Making English Learners a Priority in Standards-Based Reform

Nelson Flores
Monday, May 16, 2016


A new teacher enters a classroom on the first day of school. She is excited to engage her students in a literacy lesson that is aligned with the new standards that her state has adopted. She is confident that her students will not only be engaged in the lesson but will also become quickly aware that her class is one with high expectations. As she begins the lesson she notices that several students in the class are not participating. She calls on one of them to encourage him to participate. He just stares back at her. Another student shares, “he doesn’t know English.” The teacher realizes that many of the students are English learners and are struggling to follow the lesson.

This scenario is a common one in U.S. schools. Well-meaning teachers who want to have high expectations for students fail to account for the diverse learning needs of the students in their classrooms. It can also be understood as a metaphor for how standards-based reform has often played out in the U.S. context. Well-meaning policymakers who want to increase the academic rigor of classrooms develop standards that often do not account for the fact that teachers are working in increasingly linguistically diverse classrooms that include more English learners. For many of these reformers it is enough to require that English learners be included in standards-based instruction.

This is the model that was adopted by No Child Left Behind. Policymakers hypothesized that requiring schools and districts to report on the achievement of English learners as a subgroup would ensure that these students received targeted, effective instruction. On one level, they were right. No longer could schools allow these students to languish in remedial programs that failed to provide them with college and career readiness. Instead, schools had to develop new approaches to educating these students that exposed them to the same rigor of instruction as their English-proficient counterparts.

On one level, Under NCLB, schools had to develop new approaches to educating English language learners that exposed them to the same rigor of instruction as their English-proficient counterparts. But On another level, simply adding them as a subgroup was not sufficient in ensuring that they received a high-quality education.

On another level, simply adding them as a subgroup was not sufficient in ensuring that they received a high-quality education. In particular, the question of how to validly assess English learners in ways that did not conflate content knowledge with language proficiency placed schools with large numbers of English learners at a disadvantage in accountability reporting. Some schools even began to find creative ways to push English learners out of their schools because of fears that they would negatively impact their accountability reports. This unintended consequence indicates that it is not simply enough to include English learners in standards-based reforms initiatives if their unique needs are not also considered within their implementation.

Unfortunately, the trend that was begun with No Child Left Behind has continued with more recent standards-based reform initiatives. This is exemplified by the Common Core State Standards. The main document that lays out the standards does not mention the unique needs of English learners. The only place where their needs are mentioned is in a two-and-a-half-page addendum to the standards. This addendum points to ways that English learners’ knowledge of their home language can be used as a starting point for English language development.  It also calls on teachers to use the standards in conjunction with language proficiency standards to support their English language development.  The addendum does not give any indication as to what this might look like – the new teacher mentioned above will have to figure it out in conjunction with school, district, and state policies.

It is time to move beyond an approach to standards-based reform where the needs of English learners are considered tangential to the standards themselves. It is time to move toward an approach to standards-based reform where the needs of these students are built into the very fabric of the standards and the policies that support their implementation.

As researchers, one way that we can move the needle in this direction is by making the needs of English learners central to how we assess the implementation of these standards. This is why the C-SAIL implementation study has made it a priority to research how different stakeholders in our partner states are working together to support these students. Our hope is to use the insights that we gain from this research to develop a coherent approach to supporting states, districts, schools and teachers in placing the needs of English learners at the center of standards-based reform.

With this in mind, the C-SAIL implementation study has infused its primary research questions with a specific focus on English learners. Our interview protocols and surveys include questions related to the needs of English learners that all participants are expected to answer. In addition, we are also including in our interview and survey sample educators who focus specifically on the needs of English learners. This integral focus on English learners will help us to identify the challenges that states, districts, and schools are confronting in meeting the needs of this student population as well as provide us with insights into how to effectively include English learners in standards implementation.