Education Proposal #5: End English Language Learner Mandates

In the 1973 decision Lau vs Nichols, the Supreme Court, ever vigilant to prove the truth of primer rule #5, ruled that schools had to provide “basic English support”:


Congress has been enforcing this decision for the past 40 years through various versions of the Bilingual Education Act. The law’s a joke, since states and districts have wildly varying tests and classification standards for ELLs, making metrics impossible but by golly, the schools collect the data and get judged anyway.

The 2016 Presidential candidates should call to end federal classification and monitoring of English Language Learners.

I mulled for weeks about this last of my highly desired but virtually unspeakable presidential education policy proposals—not because I couldn’t find one, but because the obvious fifth choice was so…old hat. I remember my swim coach bitching about bilingual education in the 70s. I’d lived overseas until then and when he explained this weird concept my teammates had to assure me he wasn’t kidding. The only thing that’s changed since then is the name.

And so I’ve been flinching away from finishing up this series because really? that’s the last one? After you called for restricting public education to citizens only, it’s the weak tea of English Language Learning?

Besides, someone will snark, if public education is citizen-only, then there’s no need to discuss ELL policy, is there?

Ah. There. That’s why this is #5.

Because the answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is: quite the contrary. Immigrants aren’t even half of the ELL population.


Citizens comprise from just over half to eighty percent of the ELL population, depending on who’s giving the numbers, but while the estimates vary, the tone doesn’t: no one writing about English language instruction seems to find this fact shocking.

Twenty percent of elementary school kids and thirty percent of middle and high school ELL students have citizen parents. Their grandparents were immigrants.

Pause a moment. No, really. Let that sink in. I know people who don’t think categorizing US citizens as non-native English speakers is, by definition, insane. I know people who would protest, talk about academic language, the needs of long-term English language learners (almost all of whom are citizens), and offer an explanation in the absurd belief that more information would mitigate the jawdropping sense of wtf-edness that this statistic invokes. But for the rest of us, this bizarre factoid should give pause.

Don’t blame bad parenting and enclaves, the Chinatowns and barrios and other language cocoons where English rarely makes an appearance. English fluency at time of classification is, to the best of our knowledge, unrelated to speed of transition. Those classified in kindergarten are going to transition out of ELL by sixth grade or they’re not going to transition, sez most of the hard data. No reliable studies have been conducted whatsoever on ELL instruction, so take any efficacy studies you learn of with a grain of salt.

Don’t sing me any crap songs about “native language instruction” or “English immersion” because I’ve heard them all and not one of the zealots on either side takes heed of the fact that neither method is going to make a dent in the language skills of a six year old born in this country who doesn’t test as English proficient despite being orally English-fluent.

Read any study on long term ELLs, the bulk of whom are citizens classified LEP since kindergarten, and it’s clear that most are fluent in oral English—that English is, in fact, their preferred language, the one they use at home with friends and family. They just don’t read or write English very well. And then comes the fact, expressed almost as an afterthought in all the research, that long-term ELLs don’t read or write any language very well.

Knowing this, how hard is it to predict that in California, 85% of Mandarin speakers are reclassified by 6th grade, yet half of all ELLs are not? That the gap within ELLs dwarfs the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs? That academic proficiency in the ELL student’s “native” language predicts proficiency in English?

While undergoing an induction review for my clear credential, the auditor told me that I hadn’t given enough support to my English Language learners.

“I didn’t have any issues with students and language,” I told him–the more fool I.

“You had ELLs in your classroom.”

“Sure, but most of them did very well and those who didn’t weren’t suffering from language problems. They just struggled with math, and I supported that struggle.”

“Math struggles are language struggles.”

“Um. What?”

“Yes. If an ELL is struggling in math, you must assume it’s language difficulties.”

“But I paid careful attention to my struggling kids, looking for every possible reason they could be having difficulties. Strugglers with and without ELL classification were indistinguishable. But I reduced the language load considerably for these students. You can see that in my section on differentiation.”

“Your differentiation is just varying curriculum approaches. I need to see ELL support. Let’s meet again in two days. That should give you enough time to re-evaluate your instruction.”

It didn’t take me two days. It barely took me two minutes. All I did was relabel my “Differentiation” section to to “Language Support”, demonstrating the many curricular changes I built to support my struggling students English Language Learners.

So here’s the dirty secret of ELL classification: Students fluent in English who are nonetheless classified as ELL are unlikely to ever reach that goal, because the classification tests are capturing cognitive ability and confusing it with language learning. All the nonsense about “academic vocabulary” and “writing support” is not so much useless as simply indistinguishable from the differentiation teachers use to support low ability students, regardless of language status.

