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April 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 7
Supporting English Language Learners
Jill Kerper Mora
Using state ballot initiatives to regulate the education of language-minority students is like using a sledgehammer to repair a wristwatch.
In the last decade, ballot initiatives in several states have asked voters to make policy decisions about the education of English language learners. These initiatives have run counter to the spirit of past federal laws and court decisions that established the right of language-minority children to a meaningful and equitable education. Let's take a brief look at the history.
During the civil rights era of the 1960s, federal and state governments created laws and policies regarding the education of the growing number of language-minority students in the public schools. The Bilingual Education Act (Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968) was heralded as landmark legislation in support of programs for educating language-minority students. This federal law provided legal guidelines and funding for transitional bilingual education programs.
A series of federal court decisions subsequently broadened the scope and implementation of Title VII. The Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols (1974) required school districts to take affirmative steps to protect the civil rights of limited-English-proficient students. In Lau, Chinese parents in San Francisco claimed that the school district's failure to provide their children with a specially designed program to teach them English violated their civil rights. The court's unanimous decision stated that children who do not speak English are entitled to equal access to the school curriculum and that the plaintiffs had been prevented from receiving a meaningful and effective education. One means of addressing these rights was through implementation of bilingual education programs, which give students the opportunity to learn academic content in their native language while they gain competence in English.
Several federal and state court cases since Lau v. Nichols
established the requirements for programs for language-minority students (Crawford, 2000). In 1981, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling in Castañeda v. Pickard
outlined a three-pronged test, stating that to adequately meet the needs of these students under the provisions of the 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act, programs must (1) be based on a pedagogically sound plan, (2) have enough qualified teachers to implement the program, and (3) have a system to evaluate the program's effectiveness.
From 1998 to 2008, voters in five states were asked to decide policy for educating English language learners. Anti-bilingual-education ballot initiatives passed in California (1998), Arizona (2000), and Massachusetts (2002) but were rejected in Colorado (2002) and most recently in Oregon (2008).
The propositions that became law in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts require that English language learners be educated for one year through an approach called
sheltered (or structured)
English immersion, in which all instruction is in English; students must then transfer into mainstream English classrooms. These laws allow instruction of students in their non-English native language only under limited and restricted conditions through a parental petition and waiver process.
The political discourse leading up to the votes in these five states was highly contentious and largely unrelated to the practical and pedagogical issues facing public school administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Proponents argued that instruction in students' native language retards their learning of English and academic subjects. Opponents maintained that native-language instruction supports language acquisition and content learning while English language learners are acquiring enough English to succeed in all-English classrooms.
When we analyze the arguments, ideologies, and constituencies that either supported or opposed the initiatives, it is clear that conflicts about how to educate populations of immigrant students tap into deeper sociological and cultural issues sparked by demographic changes (Mora, 2002).
Proponents of the initiatives believe that new immigrants must abandon their native languages and cultural practices to fully assimilate into U.S. society. They fear that Spanish-speaking immigrants in particular have been "clinging" to their language and resisting learning English. Through a misguided sense of altruism, many of these proponents believe that policies designed to force children to adopt English as their dominant or only language will promote rapid assimilation and increase students' academic achievement.
Opponents of the anti-bilingual-education measures see bilingualism as a social, economic, cultural, and academic advantage for first- and second-generation immigrants. They do not see bilingualism as an obstacle to societal integration of new immigrant populations; on the contrary, they believe that students who study and learn in two languages and become fully proficient and literate in their home language and in English can enjoy the richness and values of two linguistic systems and two cultural traditions that complement and enhance each other.
In fact, sociological and educational research supports the notion that immigrant students who retain their bilingual skills and their ties to their parents' culture of origin are more academically successful and socially well-adapted in the long term than their peers who become English monolinguals (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). These researchers concluded that "forced march assimilation" policies for educating immigrant youth are counterproductive.
As the initiative campaigns made claims and counterclaims about the effectiveness of bilingual programs versus English-only instruction, the ideal and actual rates of English acquisition, the reclassification of English language learners as fluent English speakers, and the assimilation of immigrant students into U.S. society, voters with very little information or technical expertise about education programs for immigrant students were deciding on their fate. Moll and Ruiz (2002) characterize the English-only movement in the schools as a struggle over "educational sovereignty" (p. 368) in determining who will control programs and resources for English language learners.
