The Bottom Line
By Julie Henderson and Paul Magnuson
From time to time it's beneficial to check in with ourselves and other K-12 ELL professionals regarding what practices are based on statute or policy and what ones may not be. Established practices we may accept without much further thought may be riding on the momentum of tradition rather than on good practice, sound policy, or statutory requirements. We review here a few of these beliefs that you, too, may have encountered. The bottom line is this: politely questioning the origin and implementation of current practices is OK! Sometimes your questions may lead to a better understanding of policy implications and perhaps even improved programming for ELL.
Misconception #1: Monitoring
Misconception: MDE requires a monitoring period.
Origin: Possibly MDE guidelines in the 1990s or earlier.
Why does the misconception persist: Perhaps given new life with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) AYP status and reporting required by NCLB
Bottom line: ELL program models are a local district decision, including monitoring.
Districts may use the terms "monitored," "transitional," or something similar to describe ELL who are making the transition to instruction entirely in the mainstream. Some districts identify these students as ELL and, further, may categorize monitored ELL as receiving ELL service. In other districts, there may be no monitoring period, or if there is one, the period may not be considered ELL service. Note that the decision whether or not monitoring is a part of the ELL program impacts funding, since only ELL receiving service (as determined by the district) are in the pool of students potentially generating ELL funds.
The advent of NCLB may have given the misconception of a state-required monitoring period new life, since the AYP calculation began including ELL in the ELL subgroup for two years after they were no longer classified as ELL (akin to a monitoring period) and since MDE is required by NCLB to report on the academic progress of "monitored" ELL, a federal term describing ELL reclassified as non-ELL within the last two years.
Misconception #2: ELL Student to Teacher Ratios
Misconception: There is a state-mandated ratio of 40 ELL per ELL teacher.
Origin/History: The state ELL funding formula during the 1990s.
Why does the misconception persist: District administrators and staff looking for externally imposed guidelines for ELL staffing levels.
Bottom line: There is no state-mandated ratio of ELL to ELL teacher. Staffing ratios should match program models.
Minnesota state statute offers few specifics regarding ELL programming, let alone staffing levels appropriate for different program models. Districts determine how best to educate and provide programming for ELL, with no particular mandate suggesting how ELL needs be met. Districts may want to use as a starting point the fundamental principle established by Lau v. Nichols in 1974: Equal access to the curriculum for non-native speakers is a civil right, and discrimination based on language is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of national origin. Further, ELL need support to access the same challenging curriculum as their native English speaking peers; simply providing ELL with the same materials and instruction is not enough. Lau v. Nichols is silent, however, on how equal access to the curriculum should be facilitated for ELL, as is Minnesota statute silent on how many students should be under the instruction of an individual teacher.
Misconception #3: Length of ELL Service in Minnesota
Misconception: ELL should only be served for 5 school years.
Origin/History: The state ELL funding formula since 2001.
Why does the misconception persist: There is a lot of competition for each educational dollar and often educational dollars follow the student. If an ELL isn't generating any state ELL funds, it's tempting to argue that no ELL service should be provided.
Bottom line: ELL should be served according to their English language proficiency, not whether or not they individually contributed to the amount of state basic skills revenue generated by ELL.
Just as the funding formula of the 1990s was not intended to determine the teacher-student ratio for ELL programming, the state funding formula of the 2000s should not determine whether or not a student receives ELL services. A student determined to be ELL, by definition, has difficulty accessing the curriculum of the school due to English proficiency level. It is entirely possible for a student to lack the English proficiency necessary to access curriculum without additional supports for a period longer than five academic years (consider the common claim that academic language proficiency takes upward of seven years). Therefore, the school's programming needs to address the English proficiency of the student, regardless of how long the student has been in Minnesota schools. Additionally, federal Title III dollars are not limited to five years.
Misconception #4: Special Education Assessment
Misconception: ELL should not be assessed for special education service until they have been in school at least three years.
Origin/History: Concerns over the identification of ELL as in need of special education instead of English language instruction, particularly in years past when there were few trained ESL teachers and many districts did not have ELL programs.
Why does the misconception persist: Some teachers and administrators without in-depth knowledge of ESL have heard of the research on the number of years typically needed to acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and believe that this means students cannot be referred until that number of years has passed. In addition, some disabilities such as a language impairment or learning disability (LD) can appear similar to early stages of language acquisition or acculturation. If there are no red flags in the student's background and no medical concerns, then it is reasonable to allow new arrivals some time to settle in and develop basic English skills before carrying out a special education evaluation. However, many people believe that this is a law, not a general recommendation, and that it applies to each and any disability.
Bottom line: There is no time frame or time limit given in state or federal statute in order to begin the special education referral process. Teams need to look at a student's background on a case-by-case basis and decide whether standardized instruments and traditional procedures are valid and reliable. Prior to making a referral for special education assessment, teams must determine whether there is sufficient evidence of a disability to support a referral or whether it is more likely that the student's difficulties are the result of cultural, linguistic and/or other factors. Sometimes, this can be a very delicate balance because of the interrelated nature of learning and linguistics. When in doubt as to whether a referral is appropriate, staff are recommended to consider three questions: 1) are the parents concerned? 2) are there red flags in the health, developmental, or educational history? 3) has the ESL teacher noted differences in the rate and manner of learning English compared with similar peers? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then a referral for a special education evaluation is probably appropriate.
Misconception #5: Rapid Reading Proficiency
Misconception: ELL can be grade-level proficient readers on large scale assessments in two or three years time if they receive the right kind of intensive English instruction.
Origin/History: NCLB pushed state mandated assessments for all K-12 students into the forefront of public education policy as the spearhead for educational reform. The high stakes nature of state assessments has lead to several unintended consequences for ELL.
Why does the misconception persist: School administrators feel pressure to produce high test score results for all of the existing subgroups in their schools. If some ELL advance quickly in their reading proficiency (which is often due as much to being proficient readers in their first language as it is to any intensive reading program they may receive upon entering the US school system), a simplistic overgeneralization tends to occur: all ELL can be proficient in a short period of time. While this overgeneralization may please stakeholders, it tends to increase the demands placed on one reading assessment and result in unintended consequences for ELL programs and instruction.
Bottom line: ELL are not a homogenous population. Differences such as educational background, language proficiency, educational experiences, quality of services, exposure to content, programs and methods, language and cultural background, family history, socioeconomic class, expectations of school, age upon arrival, and personal experiences all contribute to ELL heterogeneity. To be classified as ELL may mean many different things from school to school and district to district. Current identification policies are left open to states and local districts to interpret and carry out, and the instruments for identification do not account for the differences mentioned here.
When any assessment results are reported on ELL, we cannot be certain who these students are as a group or how they have or have not been identified. Therefore, it is important for the consumer of assessment data to ask both 1) what is the individual ELL's background and 2) on what assessment has grade level proficiency been based? Not all tests are equal, and not all tests measure equally valuable components of English reading proficiency.
Finally, we would be remiss if we did not mention again the decades old second language acquisition theory on which many of Minnesota and the nation's best ELL programs are based: it takes upwards of five to ten years to master academic English. Likewise, more recent research may indicate the best way to sustain those academic gains is via maintenance bilingual programs, not intensive English immersion programs. The next time someone asks you why your students are not reading at grade level within two or three years time, kindly ask them if they know an English-speaking child who would be grade level proficient in reading in some language other than English in the same timeframe given the same types of instructional components.
Thank you to Leigh Schleicher and Elizabeth Watkins for their comments and contributions.
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