Dual Language Learners Reader Post #9: How Have NCLB and RTTT Impacted Education for DLLs/ELLs?

This post is part of a 10-week series on research, policies, and practices pertaining to the education of dual language learners (DLLs) in U.S. public schools. Collectively, these posts constitute a DLL Reader that aims to provide a common, foundational base of knowledge to inform policy conversations about these students. Previous posts:

  • Post 1: Introduction
  • Post 2: Who are DLLs?
  • Post 3: How do schools identify DLLs?
  • Post 4: How long does it take DLLs to learn English?
  • Post 5: What models do we use to teach DLLs?
  • Post 6: Testing and DLLs
  • Post 7: Federal Policy and DLLs
  • Post 8: English-Only Laws and DLLs

Note: This post uses the term English language learners (ELLs) instead of dual language learners (DLLs) as the policies discussed here impact the K-12 population rather than just those between the ages of zero and eight. For further clarification of these terms, click here.

English language learners (ELLs) represent a growing segment of students in U.S. schools, yet historically this population’s unique language and academic needs have largely been an afterthought when forming policies that directly impact them. This week’s DLL Reader post explores the ways in which two recent federal education initiatives — No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) — have impacted ELLs’ education.

No Child Left Behind

In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESEA) was reauthorized as NCLB. Generally, NCLB sought to eliminate achievement gaps through a series of federal accountability mechanisms. Under NCLB, states were required to establish Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives (AMAOs) to track ELLs’ progress in (1) acquiring English; (2) attaining English proficiency; and (3) making adequate yearly progress (AYP).

Proponents of NCLB note that the law sets high expectations for ELLs and increases accountability for their outcomes through tracking their achievement over time. And while improving all students’ performance is a laudable goal, identifying children as having only emergent English abilities and simultaneously expecting them to score proficient on tests in English is a paradoxical proposition (click here for more on the challenges of assessing DLLs/ELLs in valid and reliable ways). Furthermore, there is evidence that the punitive sanctions associated with not making AYP — allowing students to transfer and corrective actions, among them — have little effect on improving school quality. And lastly, the high stakes associated with not making AYP could further contribute to deficit-laden orientations towards ELLs (as LEP subgroups frequently score below proficient).

NCLB also created specific funding streams to supplement ELLs’ education in order to help schools reach the new AMAOs. In doing so, NCLB repealed the previous competitive grant program established under the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968 and replaced it with Title III, or the “English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act.” Previously, only about 500,000 ELLs were served via grants awarded under BEA. Title III provided funds to all ELLs by using a per pupil funding allocation based upon numbers of ELLs and immigrant students in each state. However, a 2012 study on Title III implementation reported wide variation in states’ per pupil spending. For example, in the 2009-2010 school year, Alaska spent $86 per ELL while Pennsylvania spent $457. The wide variation in those numbers masks an even more important fact: both $86 and $457 are minimal amounts considering that, on average, states spent about $11,000 per student during that school year. In fact, 71% of the districts surveyed for this study reported insufficient funding in meeting the needs of ELLs (for more on variation in states’ ELL funding streams, see this report from the Education Commission of the States).

NCLB also required that all teachers be “highly qualified” which meant they have at least a bachelor’s degree, are state certified, and “know the subject area they teach.” This last requirement was left up to states to flesh out, but for teachers of ELLs, could mean that they have to pass a test (like the Praxis II or edTPA) or have a certain number of credits in the content area they are teaching. While these requirements may be one level of quality control, they do not help to address critical shortages of teachers specifically trained to work with ELLs.

While the BEA funded bilingual education programs in a number of localities, NCLB does not take a stance on the language of instruction nor the instructional models that may best serve ELLs, and instead leaves this up to states to discern. Arguably the absence of any language about bilingual education is a nod towards the default — English-only instruction.

No Child Left Behind Waivers and Race to the Top

Beginning in 2011 — in anticipation of the looming 2014 deadline — states were able to apply for ESEA waivers to request flexibility in meeting the NCLB accountability mandates. As part of their waivers, states were able to set new proficiency targets — many of which were differentiated by subgroups (Virginia, for instance). In order to be granted flexibility, a state had to show that they were using “college- and career-ready standards” in ELA and math. This requirement served as a nudge toward adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a quicker and cheaper solution for most states than rewriting their own standards. This push towards standards-based reform also built on federal incentives in Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion grant competition launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009.

Initially 46 states adopted the CCSS (including Minnesota which only adopted those for ELA), later three states (Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina) would withdraw. This wide acceptance of rigorous standards presented an opportunity to re-think how ELLs are instructed. For this reason, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council for Great City Schools, the Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford, and World Class Instructional Design and Assessment created the English Language Proficiency Development (ELPD) Framework, a detailed set of language practices that students must acquire in order to master the CCSS and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The ELPD framework guides educators to understand the language demands of the standards as well as ways to scaffold them for ELLs. But these are only guidelines. Teachers still need carefully designed curriculum and training in order to appropriately instruct ELLs within this new framework.

At the same time, many states scrambled to change existing policies related to teacher evaluations and standards in order to make their RTTT applications more competitive. Several states, for example, adapted existing teacher tenure protections to make room for new evaluation systems that could be used to make decisions on teacher retention, promotion, and dismissal.

In response to the push for these new teacher evaluation systems, the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality convened a forum of experts to discuss the evaluation of teachers of ELLs. This panel agreed that many states and districts did not make special considerations for teachers of ELLs when designing their evaluations systems. They further agreed that this can be particularly problematic. In a summary of their conversations, they note the following challenges related to evaluating teachers of ELLs:

  1. limited research on what constitutes effective instruction for ELLs,
  2. lack of valid assessments that measure ELLs’ English and content knowledge,
  3. inability to attribute ELLs’ growth to an individual teacher,
  4. instructional strategies that are context dependent and therefore difficult to measure, and
  5. limited capacity at the state and district level to design evaluation systems with consideration for the unique context of teaching ELLs. This is all to say that teachers working with ELLs warrant evaluations systems designed with them in mind.

Lasting impacts for ELLs?

So, have NCLB and RTTT led to better educational contexts for ELLs? Yes and no. While NCLB is applauded for bringing much needed attention to ELLs, it also created an overemphasis on test results and did little to support schools financially in educating ELLs. And while the focus on college and career ready standards created an opportunity to highlight the language practices necessary to access standards, ESEA waivers and RTTT have led states to develop teacher evaluation systems that may be a mismatched with the realities of teaching ELLs.

Amid current efforts towards ESEA reauthorization, there is a lesson to be learned from analyzing these two policy initiatives: the rapidly increasing population of ELLs in U.S. schools demands that education policy be designed and enacted with these students in mind. Failure to do so will be to the detriment of ELLs’ potential and the effectiveness of the policies themselves.

Stay tuned for next week’s tenth and final DLL Reader post on preparing educators to work with DLLs.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]