By Kathleen Leos and Lisa Saavedra
Kathleen Leos, president of The Global Institute for Language & Literacy Development, LLC.
Kathleen Leos serves as president of The Global Institute for Language & Literacy Development, LLC. Ms. Leos previously served a six-year presidential appointment as the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director to the US Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). In that position, she was the principal advisor to the U.S. Secretaries of Education Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings on all matters relating to English language learning (ELL) students. She developed regulations, policies and procedures to create a national education and accountability infrastructure in 50 states, DC and Puerto Rico.
Lisa Saavedra is the vice president of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, LLC. Prior to joining with Ms. Leos, Ms. Saavedra was the Bureau Chief for the Bureau of Academic Achievement through Language Acquisition for the Florida Department of Education. Her responsibilities included development of legislation and rules for the state governance of ELL policies and 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.
In a special post for Latina Lista, and in realizing that any future immigration reform measure will include a provision to learn English, Ms. Leos and Ms. Saavedra share their thoughts on current challenges facing ELL learners and what Congress, the community and educators need to do to ensure success for these English learners, minimize their frustration levels and create an easier transition into American society.
The recent tragedy in Binghamton, New York where a Vietnamese immigrant intentionally took his life and that of 13 other individuals ignites the ongoing debate about effective English language programs offered in centers and classrooms throughout the United States.
The press stated that one of the individualâ€™s motives was â€œ. . . his poor English skills, which he tried to improve taking classes at the center.â€ For years, this issue has plagued many K-12 and adult students who continually struggle to acquire English and successfully navigate societyâ€™s multiple challenges.
In 2008, the U.S Department of Education published a report stating there are 5 Â½ million English language learners (ELLS) in grades K-12, with an annual demographic growth rate of twelve percent- the fastest growing student group in Americaâ€™s schools.
The majority or 85 percent of ELLs are born in the United States and begin school in the primary grades. The 2000 U.S. Census reported 17.9 percent of the nationâ€™s population 5 years and older live in homes where a language other than English is spoken.
Yet, in 2005, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that that the graduation rate for U.S.-born ELLs is only 65 percent and the primary reason ELLs leave high school before graduating is the difficulty students have acquiring the English language skills needed to master high school academic courses.
The statistics are staggering and to date no real solution has been found. Why?
The dizzying thirty-year political and education debate focuses on which language education program approach â€” bilingual, dual language or English immersion â€” effectively teaches ELLs English at significant levels to master academic content at grade level in English.
However, there is little if any evidence-based research that answers this question conclusively.
The research cited by advocates of any particular approach is quasi-experimental, descriptive or anecdotal at best. Schools offer numerous language education programs but the program titles often contradict accurate implementation and are not based on proven scientific theory. Hence the language debate continues.
The U.S. Congress attempted to resolve this issue in 2002 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which required states to develop K-12 English language standards equal to the state academic content standards and corresponding assessments.
This requirement provided states a blueprint for developing new educational approaches that ensure ELLs access to grade level academic content while learning English. But student achievement data recently published demonstrate mixed results: ELLs are making progress, but a persistent achievement gap remains.
What can communities, educators and Congress do to conclusively end the language debate?
Demand results! It is imperative that any language education program implemented in centers and schools is based on scientific research and positive student achievement results.
Collectively, we must make a national commitment to support multiple research projects that determine what type of language education programs work for ELLs, under what conditions and in which environments.
A solid foundation of scientific knowledge is necessary to support and stimulate meaningful and long-lasting change. Reform efforts would also benefit from a supportive Press and community involvement that acknowledges the hard work and extraordinary effort ELLs make to learn the English necessary to become contributing members of our society.
In truth, our nationâ€™s future depends on significantly changing the education trajectory for all students, including U.S. born and immigrant English language learners.