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A Running Start for ELLs

Early learning is key, but some states are not making it a priority.

0ne in four students under the age of six comes from an immigrant family in which at least one parent does not speak English, says Maki Park, early education policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Traditionally, states such as Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas have served the vast majority of English language learner (ELL) students, although the surging growth of this demographic—now 5.5 million students—can be seen nationwide in new “gateway” states, including South Carolina, Indiana, Arkansas and Virginia, which are attracting more immigrant families. It is almost inevitable that every teacher across the nation will encounter an ELL student during his or her career if it hasn’t happened already.

As this population continues to swell, the achievement gap between ELLs and their non-ELL peers continues to widen. Many educators and legislators point to early childhood programs as a solution. “This is the best investment we can make,” says Maria Ott, superintendent of Rowland (Calif.) Unified School District, which lies within Los Angeles County. Rowland schools have a large number of ELL students, including 65 percent Latino, 9 percent Filipino, and 22 percent Asian other than Filipino. The district has strong early learning programs, including Head Start, offered to all students who opt in; a prekindergarten program funded through the state of California; and funds from a state grant, First Five, which provides districts with money to create robust early learning programs.

In one decade, 1998 to 2008, the number of pre-K students increased by 8.5 percent, from 46 million to 49.9 million. Disproportionately, during this same period, the number of identified ELL students increased by 53.2 percent, from 3.5 million to 5.3 million, according to MPI.

“If you invest in one year of additional education when they’re young and get them on target when they come into kindergarten, they can potentially stay on target and be reading at grade level,” says Ott. “If you don’t, you’re looking at remedial courses, interventions, long-term ELLs, gaps in learning that districts cannot overcome, and ultimately, students who don’t graduate. Investing in early education saves money in the long run and keeps kids working toward leading productive lives.”

No Child Left Behind played a large role in bringing ELL and minority students to the forefront. One decade later, however, the accountability numbers are still staggering. In the 2008-2009 school year, only 10 states met their target goals for ELLs under NCLB, according to the “National Evaluation of Title III Implementation,” a study released May 11 by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the U.S. Department of Education. The study is the most comprehensive report to date of the federal Title III program, which under NCLB gives federal aid to states and districts for English-language-acquisition programs.

Federal initiatives such as President Obama’s $1.1 billion Early Head Start investment in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Race to the Top, and a competitive federal Head Start grant announced last fall for states totaling $7.6 billion have put early education in the spotlight.

Just as NCLB has raised the bar for ELLs, the Common Core State Standards and the impending revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), of which NCLB is the latest incarnation, will do so even further. Despite large pushes in funding at the federal level, individual state funding still lags. This is in part due to state budget deficits, but also because some legislators lack the gumption to invest in the early years.

“Funding for [early learning] has become a political hot potato,” says Ott. “It’s difficult enough for elected officials and districts to carve out enough funds for the basic core K12 programs. These are not easy decisions in a budget crisis, but the cost of students not being ready is greater, and it only starts appearing when they’re already behind.”

Start at the Very Beginning

There is a vast body of research linking students’ performance in their early years to their success in the K12 arena. Achievement patterns in language and reading are established largely in the period from birth through the end of the primary grades, according to a 2010 white paper “Young English-Language Learners: Current Research and Emerging Directions for Practice and Policy,” by Eugene Garcia and Ellen Frede, National Institute for Early Education Research Advisory Board member and co-director, respectively.

Researchers have also linked early learning to various long-term benefits, including high employment and lower crime rates, compared to those who don’t have access. “Early learning programs help bridge the gaps in school readiness, and it’s in those younger years when the brain is best suited for language acquisition,” says Park.

Head Start was founded in 1964 under President Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society campaign. According to 2007-2008 data, the program served 906,922 children nationwide and spent an average of $7,909 per child.

To date, Hispanic students, despite comprising the vast majority of enrolled and identified ELL students, are the smallest subgroup to attend Head Start programs, which some attribute to lack of community outreach for these programs. Only 40 percent of Hispanic students—who comprise 73 percent of ELL students, according to MPI—are enrolled in Head Start programs, compared to 60 percent of their white and African-American peers.

The Key Is Quality

Norberta Anderson, director of ELL instruction for Clark County (Nev.) School District, has been with the district for a decade and has seen its population of ELLs increase by roughly 2 percent each year. CCSD, which has the sixth-largest population of ELLs in the country, is currently serving 54,398 ELL students. While Anderson says the district’s schools have met accountability targets for ELLs under NCLB, preschool is not mandatory in the state of Nevada, and having more early learning programs certainly would improve overall student achievement.

“We do have early learning programs, but not at all the schools, and they’re not always full day,” says Anderson. Because pre-K programs are not funded by the state, it is up to the districts to implement programs when they can afford them. In Clark County, ELL students are not identified until they are in kindergarten; therefore, students in pre-K are not officially taught as ELLs. “These programs are absolutely critical,” says Anderson. “We’ve seen from our peers in Miami, Chicago, New York City, and St. Paul that by making pre-K [available] in their states, they’ve seen some phenomenal academic growth of the ELL students in those areas.”

