One of the most controversial topics in the history of American education has been Bilingual Education or ESL education. In the 1980s, the U.S. English movement sought to make English the official language in the United States. Fortunately, the country has mostly moved away from this rhetoric that was mostly anti-immigrant and a lot of the policy now recognizes the importance of valuing native languages and seeks to preserve them. Despite these monumental advances, the education of bilingual students continues to be undermined and attacked by many factors. For the purposes of this policy memo, I will focus on the state of Connecticut. The education of (English Language Learner) ELL students continues to be underserved by the state.
The number of students in the state of Connecticut continues to expand, but it is still identified as a program that is suffering from a variety of factors. The state is currently facing a teacher shortage (not enough qualified candidates are applying for the positions available in bilingual education). They continue to underperform on state tests when compared to native English speakers and they have lower graduation rates. They are in diagnosed with a learning disability at a higher rate than the national rate, and they are more likely to be disciplined or suspended than the rest of the student body. Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a). The English Learners site on the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) page has very few resources for families in their native languages (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2017c). Finally, although the CSDE highlights the importance of getting all students to be excelling students, there are no resources on the website to help them or their teachers know about the college process for someone with limited English proficiency. In this policy memo, I will focus on a few proposals that encourage the advancement of this group of students so they can take their rightful place as members of our community.
We must encourage a certification process that allows qualified teachers from other states to move easily to Connecticut and to start teaching as soon as possible. We must try to reflect the demographics of the children in the staff. We must increase the number of months that ELL students can have in a bilingual program from 30 months to 60 months when possible and introduce Dual Language Bilingual Education Program in districts where one language is overwhelmingly dominant among the ELL students. We must increase the amount of money that the state invests on ELL/Bilingual education—it is currently $54.52 annually per child (Candelaria and Roldán, 2015). We must Improve the English Learners page on the CSDE website so students and parents can access it easily. We must believe that these students can get into competitive colleges and provide services that allow them to take the TOEFL exam if they are eligible. We must add a page on the CSDE website that provides not just information for them, but also for their families, counselors, teachers, and principals about the available options for higher education. All districts must also be instructed to create these pages on their websites.
Bilingual education has had a turbulent history in the United States. States and the country have not always been receptive to the idea of encouraging the teaching of a language other than English. The great expansion of the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century brought pride to Americans, but also fear. U.S. officials wanted all Americans to have something in common, and they looked at the possibility of an official language. This also put emphasis on making “American” mean assimilation of language and culture (García Garrido & Fernández Álvarez, 2011). “In 1968, Congress passed an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 known as the Bilingual Education Act” (Kim, Y., Hutchison L. A., & Winsler A., 2015, p. 239). This helped ELLs receive services in their native languages. In the 1980s the U.S. English movement identified a bilingual country as a threat to America and its identity (García Garrido & Fernández Álvarez).
In the early 1990s, the opposition for bilingual education, at least at the federal level, dwindled. Unfortunately, as soon as President W. Bush came into office, he undermined bilingual education. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001 (San Miguel, 2004). This act put pressure on bilingual programs to prioritize the learning of English (Kim, et al., 2015). It imposed penalties on schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” or to test less than 95 percent of students (García Garrido & Fernández Álvarez, 2011, p. 52). It did not address the shortage of teachers for ELL programs (San Miguel, 2004). The passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) by President Obama in 2015 granted more freedom to states on testing, but it required them to track students, especially high-need students. It “requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers” (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). It has now allowed for ELLs to be tested in their dominant language or at least have access to translation tools during assessments. (Taylor, 2016).
In the state of Connecticut, students are entitled to receive bilingual education if in a given school there are at least twenty students in the same language group who have been identified as ELL. (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015c). If a school has less than twenty students, or if the student’s parents have opted out of the bilingual program in the school, the school is still required to grant ELLs access to an ESL classroom. This means that even though English in the language of instruction, it still focuses on obtaining English proficiency and mastery of the subject matter. According to Section 10-4a of the Connecticut General Statutes states, every child must receive a “suitable program of educational experiences,” and this has been interpreted as an obligation of the state to provide adequate ELL education. (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2017b). There is “no state legislation that mandates and describes specific requirements of a English as a Second Language program,” the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that all states provide suh services (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015c, p. 7). Although the state has to ensure support for these students, there are a variety of options to do so and I provide a small glimpse of the most popular programs used in the state.
