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Audit Says Seattle's ELL Programs Need Overhaul

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Seattle Public Schools' program for English-language learners is in bad shape, according to an audit by the Council of the Great City Schools released this week. The voluntary audit says the program is "highly fragmented, weakly defined, poorly monitored, and producing very unsatisfactory academic results." See the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Aug. 7 article, which contains a link to the report. The audit was requested by school board members and the system's new superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and it gives them credit for wanting to improve the program for ELLs.

The Seattle district doesn't track ELLs well, and many ELLs aren't getting any services, the auditors found. The district doesn't have data that says how long students spend in ELL programs. It relies heavily on instructional aides to support ELLs. The district's approach to teaching ELLs is "ad hoc, incoherent, and directionless," the report continues.

I think you get the picture. Henry Duvall, the communications director for the Council of the Great City Schools, acknowledges that audits conducted by the Council, carried out by specialists from large city districts that are its members, can be scathing. But it's the honesty of the audits that can be so helpful in spurring districts to improve, he noted. The 96-page report on Seattle ELLs, who make up nearly a quarter of the district's 46,000 students, contains detailed recommendations. A major one is for Seattle to get rid of pull-out programs, where ELLs are taken out of class for 45 minutes each day for English instruction, and replace them with a "sheltered English" approach, where ELLs are taught in self-contained classes by teachers who use "sheltered English" methods. The auditors are recommending that English instruction be infused into the core curriculum and delivered by teachers who have been well trained to work with ELLs.

Mr. Duvall said the Council conducts such audits in a variety of areas, including curriculum and instruction and financial management, for any of its 66 members, which are all large urban districts. The Seattle audit is the third one by the Council to focus only on programs for ELLs. The Council produced a similar audit for Guilford County schools in Greensboro, N.C., in 2002 and one for Denver Public Schools in 2006. But Mr. Duvall said those audits didn't become public.

My intent in writing this blog entry isn't to dwell on what the audit shows about Seattle; frankly, reading the report makes me feel sad because I suspect that the faults of the Seattle program are present in a lot of other school districts in this country as well. I recommend that you print out a copy of the report as soon as possible (while we know it's still online) and use some of the issues posed by the auditors to critique your own school district's services. Can your district say how long ELLs have been in a special program? Are you serving all of your ELLs, or just leaving them to fare the best they can in regular classes? Are your teachers adequately prepared to work with ELLs?

In sum: Learn from the Seattle example so we don't have to keep revisiting this issue of how poorly school districts are serving this group of students.

2 Comments

What's the excuse for not serving ESOL students? That is against federal law. It needs to be corrected immediately.

Kudos to EdWeek for covering this, and for your thoughtful comments on the blog. EdWeek correctly titled the article about the Seattle report, which highlighted problems with all programs for ELLs, not just bilingual instruction. Unfortunately, the CCSSO report and the press coverage used titles and text that made it seem like a failure of bilingual education, when only a small proportion of Seattle's ELLs are actually enrolled in any form of bilingual instruction. In fact, the report recommends an expansion of dual language programs.

I have conducted numerous system-wide audits and evaluations of district services for ELLs, and -- unfortunately -- find many of the same problems noted in Seattle. Fortunately, a number of superintendents and school boards are interested in finding out how to make systemic, long-lasting improvements in these services, and to set in motion the planning, training and internal monitoring of ELL services that can lead to greatly improved results for students. These efforts take much vision and determination and a multi-year effort to achieve pay-offs.

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