The “Rigor Gap” Affects English Learners, New Study Finds

Blog Post
May 10, 2019

It’s no secret that English learners (ELs) face sobering opportunity gaps. From the scarcity of bilingual educators to the dearth of curriculum targeted to their needs, ELs encounter many unique roadblocks. To complicate matters further, recent research has highlighted an additional challenge: teachers’ beliefs about ELs’ readiness for rigorous activities.

A recent study published in The Education Forum finds that teachers don’t think ELs can handle activities that demand critical thinking. Researchers at Hofstra University and St. Johns University asked 87 teachers from two large city schools to judge whether classroom activities that require critical thinking (that is, lessons that call for reasoning, synthesis, or analysis) were suitable for ELs. The result? These teachers deemed activities high in critical thinking to be less appropriate for ELs than activities that require low levels of critical thinking (think: lecture, drill, and recall).

Teachers don’t seem to share the same concern about native English speakers’ readiness for rigorous activities, the study found. When the researchers asked a second group of 118 teachers to rate the same activities (both high- and low-rigor) for general education students, this group felt high- and low-critical thinking activities were equally suited for non-ELs.

“Patterns emerged that ELs are getting a dumbed-down approach,” co-author of the study, Dr. Bruce Torff, told me. “Teachers beliefs are unwittingly fanning the flame of the achievement gap.”

The common wisdom among teachers is that ELs need to master English before they can handle rigorous activities, previous studies find. There’s also plenty of evidence that teachers believe ELs lack the background knowledge necessary to be successful with difficult tasks. These misconceptions about ELs and language learning can influence both the expectations teachers convey as well as the instructional practices they deploy. Indeed, deficit beliefs about what students can handle can lead well-intentioned educators to narrow the curriculum, fueling lower academic outcomes, which in turn beget more low-rigor lessons.

“When presented with English language learners, its a shortcut to say they lack background knowledge and, therefore, they need something that is a little more lower-order, a little more drill and practice, in order to catch up to their more knowledgeable peers,” Torff said.

This cycle of watering down instruction is commonly known as the “rigor gap”—and it’s a tricky thing to tackle. In fact, Torff and his co-author found that traditional indicators of teachers' readiness for ELs (specifically, certification in key areas such as English as a Second Language (ESL) or bilingual education) had no impact on teachers’ perceptions. In other words, even teachers who were prepared to explicitly work with ELs believed these learners were better suited for low rigor activities. Teachers’ years of experience in the classroom also did not relate to their perceptions of what ELs could handle academically.

“Beliefs tend to be very strongly held,” said Torff. But he argues that they’re not impossible to shift. The question that remains is how exactly to alter teacher biases and assumptions. Torff and his co-author suggest it’s necessary to build teachers’ knowledge about the effect of low-rigor and high-rigor activities on ELs. They also highlight the need to give teachers opportunities to plan and observe rigorous lessons. And, notably, they suggest teachers should have ongoing opportunities to engage in dialogue, journaling, and assignments that help them dredge up their existing deficit beliefs about different groups of students.

In a comprehensive review of the research literature, academics from Stanford University highlighted a few additional strategies that may help educators re-frame their deficit beliefs. These interventions include building teachers’ awareness of their own biases without shaming or blaming, increasing teachers’ empathy and perspective-taking, and building teachers’ awareness about the origins of biases.

Still, these researchers argue that far too few rigorous evaluations of interventions aimed at shifting teacher beliefs have been done. As such, many questions remain: Precisely what does an effective intervention look like? How do you measure the success of an intervention? How do make the learning actionable in the classroom? What initiatives should complement training? And of course: What are effective interventions for teachers of ELs?

While more work is needed to identify the types of interventions that can help unearth educators’ biases and assumptions, there is already sufficient research that backs making teacher beliefs a focal point of teacher preparation and development. Teaching ELs is a big job, one that requires teachers to believe these students can achieve at high levels.

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