Since 1988, Miami-Dade County (Fla.) School District has used Title I dollars to provide full-day preschool at 194 schools to students whose parents choose to send their children. The state offers voluntary prekindergarten for three hours per day for all 4-year-olds.

“A full-day program offers greater exposure for students,” says Marisel Elias-Miranda, director for the Office of Early Childhood programs in Miami-Dade. “Students—ELLs in particular—make significant gains in vocabulary, oral language development and letter knowledge. Increasing participation in a high-quality program is a huge asset for ELLs.”

The quality of the program can also be tied to the needs of the students it is serving. The Title III study conducted by ARI and the U.S. DOE found wide variations in how each state defines students that are English language learners and when they reach a point of proficiency. For instance, in Clark County, the district has 94,431 ELLs identified, but given the students’ proficiency of English is only serving 54,398.

In the 2009-2010 school year, the state of Arizona saw a 33,000-student drop in its ELL population, which was due to a shift in the surveys used to identify ELLs. Not properly identifying students who need ELL education can result in a lifelong struggle for them academically, while filling classrooms with students who have greater English proficiency than others can make instruction less intensive for those who need it.

California’s legislature passed the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010, which creates a transitional kindergarten program. The 2012-2013 school year will be the first phase of implementing this two-year kindergarten program, which uses a modified kindergarten curriculum to better prepare students for first grade. “We know how important it is to get in there as early as possible,” says Ott. “ELL students have opportunity gaps we must address.”

Teacher Preparation

Park of the Migration Policy Institute says that early childhood programs are less developed and standardized than K12 education. Finding quality teachers and generating a robust curriculum present their own challenges.

The Center for American Progress released a study, “Preparing All Teachers to Meet the Needs of English Language Learners,” on April 30 that says there is insufficient information on what teachers should know about teaching ELLs and greater inconsistencies across states in the required knowledge regarding ELLs for all teachers as part of initial certification. Arizona, California, Florida, Pennsylvania and New York require specific coursework, 17 states only make general references to the special needs of ELLs, and 15 states have no requirement whatsoever.

“I think, unfortunately, teacher preparation programs are not adequately preparing them to teach this population,” says Melissa Lazarin, director of K12 education policy for the Center for American Progress. “We need to look beyond ESL and bilingual education. We need all mainstream teachers prepared, and very few schools and states actually require that.”

Delis Cuellar, assistant professor in early education at Humboldt State University in California, found that teacher-preparation programs don’t provide many teachers with the skills needed to handle sensitive cultural relations. According to the New Journalism on Latino Children, a project that offers research on Latino students based at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Cuellar found a cultural gap between first-generation Mexican-born parents and some Head Start teachers in Arizona. There is a general perception that Latino families in particular want to keep their children at home instead of sending them to preschool. As a result, when Mexican-born parents brought their children to preschool, the teachers would leave the parents alone with their children when they first arrived in the classroom. While the teachers thought they were being sensitive, given the big adjustment for parent and child, the parents thought the teachers were being rude or racist by ignoring them. There were also differences in understanding literacy, with parents focusing on penmanship and teachers focusing on comprehension. “It is very important to build collaboration and a strong partnership between parents and teachers,” says Elias-Miranda. “Parents need to feel comfortable enough to ask questions, learn about the curriculum, and know how the school system operates. It’s also important that they have access to this information in their home language, as well.”

Spotlight on ELLs

For all its flaws, NCLB did raise the bar for ELLs and minority subgroups across the board. “ESEA certainly put a huge spotlight on ELLs, and there is definitely a formula now for tracking the outcomes of these students,” says Liz Eisner, education research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education and contributor to the Title III report between the DOE and ARI.

Although progress has been made, there is still a long road ahead in terms of getting ELLs on target with their non-ELL peers and increasing data collection on this subgroup, particularly in the improvements of early childhood learning.

“Half of the nation’s English learner students were in districts that didn’t meet [AYP] targets for two consecutive years,” says James Taylor, project director with ARI. “With the Common Core, more states will be approaching their content from a common set of standards and assessments. If Common Core standards are raising the level of challenge of standards, it seems like that underscores the importance of Title III and providing state English learner services.”

Conveying this issue to policymakers remains a struggle. “The Common Core State Standards require a more sophisticated thinker,” says Ott. “We’re seeing a huge jump in terms of expectations. It’s going to be an even greater challenge if we have students that haven’t had those foundational experiences. I think there will be a big push politically to support early learning programs, but I’m not sure how it will fare economically in terms of where the dollars actually go.”

With the population of ELLs growing exponentially each year, Ott says educators and legislators must look at this population as resources rather than as a challenge. “There is a resource and a value in that student’s native language,” Ott concludes. “How do we ensure they become proficient in English and still value the language they bring? [Legislators] speak about the importance of bilingual students and international jobs. We have students right here we can tap into, but we need to make sure they’re ready to learn and ready to rise to those challenges.” DA

Marion Herbert is associate editor.