Is Education for Pre-K–5 ELs Equitable? (Part 1)

On July 2, 2014, the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Due to this Act, all students have the right to equal access to education. On the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we must ask ourselves if its goals  have been reached.

Changes to the field of TESOL

The field of TESOL has seen amazing growth since I began teaching 30 years ago. There has been a huge change in regard to the content taught to and expectations for English learners (ELs). Equal access to education, however, does not mean that our ELs must receive the same materials and instruction as their English-speaking peers. In order for their education to be equitable, ELs must receive the extra help they need to reach grade level standards.

Although the U.S. Department of Education requires that ELs strive to meet the same standards as their English-speaking peers through the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), in the elementary school setting, it doesn’t regulate class size, the number of grade and ability levels grouped in the same class, the amount spent on extra materials that must be purchased for ELs, the number of students each teacher must instruct each day, or the size and location of the teaching space designated for ELs.

I feel that we have a long way to go in order to provide an equitable education for ELs. In this week’s blog, I’d like to feature the inequities of the learning environment in which ELs are taught.

Rate your school

Take a look around your school, and ask yourself some questions:

  • What unconscious message is your district sending about ELs?
  • Do ESL programs get a fair share of the “pie?” Or are they relegated to the hallways and cafeterias because parents of ELs do not complain?
  • Do your ESL teachers travel to two or more schools each day?
  • How many students do each of your ESL teachers serve daily?
  • Do your ELs have sufficient materials, including technology, that are tailored to meet their needs?

Substandard instructional space

Over the years, I have taught in hallways, under a stairwell, in the lobby of my school, in the library when a class was in session, and in the cafeteria. I once taught students behind a stage. There is nothing more difficult than keeping your students’ attention when they are being taught in these substandard spaces.

When ESL teachers are lucky enough to teach in a classroom, they often share their space. I recently visited a suburban school district where the ESL teacher led her nine kindergarteners into the partitioned-off space in a shared classroom. It was difficult for the young students to get excited about language and express themselves as kindergartners do, because there was another class  being taught in the same classroom. A group of 5th grade newcomers strained to hear what their ESL teacher was saying as they participated in a social studies lesson. The teachers struggled to teach their lessons, but it was difficult for the ELs to focus.

Many schools that I visit have a welcoming environment when immigrant families enter the school for the first time. But when students are relegated to inferior spaces with teachers who are not able to meet their needs because of the physical environment, ELs and their parents are receiving a powerful message—that educating ELs is not an important priority to the school district (Haynes, 2007).

The itinerant teacher

A second teaching condition that many ESL teachers face is being required to travel to two or more schools each day. One itinerant ESL teacher that I know travels daily to four schools and teaches a total of 20 students in grades Pre-K–12. In each building where she teaches all of the students who need ESL are combined so that they can receive support during the one or two periods that the ESL teacher is in the building. The result is ESL groups that combine 5th graders with 1st graders. Instruction does not always take place in the same space. Teaching materials are spread throughout the schools that this teacher visits or are kept in the trunk of her car. Like most itinerant teachers, my friend is unable to function as a source of support and information to classroom teachers and to parents because there is not time.

Class size

When I was teaching in an elementary ESL program, I felt that the better the job was that I did, the more  I was expected to do and the less support I received. Imagine a job where you work hard to help students succeed and when they do, your school district is reluctant to increase support as your population grows. What’s one more student in a group of nine? So what if you have a stray 5th grader in a group of 2nd graders?

One teacher told me that she has more than 15 students of different grade and ability levels in her classroom at the same time. The ELs all worked independently completing seat work that the teacher planned as she moved from group to group. Another ESL teacher I know provides instruction to more than 80 K—12 ELs every day. In an elementary setting, there are no regulations that refer to the number of students in a small group instructional setting. There are no rules that limit the load a single teacher must teach.

I find it very distressing that many school districts are enrolling students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) and placing them with younger ELs because they have not been to school. One ESL teacher reported that her 5th graders were placed in a second grade class because they had limited formal education.

Length of ESL instruction time

In many states, ESL is mandated for 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week, or one class period. Meeting the CCSS requires that ELs use grade-level materials with scaffolding so that they have access to the same instruction as the general education students. The ESL teacher has a new role and should be supporting classroom teachers so that they learn how to provide the necessary scaffolding. This cannot be done in 30 minutes per day.

It is the ESL teacher’s job to help students to take risks with language. They should provide an atmosphere of trust and support in order to encourage these risks. In order to provide appropriate instruction to their students, ESL teachers need to have their own instructional space with a reasonable number of students assigned to their classes. There shouldn’t be more than a two grade span in an ESL class. Teachers should not be asked to provide services to more than two schools per day. This is the first step that school districts must take in order to provide an equitable education to English learners. In my next column, I will talk about standards, testing, and ELs.

Haynes, J. (2007) Getting Started with English language learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisors & Curriculum Developers.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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