The political rhetoric and appeals to voters contained scant reference to the credible and growing body of scholarly research on the effectiveness of the different program designs. Further, the polemics focused almost entirely on how language-minority students learn English, neglecting the broader issues of how these students learn language, literacy, and content as they progress through the grades toward high school graduation. Even discussions about the achievement gap between English language learners and native English speakers were distorted because by definition, English language learners are students whose lack of English proficiency prevents them from performing as well as their native-English-speaking peers.
It is left up to educators to sort out myth from reality.
The amount and quality of research on language-minority student achievement has increased significantly in the years following passage of the state ballot initiatives (Goldenberg, 2008). School administrators and teachers grappling with the often confusing and contradictory premises of these popular initiatives can draw on three useful sources of information: (1) meta-analyses of research studies regarding program effectiveness and instructional practices that support and enhance achievement, (2) studies of the initiatives' effect on English language learners' English language acquisition and academic achievement, and (3) databases that compile language assessments administered to large populations of English language learners over time and across grade levels. Several myths about the instruction of English language learners do not stand up to scrutiny when examined through the lens of this research base.
Two comprehensive reports have analyzed the approaches that schools use to educate English language learners—a meta-analysis of findings from 293 studies of literacy achievement among English language learners from 1980 to 2000 by August and Shanahan (2006) and a synthesis of the research by Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, and Christian (2006). Schools throughout the United States use a variety and range of theoretically sound programs to meet the needs of their specific populations of English language learners, who vary in demographic and linguistic characteristics.
For instance, bilingual programs are appropriate and effective in schools that serve concentrations of students who use a common native language. In many schools, however, English language learners speak a number of different native languages; such schools often use English as the common language of content-area instruction. Therefore, some state agencies and language-minority educators advocate a mix of services and program types in response to each school district's demographic mix—an approach that contradicts the state laws requiring a default model of sheltered English immersion (California Legislative Analyst's Office, 2004). Unfortunately, the ballot initiatives have narrowed the range of viable program options for educating large numbers of English language learners.
Proponents of the ballot initiatives mandating sheltered English immersion argue that bilingual education is the reason for low levels of English proficiency among immigrant students—especially Latinos, the group served by the vast majority of the bilingual programs. They claim that bilingual education slows down English acquisition, thus contributing to the high dropout rates among Latinos. Because bilingual education is the problem, getting rid of bilingual instruction is the solution.
But according to Education Week, cumulative and comparative studies based on National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores suggest that statewide mandates limiting bilingual education in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have produced "less-than-stellar" results (Zehr, 2008, p. 10).
The California Department of Education commissioned a comprehensive study of the effects of Proposition 227 five years after its passage (Parrish, Pérez, Merickel, & Linquanti, 2006). The study found that students participating in English-only education programs had no statistically significant advantage in terms of academic achievement over those in bilingual education programs that parents chose through the waiver process under the law. The study also found that no one approach produces academic excellence for English language learners; rather, high achievement is associated with a number of factors, including the school's capacity to address the needs of English language learners; a focus on standards-based instruction; shared priorities and high expectations; systemic, ongoing assessment; and data-driven decision making.
Thus, ballot initiatives have not realized their goal of improving English language learners' academic achievement.
In denying the injunction against the implementation of Proposition 227, the U.S. District Court in Valeria G. v. Wilson
(1998) ruled that structured English immersion was based on delivery of English language and content instruction that was "sequential" rather than "simultaneous." The (incorrect) assumption is that focusing on teaching English first and then providing intensive remedial instruction in academic content will give language-minority students equal access to the curriculum.
The focus of the debate about the best methods and approaches for educating language-minority students has been on how quickly they can learn English. This focus is based on the belief that the "problem" facing these students is essentially a "language problem." If students receive intensive English instruction when they first enter school, this approach claims their language learning will be accelerated, and the language problem will be solved. As soon as they master the language, they can easily catch up with native English speakers in literacy and content learning.
But this approach fails to acknowledge the two-pronged challenge for California's language-minority population: learning English and mastering the content standards for each grade of their schooling. Annual administrations of the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) to all English language learners in the state from 2001 to 2007 have created a large database that provides a comprehensive picture of students' progress in acquiring English skills. The CELDT data belie the "learn English quickly" myth, revealing that it takes an average of six years for English language learners to acquire full English proficiency (California Legislative Analyst's Office, 2004). Only 13 percent of English language learners who received services for English acquisition beginning in kindergarten were reclassified as fluent English proficient by 3rd grade. Parrish and colleagues (2006) examined the CELDT data and other achievement data and found that there is only a 40 percent possibility of California's English language learners being reclassified as English proficient after 10 years in the public schools.
