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English-Learner Services A Priority, U.S. Department of Education Says

Some state and local directors of programs for English-language learners, along with advocates for this growing subgroup of students in America's public schools, have been raising concerns for some time that the U.S. Department of Education has not treated the unique needs of ELLs with the prominence that it should, which I reported on in a story for the Dec. 12 edition of Education Week.

Central to their complaints is the splitting of responsibilities over Title III, the provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provides roughly $750 million in federal aid to states and local districts for English-language acquisition programs. Since 2008, authority over the funds has been in a division of the department's office of elementary and secondary education, a change made at the tail end of President George W. Bush's administration and continued under President Barack Obama. That move has left the Office of English Language Acquisition—where authority over all of Title III had originally been placed—largely on the sidelines when it comes to major policy decisions that impact English-learners.

Some influential Hispanic and civil rights groups have been pushing the department to restore more authority and prominence to the English-language acquisition office, but to no avail yet.

Despite my efforts to get the Education Department to directly address some of the specific criticisms before my deadline, I didn't get much beyond a generic statement. Shortly after deadline, however, a spokeswoman provided me a more detailed accounting of the types of improved supports that the department says it is providing to states and district leaders who are responsible for English-learners.

Here's a rundown:

• The office of elementary and secondary education has a "multi-tiered" technical assistance plan for Title III. Rather than offer what it calls "ad hoc" assistance as issues crop up, the office hosts monthly webinars, occasional talks with experts from the field, and has held annual Title III state directors meetings. The office is also providing what it calls "differentiated and tailored" technical assistance based on state's needs,on top of any general technical assistance.
• The office of elementary and secondary education had conducted a "needs analysis" of each state to evaluate compliance with Title III, the capacity within state departments of education to determine the degree of support they require. In a survey for fiscal 2011, 68 percent of Title III grantees said they were satisfied with the technical assistance they received.
• Under requirements of the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, every state must create an English-language proficiency assessment that is "aligned to college and career standards," and specify how they will train teachers of English-learners to help ELLs be successful in reaching both the language and academic demands of the new common standards.
• The waiver rules also require schools that are designated as among the lowest-performing in the state to provide specific, targeted supports for all subgroups, including English-learners.

I still don't have answers to other questions I posed to the Department about what, if any, elevated role it might consider for the office of English-language acquisition in the future. The department also declined to answer my questions about the status of the National Clearinghouse of English Language Acquisition, or NCELA, because the current contract, which was awarded to small company in September after years of being held by George Washington University, is under review.

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