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Education Department Pledges to Prioritize Needs of Language-Learners

The U.S. Department of Education says it is developing a strategy to elevate the national focus on English-language learners, the nation's fastest-growing student population.

The plan, which touches on topics ranging from parent engagement to teacher preparation, is a "framing guideline for how we want to think about English-learners across different levels of the organization," said Libia Gil, the head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition, or OELA.

Gil unveiled a draft of the plan Wednesday while addressing the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund's school governance conference in Washington. More than 70 Latino school board members, higher education trustees, and state lawmakers attended the event.

"The target here is to shift our language in how we describe English-learners from a deficit approach to one that is asset-based ... to really look at English-learners as a national asset and investment in contrast to thinking of English-learners as a problem or challenge coming to our school districts," Gil said.

The Obama administration has proposed raising spending levels for states and districts to support instruction for English-learners in its fiscal 2016 budget request. The proposal is for $773 million, a bump of $36 million over what the president proposed in fiscal 2015.

As part of its plan for ELLs, Gil said that federal education officials want to:

  • Ensure equity and address opportunity gaps;
  • Increase evidence-based knowledge, practice and assessment;
  • Identify effective approaches that integrate native languages and culture to promote multi-literacy;
  • Increase all school/district/state leaders' and teachers' effectiveness in serving English-learners.
  • Establish the Office of English Language Acquisition as the credible national knowledge hub on English-learners; and
  • Engage families and community partners.

"There is not a single topic that we can think of that doesn't have implications for English-learners, everything from our priorities with early learning ... all the way to teacher preparation," Gil said.

Evidence that the needs of language-learners aren't a top national priority is evident, Gil said. While the percentage of Latino students in U.S. schools has more than doubled in the past two decades, the number of Latino and multilingual teachers has hit a plateau, National Center for Education Statistics data show.

"That's a concern for us," Gil said.

To address that issue, the department plans to deploy more resources for language-learner teacher preparation programs, including a new round of National Professional Development program grants that federal officials will award to grantees with promising proposals to improve classroom instruction for ELLs, she said.

In case you missed it, read this Q and A I recently had with Gil, who is a long-time dual-language educator and a former district superintendent.

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