When I started my career as a fourth grade bilingual teacher, I was given two binders. One included academic standards for my state. The other was filled with the English language development (ELD) standards.
My job was to ensure that my students, all of whom were categorized as English learners (ELs), met these grade-level and proficiency standards by the end of the year.
This required extra time to create my own lesson plans, adapt our school curriculum and find supplemental materials to help my students connect with the grade-level content. That’s because the curriculum I was given didn’t consider their language needs and was devoid of the cultural richness EL students bring to the classroom.
Twenty years later, not much has changed.
Though English learners are the fastest-growing student population in U.S. schools, their needs are often seen and treated as secondary rather than as of equal importance to their peers’. And that has resulted in policies, textbooks, training and assessments for our nation’s 5 million ELs that seem like an afterthought. They are subpar compared to what their non-EL peers receive.
With a new secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, who was once categorized as an English learner himself, we hope these students will no longer be sidelined by our education system.
While there are no quick fixes that will immediately improve the education of our nation’s ELs, there are concrete steps that Cardona and the Department of Education can take.
The first, and most immediate, is to provide direct guidance and strong expectations for how states and school districts should include English learners in their Covid-19 recovery plans.
English learners have been among the students most impacted by inequitable instruction during this pandemic. Most state reopening plans did not include explicit guidance on remote learning for ELs, causing many school districts and schools to figure it out on their own.
The result has been very little language support for ELs, on top of compounding factors like limited internet connectivity and ineffective communication with parents, and a drop in EL enrollment and attendance. Guidance from our new secretary of education would send a strong message to school districts and states: Teaching and learning plans and budgets must include integrated supports for English learners to address the academic impacts this pandemic has had on them.
This is not a time to return to the status quo, but rather to innovate and build a new system for our English learners – one in which they are no longer an afterthought.
Plans should include, but not be limited to, high-quality materials, support services to work one-on-one or in small groups and afterschool and summer learning opportunities for English learners.
Second, Cardona must elevate and strengthen the way the Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) advances EL education. Cardona can create a task force or convene EL experts and educators to work with OELA to provide real-time guidance on what quality EL instruction and materials should look like.
To date, most of the innovation on this topic has been driven by state leaders, such as those in Rhode Island and California. The U.S. Department of Education has an important role to play in highlighting what works so that other states do not have to start from scratch.
Cardona and his team can also move the needle when it comes to how we view the role of educators and education in the lives of English learners. Historically, our approach has focused too much on compliance and testing, with funding incentives that put teachers under pressure to reclassify their English learners as “Fluent English Proficient” as quickly as possible.
While English proficiency is important, the heavy emphasis on reclassification often gets in the way of meaningful learning and tending to what English learners actually need. And often the supports stop once a student is reclassified.
Instead, we need a new system that incentivizes real learning in the classroom. For example, math departments can collaborate with EL departments to build activities and lesson plans that ELs can relate to. And curriculum should have integrated language support so that ELs have access to the same grade-level concepts as their peers.
For the first time, we have a former English learner in the Department of Education; he can not only guide education policy, but lead it.
This is not a time to return to the status quo, but rather to innovate and build a new system for our English learners — one in which they are no longer an afterthought, but deserving of an education that allows them to thrive.
Crystal Gonzales is executive director of the English Learners Success Forum in Washington, D.C.
This story about post-pandemic EL education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.