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ELL Students Neglected in School Turnaround Efforts

A new evaluation of School Improvement Grant recipients shows that even in schools with high percentages of English language learners, ELL students were poorly represented in strategic reform efforts.

The report — Study of School Turnaround: A Focused Look at Schools Receiving School Improvement Grants That Have Large Percentages of English Language Learner Students (issued by the United States Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences) — looked at 11 schools that participated in the SIG program over a three-year period (from 2010–2011 to 2012–2013) and evaluated the depth to which these schools addressed the needs of ELL students, using a point-based system.

It found that, at best, only moderate attention was paid to the unique needs of ELLs. For the most part, only limited attention was given. No schools achieved the highest category, "strategic attention." The ratings were based on six dimensions, with four possible points available for each:

  • School goals (self-reported);
  • Using data to inform instruction for ELLs;
  • Extended learning time for ELLs (such as summer programs or after-school programs);
  • Efforts to reform instructional practices in the context of the unique needs of ELLs;
  • Professional development specifically related to ELLs; and
  • Parent engagement.

Schools that achieved the moderate rating (three of them) explicitly addressed at least some of the needs of ELL students in their reform plans, while those in the lower category "had few improvement efforts in place to address ELL needs." The report noted there was no discernible pattern to the emphasis placed on ELL. For example, the percentage of ELL students was not related to the emphasis given to them in the schools' reform plans. And some schools that were strong in some ELL efforts were not necessarily strong in other categories.

The worst categories for schools in the study were using data to inform instruction — four schools paid no attention to ELLs in their data-driven decision-making plans — and teacher professional development — two schools made no reference to ELLs in their PD plans.

Only one school spotlighted in the report — the one with the highest rating, 18 out of 24 points — included technology in its instructional reform effort plans. (It isn't clear whether technology played no role in instructional reform at the other schools or if this information was simply omitted or not considered by the report's authors.)

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program provides federal funding to state agencies that then channel the funds, through a competitive process, to districts that demonstrate the need, the will and the ability to raise the achievement level of students in the poorest-performing schools in their states. Under the latest law, SIG funds are targeted toward only the lowest-performing schools (as measured by standardized test scores) — those that have been in the bottom 5 percent for an extended period of time.

As described in the report, there are four intervention options for schools under the school turnaround program, none of which is particularly pleasant:

  • Turnaround, in which the principal and at least half the faculty are purged and replaced and new reforms put in place — reforms that include the use of data in informing decisions, adoption of new instructional models, implementation of professional development, addition of "socio-emotional and community-oriented
    services and supports" and introduction of "operational flexibility";
  • Transformation, which is similar to the Turnaround intervention except there's no requirement to fire half the teachers;
  • Restart, which puts the school under management of a CMO or other type of charter provider; and
  • Closure.

According to the report's authors, schools in the study focused most of their early efforts under SIG to the broader student population, such as efforts to curb behavior problems, revamping math and reading curricula and focusing on general teacher development. However, the authors cautioned: "Although these activities are consistent with SIG requirements, which do not explicitly call for schools to address the unique needs of ELLs in their improvement efforts, schools seeking to turn around a history of low performance may find it important to improve supports that target ELL-specific needs to promote higher ELL achievement. Even the schools that paid moderate attention to the unique needs of ELLs either did not report establishing improvement goals that explicitly focused on ELLs or did not report customizing improvement actions in various areas to account for ELL-specific needs."

The complete report, which goes into extensive detail into schools' specific reform efforts in the context of ELL, is freely available online at ies.ed.gov.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .