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New Report Offers State Leaders, Feds Advice to Improve ELL Education

A new report from the Education Commission of the States offers a series of policy recommendations that it says states and the federal government can adopt to improve the academic performance of English-language learners.

The report, State Level English Language Learner Policies, lists proposed changes in five areas: finance; student identification and reclassification; educator quality; prekindergarten services; and parent and family engagement. The commission compiled the report with input from some of the nation's leading language-learner experts and advocates.

"Addressing the needs of English-language learners has been a top education priority of mine," Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, chairman of the Education Commission of the States, said in a statement. "The recommendations in this ECS report will help inform better policy decisions in key areas—such as teacher preparation and adequate funding—and ultimately improve academic performance of students learning English."

The report encourages states to dedicate funds to track the academic progress of former English-learners and prohibit schools and districts from diverting ELL funds into general budgets. The study also advises against relying solely on Title III, the provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that sets aside money for English-language acquisition, to fund the education of ELLs.

To better identify ELLs, the report suggests developing standardized tools—including home language surveys—to help schools and districts to identify, with more consistency, language-learners and reclassify students who may no longer need ELL services. The group also wants states to establish standards that English-learners "should only leave English language programs when they can read, write and comprehend English well enough to participate meaningfully in an English-only classroom setting."

Another effort—led by the Council of Chief State School Officers—has been underway for the last few years to move states toward a more common way to identify and define who English-language learners are, as well as establishing more uniform ways of determining when students are ready to be re-classified as fluent speakers who no longer require English-language acquisition services.

Districts and states seeking to build a talent pool of teachers and other school staff to work with English-learners should: encourage former ELL students to pursue teaching careers, help bilingual parents get teacher or paraprofessional training, and explore creating a loan forgiveness program for ELL teachers, the report recommends. While urging states to require ramped up certification standards for educators who work with ELLs, the contributors also caution against "treating certification, licensure and professional development for ELL teachers as the 'only answer' for improving ELL outcomes."

The report authors found that only five states—Alaska, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas—have policies requiring state-funded prekindergarten programs to provide ELL instruction. The study suggests that the rest of the country devote more resources and funding to serve young language-learners before they reach the classroom.

States should also do more to communicate with parents, including providing materials in their native languages and offering adult ELL community education classes to help bridge the language gap, the report argues. In addition, the report recommends that the federal government allow states to use their ESEA waivers to build creative approaches to serving ELLs and that state education departments hire a language-acquisition leader to ensure that ELL needs are met.

States should also do more to examine the role that technology, including massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in language-learner education and look to eliminate or limit the use of the terms "limited English proficient" and "English-language learner," replacing them with terms such as emerging bilingual or English as a second language learner that acknowledge that the students are developing additional language skills, the study group suggested.

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