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English-Learners and NCLB Waivers: A Guide for States and Districts

As 34 states move ahead with the plans that granted them U.S. Department of Education waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind law, a team of researchers at the American Institutes for Research have been developing guides to help states and districts keep the promises they made to win the flexibility.

English-language learners are the focus of the first of these AIR waiver guides, which, among other things, highlights promising practices that state and local leaders may use to ensure that the particular needs of the English-language learners in their schools are served well under states' waiver plans. Diane August, who directs AIR's Center for English-Language Learners, wrote the guide after reviewing all 34 waiver plans that have been approved by the Education Department.

August lays out concrete steps states and districts must take on behalf of English-learners under three of the four main principles that the Education Department required as a condition for states to receive flexibility. (AIR did not include the fourth principle about administrative requirements, which is not as directly related to student support.)

Here's a brief summary of what the guide offers:

Under the first principle—which is college- and career-ready expectations for all students—states and districts must make building the academic-language skills of English-learners a top priority, the guide says, by providing professional development to all teachers, including those in content areas. States and districts may need to consider more "multiple pathway" options for ELLs to graduate, the guide says, including programs that provide credits for some ESL coursework and longer school days, so that students learning the language and academic content at the same time have more instructional time.

For states and districts to help English-learners succeed under the second principle of waivers—differentiated recognition, accountability, and support systems—the guide offers numerous suggestions. Importantly, the guide reminds states and districts that this principle of the waivers applies only to the accountability provisions of Title I of NCLB (the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and not Title III, the provision of the law that requires states and districts to demonstrate progress in how English-learners are acquiring the language as well as mastering academic content. It also notes that nearly half of states that have waivers established a "super subgroup" that will lump ELLs with other disadvantaged groups of students, a move that some advocates have said could mask the true performance of English-learners.

The guide recommends that states include ELLs' progress toward attaining proficiency in the language being reported for those school districts that aren't required to do so under Title III. It also suggests that states can more accurately represent the progress of ELLs by explicitly reporting on the progress of those "former" English-learners who have exited the subgroup by virtue of being reclassified as proficient.

Under the third principle of the waivers—effective instruction and leadership—the guide notes that few, if any, evaluation systems for teachers and administrators address the specialized skills it takes to work effectively with English-learners. That should change under waivers, the guide says.

There's much more to get out of this guide, including examples of innovative policies and practices that some states and local districts are using.

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