In previous decades, schools practiced “submersion” (A.k.a sink-or-swim) methods where ELL students were placed in an all-English classroom all day every day. Thankfully, this program was deemed illegal after a U.s. Supreme Court case( Lau v. Nichols-– 1974). The second method most used is English as a Second Language (a.k.a. ESL). Students attend classes in English but they are pulled out of the classroom to work with ESL certified teachers. The third option is the Transitional Bilingual Education program. Instruction is in the student’s native language and in English and as the year progresses, the use of the native language is decreased while English is used more. A fourth option is the Developmental Bilingual Education program. Although this program is very similar to TBE programs, its goal is bilingualism and biliteracy. This program is normally a 5 year program that is hardly feasible in the state because ELLs are restricted to 3 years of ELL education. Finally, there are Two-way Bilingual Programs. The goal of this program is to put English-speaking students and ELL students who belong to the same language group and get them to achieve bilingualism. Instructors need to teach in both languages. Students benefit from the program the longer they find themselves in it and in the state of Connecticut, the students can remain in it indefinitely (as opposed to having a limit of 30 months like in the other programs) (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015c, pg. 18-19).
The state of Connecticut must take on the tough task to provide a rigorous and rewarding education to ELL students. It must make sure that its students are ready to go into the world and be able to interact within their communities. The Connecticut State Department of Education is aware of many of the crises in bilingual education across the state. In the following section I identify key demographic characteristics of ELLs and also some of the problems facing bilingual education in the state of Connecticut.
Who is an ELL? Who determines if they need an EL program? How?
Identification of English Learners
“English learners must be identified within 30 days after the beginning of the school year or within the first two weeks following their enrollment if it occurs during the year” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015c, p. 10). Upon enrollment, all parents/guardians must complete the Home Language Survey which inquires about the languages the kid has been exposed to at home. Secondly, the school must administer a language proficiency test. The Language Assessment Scales (LAS Links) allows the student to be tested in English and his/her/their native language. The results of this exam, or other components of the student;s academic standing could be considered to determine whether or not the child is an English Learner (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2010). [ref]
Schools now administer the Smarter Balance Assessment which is considered a more rigorous test to only allow students who possess the necessary oral and academic skills to succeed in a regular classroom (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a) [ref]
Most Dominant Language
(Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, p. 1)
Spanish is the most common native language among ELLs (72.4 percent of ELL students) (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a).
Free and Reduced Lunch
“ELs were more than twice as likely as others to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals (76.8 percent compared with 35 percent), illuminating that many ELLs have multiple service needs” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, p. 4).
ELLs with Disabilities
This is one of the most challenging areas of ELL education. Several reports have exposed the high levels of disabilities that are found among english learners. In 2011, the Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English Language Learners published a handbook. In one of their sections, they caution teachers to be careful about over-identification of learning disabilities, but it also warned teachers that to wait several years to report could be incredibly detrimental for an ELL with a disability. Unfortunately, “[since 2010], the numbers of ELs who were identified for special education increased by 36.1 percent, compared with a 5.8 percent increase for others.” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, p. 5)
ELL students tend to suffer high levels of expulsion or suspension. For example, in “the 2013–14 school year, the suspension/expulsion rate was higher for ELs than for all students (10.6 percent versus 7.5 percent), meaning that a higher percentage of all ELs received at least one of these sanctions than all students” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, p. 7). This seemed to correlate with progress made in English Language proficiency. “Only 37.2 percent of ELs who were either suspended or expelled demonstrated progress in English language acquisition compared with 59.4 percent for all ELs (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, p. 8).
Where are they?
Connecticut state had 34,833 ELLs in 173 public local educational agencies (LEAs) in the 2014-2015 school year. Most of ELLs are in Education Reform Alliance Districts. [ref] “Education Reform Alliance Districts are Connecticut’s 30 lowest-performing districts. The Alliance District program is a unique and targeted investment in these districts to dramatically increase student outcomes and close achievement gaps by pursuing bold and innovative reforms.” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2017a) [ref]
(Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a). Over 60 percent of all ELLs were in grades K-5, but in the last four years, the largest numeric growth has been in high school with 1,109 students. 79.8 percent have been in Spanish and 8.6 have been in Arabic (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, pg. 3).
Are they going to school?
It has been proven that absenteeism has detrimental effects on the academic performance of students and their high school graduation rates (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012). It is particularly disheartening to know that the ELL student body in the 2013-2014 school year showed to have higher rates of chronic absenteeism than English speakers (Gopalakrishnan, 2014).
(Gopalakrishnan, 2014, p. 9).
It is clear to see in this table that not only are ELLs more likely to be impacted by chronic absenteeism, but the other identities that heavily overlap with the ELL category are also disproportionately affected by this phenomenon. In other words, most ELLs tend to have hispanic heritage and this is the race/ethnicity, most affected by chronic absenteeism. ELLs overwhelmingly benefit from free meals, and that is the group of students who are more likely to suffer from chronic absenteeism. Although most ELL in the state of Connecticut can be found in ≤5th grade, according to the Connecticut State Department of Education, “in the last four years [2011-2015], the largest numeric increase in ELs occurred in high school” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a, p. 4). This already marginalized community is more likely to be a victim of chronic absenteeism if the children are in high school–which can be the case for many immigrants.
