seals of biliteracy). If that’s not dispiriting enough, recall that the Student Success Act considerably weakens existing federal programs that serve DLLs.

So here are a few of our ideas for improving federal policy for DLLs. They’re listed in approximate order from most- to least-audacious.

  • Congress should: dramatically increase federal funding for programs that help DLLs learn English and develop academically. As I’ve written before, we currently spend less ($737 million this year) on language learners than the original NCLB authorized ($750 million), even though there are at least 300,000 more language learners in American schools in 2011-2012 than there were when NCLB passed in 2002. If we assume that the original authorization of $750 million for Title III was adequate (it wasn’t, of course, but bear with me), an increase commensurate with this growth would come out to $805 million. And again, that’s probably undershooting the need by quite a bit. We simply aren’t spending enough money to serve these students well, and the projected growth in the number of DLLs will only exacerbate the situation. But if we increase funding for DLLs, we should also make sure that those funds are being used in ways that actually support these students. So…
  • Congress should: tighten NCLB’s rules for how Title III funds can be used. When I travel out of D.C. to see how different schools are serving DLLs, educators, researchers, and advocates alike tell me that it’s far too easy for Title III funds to be used for expenses unrelated to DLLs’ linguistic and academic growth (e.g. see p. 8 here). As I put it in a previous post,

[O]ne (federal) person’s “fostering innovation” is another (local) person’s “we don’t have to meaningfully change our practice for supporting DLLs.”

What’s more, given the last decade of research on how schools and families can best support DLLs’ development, Congress should specifically rule out some of the least-effective versions of English-only language supports for DLLs (like Arizona’s English immersion program). But even a larger Title III budget might not be a big enough “carrot” to get districts to submit to tighter rules. So…

  • Congress could: scrap Title III entirely in favor of a different approach to federal language learner policy. The House Republicans’ NCLB rewrite actually does this: eliminates Title III entirely. The federal government’s role in supporting DLLs at school has varied considerably over the years—there’s no reason that NCLB’s specific standards and accountability approach should be the only one under consideration. So here at the Work Group, we’ve been considering other ways the federal government could support DLLs. Specifically, they might consider building Title III’s existing accountability mechanisms (for more on how these currently work, see this post) into Title I accountability. Since Title I is a much larger pot of money, these two systems could theoretically be harmonized to amplify DLLs’ importance in the eyes of the federal government—and the states and districts they’re holding accountable. But, let’s be honest, more and better accountability for how DLLs are served in U.S. schools won’t do much unless we also get working on improving educators’ capacity for supporting them, so…
  • Congress should: put some of the savings from harmonizing Title I and Title III accountability into a national effort to diversify the American teaching force. Just 11.2 percent of American teachers speak a non-English language at home—compared to nearly one-quarter of American children. This could take a number of forms, some of which the Work Group will explore in future writing. One favorite idea in our office is to fund a new alternative teacher certification program:
    • Year 1: Intensive language training from the State Department + practice as a tutor in a school setting;
    • Year 2: Placement as a (federally-funded) assistant teacher in schools with high percentages of DLLs + coursework focused on language development and practical teaching strategies; and
    • Year 3: Official certification and placement in classrooms with high percentages of DLLs.

Of course, this sort of dramatic overhaul of the federal role in education simply isn’t coming anytime soon, so…

  • Congress should: fix NCLB’s data collection rules for DLLs, as New America discussed in our recent brief. Title III funds are currently allocated to states according to data from the American Community Survey. But those data don’t appear to be particularly accurate for this purpose. Congress could require that Title III funds be allocated according to states’ own data from their language proficiency assessments (screening and summative alike). But those assessments vary a great deal by state, so to make these data better…
  • Congress should: take up the efforts that began with recent federal assessment grant competitions requiring participating states to develop a “common definition of English Learner” and build it into NCLB. That is, Congress should require states to set more consistent rules for screening and reclassifying ELs. But even a small lift like that might be a lot to ask in our gridlocked political moment, so...
  • Congress should just: change the name of the Department of Education’s Office for English Language Acquisition to: the Office for Multilingual Students, or the Office for Multilingualism, or even just the Office for Language Acquisition. It would cost nothing, and would send a message about the importance of DLLs’ home languages. (Note: Congress should also change NCELA’s name while they’re at it.)

Will anything happen? Short version: no. Longer version: Given that the GOP majority is struggling to hold its right wing together and find enough votes to pass its own bill, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they’re able to pass an as-yet hypothetical bipartisan Senate measure. Any bipartisan Senate offering will cost the House leadership more defections from conservatives, and even if they’re willing to break the famous “Hastert Rule” and reauthorize the bill by securing a large number of Democratic votes, it’s hardly clear that they could get enough of those to finish the job. All of which means that even the most innocuous of these Title III reform ideas will likely have to wait for the next round of NCLB haggling.

[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