The 2020–2021 school year has ended. And what a year it has been. But this is a time to reflect on what was learned from the challenges revealed and created from the COVID-19 outbreak. We need to take this time to really think about the programs that we provide or do not provide our English learners (ELs) and how to improve the programs so that our ELs are truly receiving and engaging in an equitable education in all content areas.
I had the opportunity to read Dr. Ayanna Cooper’s book, And Justice for ELs: A Leader’s Guide to Creating and Sustaining Equitable Schools, and I came across a question she asked: “Can you fully articulate the language support program model in your school?” I start this blog with this question because if the teachers who are to deliver the lessons cannot articulate the language support program model(s) in their school, and the administrators—who are meant to ensure the implementation and validity of it—cannot articulate the model(s), how are we to ensure that the ELs are receiving what they need to be academically, emotionally, and linguistically successful? According to Dr. Cooper, successfully supporting the academic achievement of ELs requires a “whole school” approach.
So, I asked the director of bilingual education from my school district this exact question. We must have talked for at least a half hour as he carefully explained the multiple language models that are available in our district and the criteria and subcategories for each model. (Please note that my school district has only English and Spanish speaking students.) For example:
- the full-time bilingual program has two subcategories:
- full-time bilingual (Spanish only spoken)
- dual language (Spanish and English offered)
- The English as a second language (ESL) program model also has two subcategories:
- high intensity ESL, which has two daily periods of ESL instruction
- regular ESL, which is one daily period of ESL instruction
These are just two of the four program models that are offered in the district, and each has a proficiency level attached to it. I decided to ask a few ESL, bilingual, and general education teachers and building administrators the same question, and although their responses were not as detailed as the director’s response, they were all able to articulate the programs offered.
This is a major improvement compared to a just 3 years ago, before the new director was hired. As I mentioned earlier, it is imperative that all persons who are responsible for the education of ELs be able to articulate the language support program model in their school.
What Does This Have to Do With ELs?
Pretty much everything. If schools are not offering a variety of English language program models in their schools and/or districts to fit the needs of their ELs at their various levels of language proficiency, then the ELs’ academic and language needs are not being properly met. They end up remaining in perpetual programs that will not provide them the resources and tools to become proficient in English. The same English they will need to successfully take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Testing (ACT) exams (exams that are required for entrance into colleges in the United States).
Why Are These Exams Important for ELs and STEM?
These higher education attainment requirements are gateways to STEM. Yet, according to Dr. Cooper, in 2015–2016 only 2.8% of high school ELs participated in the SAT or the ACT exams compared to 97.2% of non-ELs. How can we expect to increase the number of ELs in STEM careers—a field that the Pew Research Center says has grown 79% since 1990 (with employment increasing from 9.7 million to 17.3 million), with computer jobs experiencing a 338% increase over the same time period, when there is such a low number of ELs participating in the SAT or ACT?
Answer: Begin with an examination of the English language program models your K–12 school or district provides. Ask those hard questions of school leaders about their program models and the levels offered, and if they are evaluating its effectiveness. Ask leaders the question that Dr. Cooper asks in her book: “Can you fully articulate the language support program model in your school?”
And I ask: “Can you fully articulate the language support program model in your school or the school of your child or children?” If they, or you, cannot articulate it, then how can it be supported or evaluated for effectiveness? If we are to truly begin the process of preparing ELs for academic success and STEM pathways, then the inability to answer an easy yes to these questions is a sign that changes need to be made in the curriculum, staff professional development, and language programs being offered to ELs.
All students experienced learning loss due to COVID-19, but the learning loss has been more dramatic for ELs than their peers. Principle 6 of TESOL’s The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners says: Engage and collaborate within a community of practice. Start the conversations during staff meetings, at PLCs (professional learning communities), and at team and grade-level meetings. Get the conversations started so that the upcoming school year can not only be effective for native English speakers, but for ELs as well!
- What English program models are offered in my school district?
- Can I fully articulate the language support program model(s) in my school?
- How would I go about beginning the process of learning the language support programs in my school or district?
- Who would I speak with first in regard to this matter?