How are they doing in school?
The arrival of new technology allows states to clearly look at how well a particular student understands the subject matter regardless of whether or not he/she/they is proficient in English. Unfortunately, we are still not seeing the desired outcomes in ELLs. One of the few good things that the passage of the No Child Left behind law created was the annual tracking of deserving students (e.g. students of color and ELLs) to make sure that districts could not ignore these neglected communities. During the NCLB era, ELLs students heavily underperformed when compared to their English-speaking counterparts (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015a). In 2015, schools had the opportunity to use the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SAB) and little changed. This test allows Math exams to be taken in Spanish or provides directions in a variety of languages (Smarter Balanced: Assessment Consortium, 2016). These accommodations, however, had little effect on improving the scores of ELLs. The CSDE released the SAB test scores of the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math [ref] Children continue to use the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT: grades 3–9) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT: grades 10–12) for science (Cheshire Public Schools, 2017). [ref] (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2016c).
Although all subgroups seemed to improve, it is no time for celebration. ELL students in Connecticut are the subgroup with the lowest performance even with exams in their language.
Furthermore, “Connecticut students who learn English as a second language drop out of high school at a rate higher than any other New England state, according to an analysis by the New England Secondary School Consortium” (Desroches, 2015).
Teacher Shortage: Where are the (Qualified) Teachers?
Connecticut has struggled to find and retain qualified teachers for ELL programs since 2004. One of the biggest problems is that teachers cannot simply move from one state to another and start teaching. The certification requirements could be very different, deterring qualified teachers from moving into the state. Also, bilingual certification is still considered a “secondary” certification. This means that teachers must first get a regular teacher certification and then choose to take more courses and become a bilingual teacher (Sanchez, 2015). Currently, Connecticut’s bilingual programs cannot seem to find qualified teachers.
[ref] “Applicant pool ratings: 1) Few or minimally qualified applicants; 2) Some acceptable applicants; 3) Many acceptable applicants; 4) Some high-quality applicants; 5) Many high-quality applicants” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015b. p. 6). [ref]
“The CSDE Bureau of Data Collection, Research and Evaluation and the Bureau of Educator Standards and certification collaborated to develop a methodology to identify teacher shortage areas.” These factors included the number of people renewing or receiving CT certificates, how many long-term substitutes (serving for longer than 40 days) were in each field, the median number of credentialed applicants per available position, and how many minimally qualified hires had to be done, and how many positions the schools were unable to fill with qualified applicants (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015b. p. 7).
In 2015, the state passed a bill that attempted to address this shortage. The bill mandates the state to create or join an interstate agreement so as to reduce the years of experience that out-of-state teachers need to be certified (two years and not three). Applicants in shortage areas (like in ELL education) receive a 90-day temporary teacher certificate. The state budget allocated $3 million dollars for bilingual education for the 2015-2016 school year. ($1.1 Million more than 2014-2015). The budget was expected to increase to $3.5 million in 2016-2017 (Rigg, 2015). Unfortunately, the final budget was $3.16 million.
It is facing all of these obstacles that ELLs are expected to go to school and be hopeful about their future in this education system. In the following section I explain some of the strategies that the CSDE must employ to guarantee a rigorous and promising education to these children.
Teacher Shortage: A lot of the scholarship urges the state to create collaborate with other states and to develop a certification process that allows teachers to move easily from state to state. As tempting as this option sounds it does not address the fact that the entire country is suffering a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers (Camera, 2015). To encourage people to go into bilingual education, we must make the certification process worthwhile. While we might still keep bilingual certification as a secondary path, we can allow teachers who choose to become bilingual teachers to have loan forgiveness for their regular certification program if they choose to receive it from one of the Approved Educator Preparation Programs in the state (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2016a). Hopefully this allows teachers of color who might not have the means to put themselves through college to become bilingual teachers and to teach in communities that look like them. It has been extensively proven that teachers of color can have higher expectations from their students. They could help their students with “cultural shock” given that many ELL students tend to be immigrants or children of immigrants. This could also help increase the retention of teachers in this field (Summerhill, 2016).
Connecticut currently allows people Teach for America to teach bilingual classes and it also allows the Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) to offer Alternate Route to Certification for Teachers of English Language Learners (ARCTELL). This program is only a few months long. It costs $4,800.00 plus $75.00 (application). This program does not offer financial aid because it does not participate in Federal student aid programs (Area Cooperative Educational Services, 2017). We should invest in financial aid and make this program as accessible as possible while keeping in mind that this is not a great solution. If the state invests in this program, it should do so carefully.
