English learners (ELs) are a heterogeneous group with differences in ethnic background, first language, socioeconomic status, quality of prior schooling, and levels of English language proficiency. They are also the fastest growing population in K-12 schools in the United States, where 1 in 10 students is an English learner. By 2015, 10 million ELs will be enrolled in K-12 schools, and by 2025, ELs will make up 25% of the student population. To learn how best to serve this growing population, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently invited 11 executives representing key stakeholder groups to share their thoughts. TESOL International Association was among those invited.
Three questions were presented to the participants:
- What are the key challenges you are currently addressing to support ELs?
- How can we elevate the national focus and integrate ELs into all education reform efforts?
- What are the highest policy priorities for the department to address to ensure that ELs are ready for college and career?
Speaking on behalf of TESOL, I shared the work the organization has done in this area. First, I sought to dispel the misconceptions held by too many regarding ELs, and I suggested promoting a more positive, asset-driven view of this student population. We know, for instance, that ELs are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted education, a practice that negates the broad diversity of ELs as a group. Too often, linguistic and cognitive challenges are conflated, and this confusion exacerbates the adversity these students experience in our schools. Instead, we should emphasize the strengths ELs bring to the classroom, including the capacity to speak and think in more than one language.
Second, I advocated for a strong focus on ESL and bilingual teachers and their inclusion in policy planning for ELs. Teachers, particularly ESL and bilingual teachers, have too often been an afterthought in policy discussions. Yet they will play a critical role in implementing the Common Core State Standards. I called for a renewed commitment to elevating their role within schools and districts and providing resources for capacity building through pre-service and in-service training for all educators.
Also hosting this event were Dr. Libia Gil, director of the Office of English Language Acquisition; Jonathan Brice, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Seth Galanter, principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights.
I was encouraged by the secretary’s and Dr. Gil’s commitment to advancing this agenda in the next two years. Dr. Gil, in particular, has been leading this effort and will discuss it further when she addresses participants at the TESOL Advocacy Summit on 22-24 June. Next steps include more networking, more research around issues of multilingualism, and possibly a national summit on this topic.