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Q&A With Libia Gil, Head of the Federal ELL Office

Libia Gil, the head of the U.S. Department of Education's office of English-language acquisition sat down for an interview with Education Week in late January. A veteran bilingual and dual-language educator, Gil came to OELA in September 2013.

In a story I wrote this week, Gil discussed efforts to decrease the time English-learners spend testing and preparing for tests.

Here are some other highlights from our  conversation. Questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.

Q. How do you determine the appropriate amount of testing for English-language learners?

A. In the broad context, we're pushing high standards, high expectations for all of our students. In particular, English-learners need to be part of that. They're not a group that we ignore. It's a group that is central to our focus on accountability. We expect the states to demonstrate both growth and also actual performance.

That is a central theme: we expect all our children to be tested annually for accountability for public transparency. How are we going to know whether what we do as practitioners is making a difference if we don't track performance? That gets into that issue of how often and how much.

Q.  On gaps in educational opportunities, Gill pointed out that 2 percent of ELLs are identified as gifted and talented while roughly 7 percent of native English speakers are.

A. There's a huge gap here. When I show [people] this kind of data, it starts that conversation. It's building awareness that there are issues of equity, there are issues of opportunity gaps, there are issues of access that causes constituencies to start asking, 'What do we look like?'

What are the strategies to address some of this? If we really want to be developmentally strategic about how we avoid this kind of situation, we need to start very early. The early learning emphasis is absolutely critical for English-learners. That's the most significant investment we can make in terms of the developmental trajectory. Part of what I'm suggesting is that if we spend time on the prevention end, hopefully we would see some of the outcomes mitigated. We do think that there's power in looking at developmental approaches, making sure that our English-learners are not excluded. There are included, not only with high levels of support that are differentiated, but also high accountability. That gets back to why it's important to actually look at progress regularly.

Q. Gil also talked about the importance of cultivating multilingual students.

A. We want all of our children to be highly proficient in English but the question is: Does it have to be at the expense of their native language or home language? More and more communities are demanding and recognizing the value of multiple languages, and the advantages for our kids. We talk a lot about our English-learners coming with assets. They already have a language. Let's build on that.

How can we elevate our English learner focus and integrate with all of our initiatives? This is a population of students (who are) historically under-served, but we're going to pay more attention.

Q. The Obama administration recently released guidelines that specify the civil rights of English-language learners. How does your office look to address the number of civil rights complaints involving English-learners and what's at the root of these problems?

A. The majority of complaints have to do with services to English-learners as I outlined earlier (the opportunity gaps for English learners). The second category of complaints has to do with harassment and bullying and hostile environment. As part of a White House initiative at the [education] department here, we do have a bullying task force that we're a part of that is specifically looking at this issue for English-learners: particularly with Asian and Asian Pacific Islander students who seem to have a greater incidence of bullying and targeting that we're concerned about. The third category of complaints has to with limited parent communication. Part of the requirements issued under the guidelines is that you produce meaningful, understandable communication. If that means providing appropriate translation, you do that. Not all or our school systems have.

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