Tracking ELL Issues: Notes on 'Learning the Language'

Mary Ann Zehr is a high school ESL teacher and a former assistant editor at Education Week. While at Education Week, she wrote about the schooling of English-language learners as one of the only journalists covering ELL issues on a national level.  She also launched the "Learning the Language" blog, which tackles policy questions, explores learning innovations, and shares stories about different cultural groups and subgroups of ELL students, such as refugees.

In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Ms. Zehr discusses her work on the blog and the trends she has observed in the ELL field. She also talks about the Quality Counts 2009 report, "Portrait of a Population: How English-Language Learners are Putting Schools to the Test," to which she contributed.

Quality Counts Report: Portrait of a Population

Tell us about the Quality Counts 2009 report on ELLs.

Each year the report has a different focus and this year the editors decided to concentrate on English-language learners, which is a growing population in this country. Usually it's primarily my job at the newspaper to report on ELLs, so I was really happy to see a whole team of people here at Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center research and report on this group of students. As part of my own contribution to the report, I visited classrooms with ELLs in New York City and in Norcross, Georgia. I used New York City as a backdrop to write about the great diversity of ELLs, which may be surprising to some educators or policymakers. In Norcross I explored how the Gwinnett County School District uses an English-language-proficiency test and other measures to make decisions about how students are placed in classes and when they are ready to exit special programs to learn English.

You mention that quite a bit of data is included in the report. How was this gathered?

The EPE Research Center included in its annual state policy survey for Quality Counts a number of questions pertaining to state policies for ELLs. The survey is sent to the chief state school officer in each state, who may assign different staff people to provide answers. In many cases, the person answering questions about state policies for ELLs was the state director for programs funded by Title III, the section of the No Child Left Behind Act that authorizes funds for English-acquisition programs. The ELL section of the survey asked some questions that had never been asked before, or at least not of officials in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

What were some of the more surprising findings of the report?

I was surprised to learn that only 11 states offer teachers incentives to earn an English-as-a-second-language endorsement. Also, it surprised me that ten states don't provide any additional funds other than what are provided for regular students for the education of ELLs. Those states are: Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia. A state such as Nevada has a lot of English-language learners, so I'd be curious to know if educators there feel that programs for such students are adequately funded.

What do you hope that those who read the report take away from it?

I hope that people will give more thought to how states and the nation may build a stronger infrastructure in this country to prepare teachers to work with ELLs. I hope that state legislators and officials will become better informed about what other states are doing to support ELLs and consider replicating some of the policies that are working well. I hope that educators will become better informed about the diversity of this group of students and think about how they might design different programs for the needs of subgroups of ELLs, such as those who have interrupted schooling or those who have spent their whole school careers in U.S. schools but still haven't tested as proficient in English. A number of people interviewed for the report expressed concern about how the accountability provisions for ELLs under the No Child Left Behind Act are not well thought-out. Some of this concern could possibly be addressed in the reauthorization of the act.

Is there a particular part of the report that resonated strongly with you?

One of my favorite parts of the report is a set of student profiles. The report has six of these profiles, but there are more online and the online package includes audio interviews as well as photographs and text. I think the student profiles have the potential to help people better understand who these students are, such as that about two-thirds of ELLs are born in the United States. I really enjoyed interviewing individual students. One who I found inspiring was Morry Bamba, 18, a student at a small school in New York City geared toward ELLs who arrive in the United States as teenagers. When he arrived in New York City from the African country of Guinea three years ago, he had never attended school. The fact that he learned how to read as an 8th grader says a lot about him; it also inspired me to know that the system there had a teacher who was prepared to teach Morry to read from scratch at the middle-school level.

Beyond the report, what are some of the trends you have recently observed in your reporting.

One thing I see is that many educators and experts are trying to figure out how secondary ELL programs can be improved. Elementary schools are ranking higher than middle and high schools in the accountability systems of states such as Texas. Some large urban school districts have low graduation rates for ELLs. For example, in New York City, 24 percent of students who begin 9th grade as ELLs graduate four years later.

