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Are School Turnaround Efforts Overlooking English-Learners?

The unique learning needs of English-language learners enrolled in low-performing schools that were targeted for dramatic improvements under a federal school turnaround program were largely overlooked, at least in the early phases of implementation, a new evaluation concludes.

In an ongoing review of the Obama administration's $4.6 billion School Improvement Grant program, the Institute of Education Sciences found that the needs of second-language learners received "only moderate or limited attention" in the early-to-midway stages of the schools' turnaround initiatives. None of the schools studied by researchers at IES—the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education—demonstrated that they were addressing ELLs' needs as a strategic part of their turnaround methods.

Researchers looked closely at the turnaround strategies in 11 schools with a high proportion of English-language learners—ELL enrollments in the schools ranged from 35 percent of students up to 90 percent. The schools were located among nine different districts and four states. All 11 of them have high poverty levels. Evaluators gathered data during two-day site visits as well as information collected in teacher surveys in the fall of 2011 when the schools were entering their second year of their turnaround interventions.

Of the 11 schools, seven were using the so-called transformation model which required a new principal and adoption of strategies such as extended learning time. Four of the schools had opted for the turnaround model, which also required a new principal, as well as replacement of at least 50 percent of the teaching staff. Each school would have received up to $500,000 per year for three years.

Among the most revealing findings:

  • While most school staff described multiple positive attributes of ELLs, a majority of teachers at eight schools reported feeling "overwhelmed" by the challenges of teaching them;
  • A lack of support and interventions for long-term ELLs who've been unable to move beyond intermediate levels of English proficiency;
  • Staff members at all five high schools in the sample reported barriers to graduation for ELLs, including difficulty acquiring enough credits and passing state graduation exams; and¬†
  • All 11 schools reported struggles with engaging the parents and families of ELLs, in part because of challenges in providing interpretation and translation services to parents who speak less common languages.

The analysis also rated each of the 11 schools across six focus areas: explicit school goals for ELLs; using data to inform instruction for ELLs; extended learning time; instructional practices; professional development for teachers that focused on needs of ELLs; and strategies for engaging ELL parents.

Three of the schools were found to be paying moderate attention to the needs of ELLs as part of their overall turnaround efforts, while the other eight were rated as paying limited attention to them.

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