Timeline of ELL Education: The English Language Acquisition and Educational Equity Work Group (formed by the Connecticut General Assembly) released a report in 2015 with recommendations to improve Bilingual Education in the state. The group concluded that ELLs must have access to 60 and not only 30 months of bilingual instruction and that to make this shift, the state must collaborate with institutions of higher education to develop adequate standards. They emphasized the importance of including the culture of the children into instruction and to include the families of the students as much as possible (Candelaria & Roldán, 2015). While I agree with these recommendations, I must also emphasize the importance of having an Bilingual program for children who arrive at to United States while they are in high school and cannot take full advantage of the extended period of time. I see this being a challenging program to implement, however, as a state, we cannot guarantee that when these kids graduate that they will be able to go to college or find a good job if they have not mastered the language. It is our duty to make sure that that they have a chance to have a good life.
I see this program being smaller, so the students may come from high schools across the same city. We could hire extra bilingual teachers, especially those who get their certification through alternative programs, so they can have more practice.
Dual Language Bilingual Education Program: In the “background:” section of this Policy memo, I introduced the different ways in which “bilingual education” takes place in the state of Connecticut. Dual Language Bilingual Education programs have long been revered as the golden model to teach bilingual education that benefits all students. This program, however, is recommended at a very young age. It requires a minimum of 4 to 6 year of bilingual instruction, so researchers advocate for a program that starts in the first grade. 50% of the instruction must be in English. There must at least be a 50:50 ratio of only-English-speakers and ELLs in the classroom. This strategy definitely needs well prepared teachers. So it might be hard to implement in the current shortage crisis. The teacher must be able to foster positive interactions among students (Candelaria & Roldán, 2015). Given that the majority of ELLs in the state of Connecticut live in cities like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2012), these programs must start here with Spanish/English. They could give an advantage to only-English speaking children in these cities to have access to a new language. It could also help ELLs integrate into a new culture and to share theirs more easily.
English Learners page on the CSDE website: In the course of this Policy memo, I visited the English Learners page on the CSDE website many times (http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/cwp/view.asp?a=2618&q=320848). The website lists a variety of sources but most of them seem to be catered for policy makers, teachers and administrators. These are very important to have, however, a ELL student or much less his non-English speaking family would be able to navigate this website. This limits the agency that these communities could exert over the kind of bilingual education that their kids could get. It keeps them from being advocates and from feeling welcomed in this state. This is particularly important because “parent permission is necessary to enter a student into or to continue a student in ESL/bilingual education services and program and to refuse or remove a student from ESL/Bilingual Education services and programs” (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015c). We must make sure that all the websites in Education Reform Alliance Districts’ Schools can be translated to the native languages of the ELLs students in that district.
Going to College: The English Learners site on the CSDE website makes no mention of the college path for ELLs. It makes no mention of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Given that many ELLs might be immigrants, knowing about the TOEFL might be important if they are considering college. It is a very expensive test ($190.00 in the United States). You only need a high school diploma to take it and universities like Yale accept it as long as the taker is “not a native English-speaker and [has] not taken at least two years of secondary education where English is the medium of instruction, Yale strongly recommends that [he/she/they] take any one of the proficiency tests listed below [among them TOEFL] (Yale University, 2017). These kinds of opportunities could change how teachers, schools and districts as a whole see English Learners. They should aspire to go to college and if they get to the United States as a junior in High School, the state must do all it can to grant them a chance to see those dreams come true. According to the New England Secondary School Consortium, in 2013 English Language learners had lower college persistence than their non-ELL counterparts (74.9% as opposed to 87.2%) (Desroches, 2015).
Education has never been an easy problem to solve but as citizens who aspire to see a democratic country, we must do our best to reach this ideal. We have been short on this promise when it comes to ELLs. Throughout this Policy Memo I attempted to highlight the many obstacles that these children face in our state of Connecticut. Many of them came to the country and must face what it means to be away from home and craft your own in a new place. They also suffer from poverty, academic challenges, unqualified members of staff, etc. These factors sometimes mount to low graduation rates, suspensions, expulsions, low-college attendances, that simply replicate the cycles of poverty that put them there in the first place. I hope that my contributions in this policy memo not only express how disappointed I am with the state of Connecticut for failing so many children and families, but that I also offer possible solutions to these problems. I hope I empowered not only more teachers to go into bilingual education, but I hope I emphasized the importance of having teachers of color in bilingual classrooms as opposed to only more bilingual teachers. I hope I moved away the popular narrative that blames the state for failing to graduate students who can master the English language and that instead, I raised the expectations we must have for these children. We must put more resources into getting these students to college; we must include their families in the discussion of their education and assure them that that not speaking English could be an asset to the state and our country and not a setback.
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