Making Sense of NCLB for English Learners

This article written for Colorín Colorado by Kathleen Leos and Lisa C. Saavedra of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development discusses the strengths and challenges of ELL provisions in No Child Left Behind.


In this article, we pose the question: Can we make sense of No Child Left Behind for English learners? We believe the answer is yes! Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (now known as The Elementary and Secondary Education Act) is the most sweeping education reform legislation enacted by Congress for English Learners in the history of public education law, since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To put the law into perspective, let's start with some historical background on the education of language minority students before examining some of the strengths and challenges of No Child Left Behind.

Before NCLB

Prior to 2002, the U.S. Department of Education awarded federal discretionary grants to state and district education agencies to supplement school language education programs for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade who spoke a language other than English at home. This was to ensure that ELs acquired enough English proficiency to access academic subjects taught in English and graduate with the same skills and knowledge as every other student in the state.

The legal framework for EL public education was rooted in a series of federal Supreme Court cases beginning in 1974, which claimed, "Language minority status students could not be denied access to the same academic program offered other students due to language proficiency in English." (Lau v. Nichols, 1974)

Subsequent court cases defined English learners as limited English proficient students with or without legal citizenship status and informed districts how to offer ELs equal access to education. The court did not dictate language instruction education programs such as bilingual, dual language or English-only, but it did stipulate that a program must be based on "proven education theory, taught by qualified personnel, provided sufficient funding and monitored for proven effectiveness" (Castañeda v. Pickard, 1981). However, schools were not required to evaluate EL academic achievement. Instead, they were required only to report annually the number of students served.


In 2002, with the advent of the new K-12 public education law, how ELs were educated changed drastically due to a few profound transformational legal requirements. One of the most provocative mandates required each school district to analyze the academic achievement of ELs separately and compare the results to non-ELs, White, Black, Asian and Hispanic students in reading/language arts and mathematics. Those results then had to be reported, along with achievement differences between the groups, to parents and the general public. What had gone unnoticed for years quickly became a crisis in education when The Nation's Report Card revealed a persistent 40 percent EL achievement gap in 4th and 8th grade reading and mathematics — a gap that had been in place for over 30 years. However, the solution to eliminate the glaring EL achievement disparity was clearly addressed in NCLB Title III.

Since the law's purpose is to ensure that English learners acquire English and reach the same high academic achievement expectations established by the state for all students, the states were required to develop a new education system specific to ELs language and academic demands. For example, states had to establish English language proficiency standards focused on reading, writing, speaking and listening aligned to State academic content standards to provide a roadmap or "language bridge" for educators. This bridge would serve as a resource in teaching appropriate levels of English for students to access and comprehend grade-level academic content in reading/language arts and mathematics. Assessments were developed and implemented that aligned to each set of standards to measure student progress in acquiring the English language and comprehending academic content with the results shared by teachers and parents in the language they understand best.

The assessment results are now used to plan professional development, refine classroom instruction, increase parent involvement, and acquire additional materials to support student learning. This new EL teaching and learning system is known as the "Integrated System of Standards and Assessments, Accountability and Achievement for ELs." Additionally, ELs may not be removed from the classroom during core instruction in reading/language arts, math and science. They must also receive instruction from effective teachers who are certified in these specific academic content areas. For the first time, states are required to look beyond the measurement and reporting of linguistic and academic achievement of ELs in order to implement an integrated and comprehensive system of education to address ELs persistent academic challenges as well.


Two requirements challenging to states and districts involve professional development and funding, explained below.

Professional development

Historically, ELs received core content instruction from professionals endorsed in second language acquisition, but not certified in a specific subject area. NCLB requires ELs receive core instruction from teachers certified in their specific area of instruction. According to a 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) survey, only 27 percent of teachers nationwide participated in sufficient professional development to deliver standards-aligned language and content instruction simultaneously.

Similarly, most English as a Second Language (ESL), teachers are not certified in specific content areas and are unable to instruct grade-level language and content. Although progress has been made, the 2011 NAEP EL achievement results indicate additional effort is needed for teachers, administrators and parents to understand that the key to literacy and comprehension is developing a strong foundation in language/s.

Federal funding

The appropriate use of federal funds to supplement quality language programs has been an ongoing issue for states, districts and schools. Prior Supreme Court mandates clearly stated how federal funds were to be used to supplement a local districts' effort to provide equal access to equal educational opportunities for ELs. However, many states and districts erroneously assumed EL language programs could be financed solely by federal grants. The new law clarified the allowable use of federal funds by establishing a system of federal formula grant awards that require states to allocate federal funds to supplement local district funded programs. Districts can do so by providing professional development to all teachers, including regular academic content teachers, and acquiring supplemental materials to support and enhance instruction.


NCLB Title III is the purest legal expression to ensure the academic civil rights for ELs to date. For the first time, the law clearly articulates not only the importance of EL academic achievement but how to change K-12 education systems to attain the required results. ELs require a new approach in instructional delivery as new evidence-based research studies conducted since 2002 in language development, acquisition and comprehending academic content knowledge simultaneously illustrate. In addition, the emphasis on grade-level standards-aligned instruction anchored in scientific research profoundly impacts regular classroom practice for ELs. Students must be taught language and content simultaneously in order to reach the state annual academic achievement targets and graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary for 21st century college and career success.

To declare the law isn't working due to its complexity or the nagging 40 percent EL achievement gap is premature. States and districts have not had the opportunity to fully implement the new EL education system, required by law; if anything, there has been a 40-year gap in systematically addressing the nation's ELs' education. On behalf of the country's fastest growing student population, it is imperative to not stop now!

About the Authors

Kathleen Leos

Kathleen Leos is the President and CEO of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, LLC, (GILD). Prior to establishing this new endeavor, Ms. Leos served a six-year (2002-2007) presidential appointment as the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), established by Congress in the 2002 No Child Left Behind-Title III legislation. In that position, Ms. Leos served as principal advisor to the U.S. Secretaries of Education, Dr. Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, on all matters related to ELL students, and developed regulations, policies and procedures to create a national education and accountability infrastructure in 50 states, DC and Puerto Rico. The six year effort included assisting states in developing new English language proficiency standards, aligned ELP assessments, research-based instructional strategies to train teachers to instruct language development and literacy skills simultaneously, and effective education models that support ELL high academic achievement for communities and parents. Ms. Leos is also featured in this From the Heart interview and our Adolescent ELLs webcast.

Lisa C. Saavedra

Lisa C. Saavedra is the Vice President of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, LLC, (GILD). Prior to establishing GILD, Ms. Saavedra was the Bureau Chief for the Bureau of Academic Achievement through Language Acquisition for the Florida Department of Education. In her position as Bureau Chief, Ms. Saavedra served as an educational expert to the Florida Department of Education on all matters related to the education of ELLs. Her responsibilities included the development of legislation and rules for state governance and the legislative process. She served as an expert advisor during several legal class action complaints filed in federal district court regarding the provisions of equal access for ELLs and the protection of their civil rights. Ms. Saavedra also provided leadership to all 74 Florida school districts in the development of comprehensive plans for instructional services to the 300,000 ELLs in the state and led the development, field testing, and statewide implementation of the State's first English language proficiency assessment for measuring progress and attainment of English proficiency for all ELLs.


Lau v. Nichols. No. 72 — 6520. Supreme Court Of The United States. 414 U.S. 56. Argued December 10, 1973. Decided January 21, 1974.

Castañeda v. Pickard. No. 79-2253. United States Court Of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. Unit A. 648 F.2d 989; 1981 U.S. App. Lexis 12063.


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