Diversity ≠ Inclusion: Avoiding Segregative Practices With ELs

Often, school communities and workplaces pride themselves for being diverse. I don’t doubt that such pride is valid. We are diverse in many ways. However, lately, diversity has become equated with inclusion—and this is concerning. Diversity does not mean or assure inclusivity. Black History Month, celebrated in February, is an annual remembrance of how the United States has addressed issues of justice and equality, so this month’s blog is dedicated to English learner (EL) program models and how they can include, or unnecessarily exclude, students.

The U.S. Civil Rights Movement, with its landmark cases, affirmed the rights of all students, including ELs. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964) states, “Districts must take affirmative steps to ensure that English learners can meaningfully participate in their educational programs and services.” English language program models are not designed to intentionally violate the civil rights of its students, but it happens. Most would agree that segregation has no place in today’s schools, but again, it happens. Once we know better, do we do better?

In the 1800s, the United States enacted the 14th Amendment, including the Equal Protection Clause (1868), which states, “No state shall deny any person equal protection under the law, which includes discriminatory practices and the provision of equal opportunity.” Since then, a number of related mandates have followed. It would be advantageous for educators and other stakeholders to make sure they are aware of how these laws have shaped the development of K–12 education in the United States. (See Nathan Hall’s blog, “Know Your ELLs’ Rights: A Quick Federal Law Review.”)

Recently, the U.S. Department of Civil Rights announced its department’s commitment to proactive compliance. The Outreach, Prevention, Education and Non-discrimination (OPEN) Center will provide proactive assistance and support to schools with the goal of helping schools come into federal compliance—before the filing of a complaint. Many school communities could benefit from help before there are issues.

The federal guidance around avoiding unnecessary segregative practices states the following:

EL programs may not unjustifiably segregate students on the basis of national origin or EL status. While EL programs may require that EL students receive separate instruction for a limited period of time, the Departments expect school districts and [state education agencies] to carry out their chosen program in the least segregative manner consistent with achieving the program’s stated educational goals. (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 22)

Scenario: Rights vs. Reality

Spanish-speaking students at an elementary school are enrolled in a bilingual program model offered in Grades K–5. Besides physical education and lunch, students in the program are with each other for the entire day school day. Is this a form of unnecessary segregation? One could argue that students have a right to access to general education. The reality is that program models can unintentionally segregate its students. How we can address students’ rights while acknowledging their realities?

If there is no clear and direct way for students transition from this particular model to general education, then a student could potentially stay in bilingual education for several years. At first glance, that could be considered the best approach. But, looking past the initial set up, the issue of long-term separation—segregation by another name—is problematic.

There are very real short- and long-term implications of program models that are not inclusive. In a recent conversation with a school leader, I asked if students in the bilingual program would have a science project to share at an upcoming school-wide science event. I was told they would not, though all other students would. Regardless of the events that led to the ELs not participating, their lack of participation is an example of a short-term implication of a program model that may be lacking authentic, inclusive practices. We have an obligation to assure ELs have access to a high-quality, standards-based curriculum and access to all school-wide events and programs. A potential long-term effect would be if program models in place neglected to include a robust educational experience across all content areas—therefore not fully providing those students with what they were promised.

A final concern is whether the aforementioned program model is actually delivering what it is intended to—in this case, students exiting the program who are truly bilingual. This goes for any program model: Is the program delivering on its promises?

What You Can Do

Educators who support ELs can work to assure that the program models in place are inclusive. It is simply not a matter of one program model being better than another, because there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to this work. Educators should also avoid the “we’ve always done it this way approach” to justifying current program models and practices. The danger with these excuses is that they are inherently not responsive to student needs and changes in trends across the field.

Questions to Think About

  1. What systems and/or structures are in place in your school to assure that segregative practices are avoided?
  2. Are the program models in your school comprehensible to all stakeholders? For example, do parents understand what their children are participating in and the benefits of such programs?
  3. How are language programs held accountable for what they intend to do? Simply put, are the programs actually producing what they promise?
  4. What are the short- and long-term implications of the program models currently in place? Are they diverse and inclusive? If not, what steps can you take to make them more so?

The realities faced by EL students are important for us to understand and be proactive about. The ultimate goal is to help students reach their full potential by engaging them in authentic, antiracist, inclusive school communities. This requires collaboration, commitment, and tenacity. Next month, my blog will focus on the effectiveness of language programs and how they can strive for continued improvements.


Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964).

U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Dear colleague letter. English learner students and limited English proficient parents.  https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf


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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