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Making Federal Education Policy Work Better for Language Minority Children: Leading Researchers Recommend ESEA Improvements

March 31, 2010

Joy Zimmerman

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — As congressional leaders begin discussions to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly known in its current authorization as No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration has identified as a key priority the education needs of students who are English language learners (ELLs). Through grants to states, ESEA has played a critical role in building national capacity to serve these students, who account for a growing proportion of the public school population. To inform reauthorization deliberations, the national Working Group on ELL Policy, an independent group of ELL researchers, academics, and policy experts from universities and nonprofit research organizations, has released a series of far-reaching recommendations focused on improving education outcomes for these students.

The recommendations, based on what the report terms "the current best knowledge from research and practice," cover five core areas of ESEA policy: 1) how ELL students are identified and classified; 2) the testing of their knowledge and skills in academic content; 3) how to build a stronger accountability system; 4) human capital policies that ensure ELL students' access to high-quality teachers and teaching; and 5) capacity-building for states through ESEA’s Title III funding for ELL programs, which target limited-English-proficient students, including immigrant children and youth, so they can develop proficiency and meet the same academic content and achievement standards as other students in the public school system.

The report underscores the urgency of the task: U.S. schools now serve more than five million ELL students, which is roughly 10 percent of the national public school enrollment, with Midwest and Southeast states facing dramatic increases in newly arriving ELL populations. Overall, the report states, "the capacity to support best practices in educating ELLs has not kept pace with this growing need." ELL students must develop proficiency in a second language while learning and being assessed on the same academic content as students whose home language is English.

According to the report, 30 percent of the schools held accountable under No Child Left Behind for adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets for the ELL subgroup did not make AYP for that subgroup in 2005–06; in high-poverty schools this percentage was substantially higher. In addition, a third of all schools (and half of high-poverty schools) reported needing technical assistance to improve services for ELL students in 2005–06 and 2006–07, but only half of those that needed it reported receiving satisfactory assistance. The authors argue that, as the numbers and percentages of ELL students continue to increase, national leadership is needed to address the failure of the nation's public education systems to meet the needs of these students.

Commenting on the Working Group's report, Ramon Cortines, Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, says, "These recommendations from the nation's leading researchers show how the federal government can do a much better job of helping school districts and states get it right in serving the enormous needs of English learners. No Child Left Behind got some things in place, especially in having schools pay attention to English learners. But now we need to do an even better job of paying attention and radically improving our services."

Copies of the full report and recommendations are available at

The Working Group comprises Diane August, Center for Applied Linguistics; Steve Barnett, National Institute for Early Education Research; Donna Christian, Center for Applied Linguistics; Michael Fix, Migration Policy Institute; Ellen Frede, National Institute for Early Education Research; David Francis, University of Houston; Patricia Gándara, University of California, Los Angeles; Eugene García, Arizona State University; Claude Goldenberg, Stanford University; Kris Gutiérrez, University of California, Los Angeles; Kenji Hakuta, Stanford University; Janette Klingner, University of Colorado; Robert Linquanti, WestEd; Jennifer O’Day, American Institutes for Research; and Charlene Rivera, George Washington University Center for Equity & Excellence in Education.

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