Federal English Learners Policy Changes: Lots of Talk, Little Policy Clarity

Last Thursday was a busy day during a busy week for English learner (EL) policy in Washington, DC. The Department of Education sent regulatory suggestions to the committee tasked with clarifying the concrete meaning of Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) legislative language. Two of the Department’s suggestions were related to ELs: one covers ELs’ participation in states’ annual math and language arts assessments, and the other addresses details related to states’ English language proficiency assessments. (For Education Week coverage of an earlier meeting of the rulemaking committee, click here.)

As the committee debated, the Education Policy Center at the American Institutes for Research hosted a Capitol Hill panel discussion under the title, “What Does ESSA Mean for English Learners and Accountability?” The event featured research updates from Joseph P. Robinson-Cimpian, Karen Thompson, and Rachel Slama. Each provided a window into the field’s best data on identifying, supporting, and reclassifying ELs.

The bulk of the presentations explained the rationale for tracking the academic trajectories of former-English Learners (former-ELs) who have been formally deemed English-proficient by their states. These so-called “Ever-EL” (i.e. Ever-English Learner) policies allow educators and researchers to see multilingual students’ performance more accurately, rather than relying on problematic data on achievement gaps between ELs and non-ELs. Thompson and Robinson-Cimpian showed research revealing that former-ELs graduate from high school at essentially the same rate as students who were never classified as ELs.

Presenters repeatedly noted that the just-passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states to count former-ELs as if they were still ELs for up to four years (for accountability purposes). This sounds a bit like Ever-EL policies, and could be a good thing for multilingual students. It certainly might lead towards more states tracking EL achievement data across a longer time horizon by allowing states to continue monitoring these students’ achievement once they’ve left the group. (Note: the preceding law, No Child Left Behind, also allowed states to continue monitoring former-ELs’ academic progress after they were deemed proficient in English, though it did not allow these students’ achievement in the EL group for accountability purposes.)

But this change is complicated for EL advocates. It should, in many cases, raise the apparent achievement of schools’ and districts’ EL groups by including the scores of students who have attained English proficiency in the tabulation of achievement scores for the EL group as a whole. This may lessen urgency — and corresponding pressure — around focusing schools’ and districts’ efforts on better serving ELs.

Furthermore, while ESSA allows states to use former-ELs’ achievement to raise the average achievement of their EL groups, it sets no standardized policy in this regard (nor will any be coming from the rulemaking committee). That means that states may include former-ELs’ achievement in the EL group for up to four years, or they may eschew it entirely. Depending on how states record their ELs’ and former-ELs’ data, this could make cross-state comparisons of EL achievement even more difficult.

At a later, related AIR event, “Ensuring High-Quality Education for English Learners,” researchers focused on school-based factors that can impact EL achievement. These included assessments, literacy instruction, access to academic content, and teachers prepared to work with language learners . The 10 panelists were all Policy Fellows supported by Spencer Foundation and the Working Group on ELL Policy. As AIR Managing Researcher Diane August stated, the motivation for the fellowship was “ to encourage the next generation of researchers who do policy work in the EL space.”  

The connections between policy, research and practice are often tenuous, so the event was structured around several key policy questions related to EL education. Claudia Rodriguez-Mojica, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University, discussed research-based practices that help ELs access to core content. She highlighted the value of scaffolding — modifying instruction to help ELs better understand the content — and the research support behind these modifications. Strategies such as modeling (showing students how to do something) and building background knowledge (to help students understand what is being talked about) have strong research foundations, but many other commonly used scaffolds have been understudied. For example, sentence frames and sentence starters are often used to give ELs “an entry point to the conversation,” despite the lack of research confirming that these strategies actually help students. And that’s where it gets complicated — just because there isn’t research confirming that sentence frames are effective doesn’t mean that they’re instructionally useless. The disconnect is likely more of a reflection of the fact that research often lags behind practice, rather than hard evidence against the use of those particular strategies.

Above all, Rodriguez-Mojica argued that ELs must be in classes where core content is taught. This is an important point given that in some states, language learners spend at least half of their day in classes focused on learning English in isolation from core academic content.

Along similar lines, the University of Texas at Austin’s Rebecca Callahan illustrated how school structures and placement into ESL classes impact language learners in high school. She noted that once ELs reach high school, many “are precluded from access and entry into that college preparatory coursework” due to being labeled as an English learner. That label is complicated given that ELs are a heterogeneous group — newly arrived students and those with lower levels of English language proficiency benefit from the label and the supports it provides. Callahan also pointed to the influence of teacher perceptions on ELs’ academic outcomes. Research has documented that teachers often expect less of their EL students and see them as less likely to go to college and less likely to excel academically, she noted.

And those low expectations can have an impact on teachers’ effectiveness working with ELs. Luis Poza, of the University of Colorado at Denver, highlighted five key dispositions and skills held by teachers who are effective at instructing language learners. These included a positive view of their EL students and “an appreciation that their linguistic resources, their home languages, their home cultures and cultural practices are assets that can be leveraged for learning rather than deficits that interfere with it.”

Of course, these findings have implications for teacher certification and licensure. As the University of Washington’s Dafney Blanca Dabach pointed out, more than 30 states require no EL-specific training for general education teachers. But there is also an inherent challenge in mandating that all teachers become certified to work with ELs. Dabach noted that when California began requiring that all teachers be certified to with ELs, the state also lowered the requirements necessary to attain those credentials.

This challenge reared its head throughout the day. Researchers were particularly cautious about offering clear policy guidance in response to staffers’ questions in the morning. On the one hand, they noted that local leaders develop a wide variety of EL policies of uncertain quality and effectiveness — particularly as far as equity is concerned. On the other hand, they repeatedly warned that national or statewide policy standardization might not meet every community’s needs nearly as well as locally-designed solutions.

While the researchers stressed these dangers, the rulemaking committee continued its deliberations...without coming to many major decisions. As it happens, the Every Student Succeeds Act approach to education policymaking actually echoes the researchers’ caution. It codifies some standardization on assessment and accountability, but leaves state and local leaders wide sway to make key decisions related to ELs. It remains to be seen whether this new flexibility will work out well for ELs in most U.S. classrooms.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"


Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.

Amaya Garcia is a senior researcher in the Education Policy program at New America where she provides research and analysis on policies related to dual language learners.