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English-Learners and Reclassification: Principals Play Pivotal Role, Study Finds

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Principals have the power to ensure English-language learners get an equitable education, but many don't realize how much influence they wield, a new study on school leadership concludes.

The study, led by researchers from Michigan State University and Old Dominion University, examined how principals empower or impede equity through their leadership during decisionmaking about English-learner reclassification—the process schools use to determine when, and if, English-learners are deemed proficient in the language and no longer need specialized instruction.

The study's authors, associate professor Madeline Mavrogordato of Michigan State and assistant professor Rachel White of Old Dominion, conducted case studies in eight elementary schools across four school districts in Texas. As part of their research, they observed the end-of-year meetings when committees reviewed English-learner students' files and made reclassification decisions.

Reclassification decisions can shape the academic trajectories of students and the study's authors concluded that "while reclassification policy implementation varied markedly across schools, the level of influence school leaders exert over the process was consistently high."

The authors found that well-informed leaders who have a thorough understanding of policies are better equipped to push for equity to improve the social and academic outcomes for students.

"From an educator's perspective, we like to think of schools as being a place where, if they are being run the right way, that they are absolutely places where social justice happens," Mavrogordato said.

Conversely, the authors concluded that school leaders with only a superficial understanding of policy are less equipped and less likely to reach that standard because they are "more concerned with compliance procedures and are unaware of areas of flexibility that afford opportunities to implement the policy so as to promote equity in education."

Recent research on the benefits and drawbacks of English-learner reclassification has drawn conflicting conclusions.

A 2016 study out of the University of Oregon, led by Ilana Umansky, found that being identified as an English-learner can negatively impact students, especially those who may not need the services, because diminished teacher expectations often accompany the English-learner designation.

In 2017, research from Nami Shin—a research scientist at CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles—found that being identified as an ELL motivated the students, pushing them to catch up with the initial English-proficient students and native English-speaking peers.

While there remains considerable debate on how and when students should exit from their English-learner status, White said she and Mavrogordato's study should challenge principals who have English-learner students in their schools to do two things: think deeply about policy and "implement it in a way that is meaningful and that's going to result in every single student having an equitable educational experience in that school."

Here's a link to the study, Leveraging Policy Implementation for Social Justice: How School Leaders Shape Educational Opportunity When Implementing Policy for English Learners.

Related Reading

English-Language-Learner Reclassification Can Impede Student Growth

Does English-Language-Learner Classification Help or Hinder Students?

Pre-K Literacy Key to English-Language Learner Reclassification, Study Finds

English-Learners and ESSA:  Many States are Lowering Academic Goals, Advocates Charge

ESSA: Ed. Dept. Releases English-Language-Learner Guidance

Many Reclassified ELLs Still Need English-Language Support

Photo Credit: Mojdeh Henderson, the principal at Berewick Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., relies on a team of "first responders" who can handle matters such as student discipline and building issues. The setup allows Henderson to spend the bulk of her time doing things such as classroom observations that are meant to improve instruction.

--Chris Keane for Education Week
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