Perhaps if the findings described here had been available and widely disseminated to inform policymakers and the voting public about the realities and complexities of educating English language learners, the outcomes of the initiative campaigns might have been different. Hindsight aside, though, policymakers and practitioners must now work together to deal with the challenge of complying with legal mandates while maintaining the effectiveness and integrity of education programs for English language learners. Consider the following guidelines:
Programs for English language learners must be proven models with a demonstrated track record. Programs must have long-term goals and continuity in the curriculum as students move up through the grade levels. As students' listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in English grow, the focus of instruction should shift, and instruction should be differentiated according to students' language levels (Mora, 2006). Differentiating the curriculum in this way requires monitoring students' progress toward performance benchmarks in English language proficiency, literacy, and content-area learning (Gottlieb & Nguyen, 2007).
Educators must view the education of language-minority students as a shared responsibility. Teachers must have ample professional preparation in how to use appropriate curricular materials and teaching strategies to promote English language learners' achievement. Both new and experienced teachers need intensive professional development above and beyond the teacher education coursework required by the state credential and certificate programs. For example, teachers should be knowledgeable about second-language acquisition and cross-linguistic transfer so that students learning in their second language can capitalize on the commonalities in literacy with their native language, regardless of whether their instruction is in dual languages.
Local school districts must have the freedom and support to establish sheltered English immersion programs and/or bilingual education programs depending on community values, parental choice, and available resources. Policies must allow flexibility in use of students' native languages—especially for development of literacy skills. In states with anti-bilingual mandates, local jurisdictions should apply liberal and open interpretation of petition and waiver requirements to support parent empowerment and involvement in program selection.
Power struggles over who will make decisions about the best programs and practice for educating language-minority students must cease. Educators must view students' bilingualism as an asset to value and foster—one that gives students access to knowledge, enhances social interaction and identification with their home cultures, and eases their transition into U.S. culture. Policymakers, educators, and the public at large must collaborate to ensure that education policies reflect the state of the art and the scientific research base.
Creating policy for English language learners through the ballot initiative process has brought about contradictions and conflict between what the law requires and what educators know to be effective. The ballot initiatives on English language learners' education are an expression of conflicting attitudes and anxieties that play themselves out as various societal groups attempt to define the role of public education in integrating immigrants into the American mainstream.
In the context of these legal mandates and policies, schools need to use scientific research and practical experience to design and implement programs that meet the academic needs of their linguistically diverse learners. In doing so, schools will uphold the spirit of the federal laws and court decisions that established rights to a meaningful and equitable education for all students, regardless of their native language and proficiency in English.
August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006).
Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
California Legislative Analyst's Office. (2004). A look at the progress of English learner students. Sacramento, CA: Author. Available:
Castañeda v. Pickard. 648 F. 2d 989 (5th Cir. 1981).
Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity: U.S. language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (Eds.). (2006).
Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does—and does not—say. American Educator, 32(2), 8–44.
Gottlieb, M., & Nguyen, D. (2007). Assessment and accountability in language education programs: A guide for administrators and teachers. Philadelphia: Caslon.
Lau et al. vs. Nichols et al. 414 U.S. 563 (1974).
Moll, L. C., & Ruiz, R. (2002). The schooling of Latino children. In M. Suárez-Orozco & M. M. Páez (Eds.),
Latinos: Remaking America (pp. 362–374). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mora, J. K. (2002). Caught in a policy web: The impact of education reform on Latino education. Journal of Latinos and Education, 1(1), 29–44.
Mora, J. K. (2006). Differentiating instruction for English learners: The four-by-four model. In T. A. Young & N. L. Hadaway (Eds.), Supporting the literacy development of English learners: Increasing success in all classrooms (pp. 24–40). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Parrish, T. B., Pérez, M., Merickel, A., & Linquanti, R. (2006). Effects of the implementation of Proposition 227 on the education of English learners, K–12: Findings from a five-year evaluation. Final Report submitted to California Department of Education. Sacramento: American Institutes for Research/WestEd.
Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Valeria G. et al. v Pete Wilson, et. al. No. C-98-2252-CAL. (N. D. Cal. 1998).
Zehr, M. A. (2008, May 30). NAEP scores in states that cut bilingual education fuel concern on English language learners.
Education Week, p. 10.
Jill Kerper Mora is Associate Professor Emerita, School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development (CLAD) Web site is available at
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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