Another trend I've observed is a decline in the percentage of ELLs taking bilingual education. Some educators say that the No Child Left Behind Act has indirectly put a damper on bilingual education programs. But the decline in the number and proportion of ELLs in bilingual education started long before the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law more than seven years ago.

Still another trend is quite obvious: more testing of ELLs. NCLB has brought much more testing for ELLs than was previously the case. For example, schools were required before NCLB to test the English skills of students who speak a language other than English at home, but NCLB has required much more comprehensive English-proficiency testing than was the case previously. ELLs now have to be tested in reading, writing, speaking, and listening every year in grades K-12. Also, while ELLs had to be included in state testing before NCLB, many states excluded such students from their regular academic tests for the first three years they were in the country. Now ELLs must take their state's math test the first time it is administered after they arrive in U.S. schools. And they can be exempted from their state's reading test for only one year.

Some experts in the field I talk with say that NCLB has caused educators to pay more attention to ELLs, which is good, but many say accountability measures-and assessments-need to be better tailored to the needs of ELLs.

What do you think the future holds in terms of ELL education?

Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, I believe school districts will be looking for ways to cut corners in funding ELL programs, along with other programs. Some states that have funding formulas to provide extra money for ELLs don't require school districts to spend the money on those students. So educators who are looking out for ELLs may have to speak up for them to assure they get necessary resources and support.

Another interesting issue will be to see whether the officials in President Barack Obama's administration will be more active at conferences, through research, and through other means, in presenting bilingual education as a viable option for ELLs. Many people feel that former President George W. Bush's administration was quiet on the issue.

What have been some of the highlights of your reporting while at Education Week?

I've enjoyed experiences in which I learned something new about a culture other than my own. I felt fortunate to witness a quinceanera, a birthday party for a 15-year-old Mexican-American girl, for example. That party took place in Harrisonburg, Virginia, not in a border town. I enjoyed touring a Hmong market in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a Hmong-American who was a liaison between St. Paul schools and Hmong parents.

But as well as having some colorful experiences, I've also enjoyed getting out to classrooms and seeing teachers at work helping students to learn English and academic content. I've learned that state and federal policy does have an impact on what happens in the classroom. For example, the emphasis on ELLs in the No Child Left Behind Act has spurred some school districts to hire more ELL teachers.

Learning the Language Blog

Another important aspect of your reporting is your blog. How did it get started?

An editor here, Kevin Bushweller, started the first blog at Education Week by an editor or reporter on staff. It's called Motivation Matters. He knew that I'd conducted some audio interviews that were posted on the Web and liked to try new ways of reporting. So he suggested I start a blog about English-language learners. I did. It attracted readers and Education Week has started many other blogs by reporters.

Does the blog format give you some flexibility?

Yes, it gives me flexibility in that I can more quickly post news that if I'm reporting only for the print edition. I find that I often post information that didn't fit into a print article. I report a lot of tidbits of news on the blog. I like the interactive nature of the blog. Readers post some really thoughtful comments. Teachers are more inclined to send me an e-mail telling me what's going on in their schools than it seemed they did when I was merely a print reporter.

You have traveled quite a bit while at Education Week; how has that shaped your perspective on ELL issues?

In 2001, Education Week sent me to Mexico, where I reported on the inequalities in the school system there, both between schools and within schools. That helped me to inform readers why some ELLs arrive from Mexico with strong math or reading skills and others can't read and write or do subtraction. Last February, Education Week sent a photographer and me to Jordan to report on the schooling opportunities for Iraqi refugee children there. We met many children who had missed several years of school because of the Iraq war or displacement from the war. Hopefully, our reporting helped to inform educators in the United States why, while Iraq once had one of the best education systems in the Middle East, refugee children from Iraq arriving these days at U.S. schools may have large gaps in their education.

How did you get interested in ELL issues?

I've always liked to learn about the world and writing about ELLs gives me the chance to learn about other countries and cultures even if this mostly happens while I'm reporting on people living in my own country.

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