The Civil Rights of English Learners

Hello TESOL community! I’m Ayanna Cooper, a new blogger for TESOL International Association. Having served as the keynote for TESOL PreK–12 Day in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, earlier year, I know that the issue of assuring the civil rights of English learners (ELs) remains of great interest to educators and parents alike. So much so that a yearlong blog has been dedicated to this topic. The framework for the blog centers around building educator capacity to serve ELs, professional learning, and cultivating advocates for culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

This first blog is dedicated to a recent professional learning event hosted by the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA).

Engaging in Professional Learning With a Focus on Multilingual Learners: All Voices Matter

On 6 May 2019, the U.S. Department of Education OELA hosted The 2019 Multiliteracy Symposium. This symposium offered a number of topics and speakers addressing issues around school quality, the importance of fostering and supporting multilingualism, community/school partnerships, and advocacy. I was able to participate by watching the livestream. What I found most exciting was the call for support for multilingulism. The conversations did not focus on the importance of one language versus another but rather the benefits of dual language. The symposium begs the important question, “If multiliteracy is an embedded part of our belief system, then what are we doing as educators to truly support all students and especially those from linguistically diverse backgrounds?”

3 Principles of Multilingualism

José A. Viana, Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director, OELA, started the morning off with providing data about the population of ELs in the United States. ELs now represent nearly 10% of the total K–12 population. His presentation affirmed the nationwide need for educators and school leaders prepared for linguistically diverse learners. To date, over half of the United States has approved/enacted the Seal of Biliteracy, an award given by a school, district, or state in recognition of students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation. This is especially exciting to me because I remember attending the 2011 National Conversations on English Learner Education meeting held in New York, New York, USA. I served as the note-taker for the group that brainstormed ideas for a national campaign to support multilingualism. Three principles were agreed upon by the working group:

  1. Multilingualism is patriotic. Being multilingual does not diminish one’s sense of loyalty to their country of origin or a new country they have settled in.
  2. Multilingualism creates leadership characteristics in a global economy. Being multilingual provides access to domestic and international opportunities.
  3. Multilingualism is an asset for the 21st-century American worker. It is extremely beneficial, both cognitively and economically, to be multilingual. Careers, including entrepreneurship, are expanding for those who can effectively communicate and engage with clients in communities they serve.

The Seal of Biliteracy in the Spotlight

Sessions at the symposium aligned with those principles and offered more context as to how those principles were being encouraged, embedded, and celebrated. For example, “Speak Your Language: A Community/School Partnership Celebrating the Power of Bilingualism in Washington State” was presented by Nimco Bulale and Senayet Negusse. Their presentation highlighted local, district, and statewide policies that support dual language education. In the past 4 years, more than 7,000 seals were earned in Washington state!

Linda L. Egnatz, Executive Director for Illinois’ Global Seal of Biliteracy, presented “The Seal of Biliteracy in IL: Recognizing our EL/Bilingual Assets and Their Impact on the Community.” The data showed a favorable increase in students earning the Seal of Biliteracy. The most common languages listed were Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Urdu, and Chinese, with ELs representing 31% of the seal recipients. Kudos to those students, their families, and teachers!

Why This Work Is Still Important

As Dr. de Jong, University of Florida Professor and TESOL International Association Past President, reminded us, “Teaching speakers of languages other than English through bilingual approaches is not a recent discovery in the United States,” yet so many still struggle to move beyond what they believe is best for students to doing what is actually best for students.

Over the next several months, we’ll revisit The 2015 “Dear Colleague Letter” issued by The U.S. Office of Civil Rights and The U.S. Department of Justice, which identified 10 common civil rights issues related to ELs. No teacher stands in the classroom and thinks, “I need to violate my students’ Civil Rights before lunchtime.”  Unfortunately, as a result of misunderstandings, misinformation, and misinterpretations, it happens.

The ultimate goal of this blog series is to serve as a conversation starter—a reminder, if you will—of what we are charged with. We are charged with providing an equitable, nonbiased educational experience while assuring access to the best instruction, program models, and resources possible for all students. The questions we must ask ourselves every day:

  • How can we engage as a learning community with a shared vision of success for our students?
  • What resources do we need?
  • What partnerships must we foster?

What else must we ask and answer as advocates? Our students are counting on us.

About Ayanna Cooper

Ayanna Cooper
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As owner of ACooper Consulting, she provides technical assistance to state departments of education and other clients with the goal of improving outcomes for students. She emphasizes the importance of building capacity to develop and sustain English language programs, use English language proficiency data, and improve instructional practices. She is currently serving on the TESOL Board of Directors.
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6 Responses to
The Civil Rights of English Learners

  1. Ayanna says:

    Thank you Talibah, Rebecca and KBryan for your comments. I look forward to continuing this conversation.

  2. SM says:

    Great post! These are definite questions to reflect on. We must ask if our perceptions and behaviors as teachers are changing to meet student needs of today. We must ask if we are opening doors for these students and helping them to gain an understanding that they have great opportunities in the domestic and international market that others that are not multilingual do not have. They are multi talented.

    • Ayanna says:

      Thank you for your comments, SM! The summer is a great time to reflect, decompress etc. Just taking a moment to think about how we can celebrate and encourage multilingualism as part of our teaching and learning communities is important.

  3. Talibah Sun says:

    And for those who live and work outside of the US? A major criticism I have about TESOL International is it’s limited scope and focus. For example the majority of my students are bilingual naturally but that does not go without challenges. In Latin America bilingualism is a class issue that further divides people around economics i.e. private v. public schooling. Would love to have a global discussion on bilingualism and classism.

  4. Rebecca Reed says:

    This is awesome! I’m so excited to read more.

  5. KBryan says:

    This is an amazing blog entry! There are nuggets of wisdom throughout that are based on demographic trends and research on the benefits of multilingualism. Keep the blogs coming!!!

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