Advocates for the nation's largest group of English-language learners—the 1.4 million such students in California—are urging state policymakers and school district leaders to move away from narrow, generalized instruction for ELLs and provide more tailored training to teachers on how to work effectively with students who are still learning the language, among other recommendations.
In a policy brief released in Sacramento yesterday, Californians Together—a nonprofit coalition of parent and civil rights groups that advocates for improving services for ELLs—outlined what it calls the "four essential elements" necessary to change teacher training and classroom practices in order to vastly improve the outcomes for English-learners. The brief was written in collaboration with the Center for Equity for English Learners at Loyola Marymount University and the Center of Equity and Biliteracy Education Research at San Diego State University.
The four essential elements, according to the brief:
• Rigorous and relevant instructional practices—this includes, among other things, drawing on ELLs' prior knowledge and making strategic use of student interactions in class to keep them engaged;
• Multiple measures for English-learner assessment—part of this entails the use of assessments that can differentiate language development from academic achievement;
• Assessing practices of teachers of English-learners—this includes adopting wider use of classroom observation to help teachers identify how to improve their practice; and
• Collaboration and professional development—central to this is giving teachers time to think about their instructional practices and work closely with colleagues to analyze students' assessment results and adopt their practice accordingly.
The report goes on to make concrete policy recommendations for California. One of them—the distribution of money and other resources to ensure that ELLs are getting the materials they need, as well as the right professional development for their teachers—seems almost insurmountable right now given the unrelenting budget woes in California. Another recommendation is that the four essential elements outlined in the brief would be woven into teacher preparation, credentialing, and ongoing professional development. The brief also calls for "clear and coherent" state and local policies around programs, curriculum, and assessment so that "all school reform efforts should have a laser-like focus on addressing the language and academic needs of English Learners." None of these will be easy.
But Californians Together has a track record when it comes to driving change around ELLs and language policy. Last year, the group succeeded in getting California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to approve a state seal of biliteracy to high school graduates who demonstrate fluency in English and another language. The group is also largely responsible for bringing the long-overlooked issue of long-term ELLs into the spotlight.
It's also important to point out that one of the brief's authors is Karen Cadiero Kaplan, a San Diego State professor who is currently serving as the top advisor on ELL issues to Tom Torlakson, California's state schools chief. That connection should certainly help draw Torlakson's attention to this matter. Who else will pay attention?