Long-term ELLs in high school, fluent in English but not in writing or reading, are simply of below average intellect. That’s not a crime.

It’s also not worth calling out as a category. Unlike the uncertainty involved in maneuvering Plyler, there’s almost no legal uncertainty in ending federal mandates for bilingual instruction. Whatever the justices who wrote Lau vs. Nichols had in mind, they clearly were addressing the needs of students who spoke and understood no English at all. They were not concerned with language support to citizens orally fluent in English. If nothing else, ending this language support doesn’t count as “discrimination against national origin”, since they were born here.

Ending ELL classification wouldn’t end the support that schools give long-term English Language learners. We’d just…pronounce it differently.


About educationrealist

24 responses to “Education Proposal #5: End English Language Learner Mandates

  • Jacob

    Do you have an estimate of what percentage of ELL money is federal, state, and local, and thoughts about how dropping the federal mandate would affect this outlay at each level?

    I think the common theme between policies numbers three and five is that we have established huge legal and regulatory super structures and vast funding apparatuses to allow for a limited amount of accommodation to widely varying cognitive abilities to take place, but have done so In a way that renders the accommodation almost useless- as well as demanding a lot of extraneous paperwork and activity from every level of the system.

  • anon

    This issue isn’t entirely limited to perceptions of “foreigners”. I remember coverage, some years ago, of a study that was reported as finding that some people (I forget the classification scheme they used, but everyone was conceived of as a native english speaker) had a fundamentally different understanding of english than what “the standard” says english sentences should mean. I also found a certain amount of breathless discussion of this “result”.

    Investigating, I found that the methodology of the study involved showing testees a picture and asking them to indicate sentences that applied to the picture. The sentences tested were of the general form “every cat is in a box”; “every box has a cat in it”; etc — the kind of thing you’d represent with logical quantifiers. I lost a lot of faith in reporting then, since I know from taking math classes that a large number of people can’t do this kind of thing even when there’s no question of what meaning is correct. So it was clear, in my mind, that we hadn’t found a population whose understanding of english differed from the standard; we had instead found a population of english speakers who were bad at understanding things.

    The reporting on that paper sort of came at the issue from the opposite end, concluding that if people who were unquestionably native speakers couldn’t answer basic questions about quanitification, it must mean that the words had a definite meaning to them which happened to differ from the normal meaning, whereas the ELL people want to conclude that if someone who might in some sense not be a native speaker makes mistakes on a test, it’s because they haven’t yet been taught the meaning of the question. Neither side will say that a person failing a test question might possess the requisite knowledge but be incapable of applying it consistently.

  • pithom

    How ’bout this? Mandate all ELL instruction be kept under two years. Worked for me. First grade=knew no English, fourth grade=solidly top of the class.

  • Andrew

    As a teacher in an extremely diverse school, I agree that many ELLs do poorly academically NOT because of their limited English, but just because they are often low ability in their reasoning ability. I call these students bi-illiterate: poorly functioning in two languages. Even with teachers who are native or expert speakers of the students’ language, educational progress is often far below the average.

    Many immigrants to the U.S. are of the peasant class from third world countries, where only the children of the elite are educated. So these students are already coming from a deficit, and these are the students who fill our already beleaguered inner city schools. The elite immigrants that ARE educable do not usually attend public urban schools.

    Also interesting to note is the fact that many ELLs score higher on the writing portion of the OTELA (Ohio Test of English Language Acquisition) than they do on the reading portion. I believe that those who are literate in their first language will score better on writing, since writing allows more time to compose thoughts, and the necessary organizational skills are generally transferable between languages (especially for those that use a similar alphabet). Children who are not literate in their home languages may also have other issues, either true learning disabilities, low IQ, or a lack of any educational background. These students will score low on all sections of the test. Sometimes kids from war torn areas have grown up in refugee camps and had no access to any formal learning – many of these children have never seen writing or a book, and they are dropped into a first world school with zero preparation, and politicians wonder why the aggregate scores are so bad.

  • momof4

    My older sons had 4th-12th classmates who had arrived here as 2nd-3rd graders speaking essentially no English but who were fluent/unaccented English speakers by 3rd-4th. I don’t remember the ES even having an ESOL program or teacher – although I can’t be sure that it did not.

    Both had college-educated parents, both finished in the top 5 of a highly-competitive HS and both went on to Ivies. One was valedictorian and the other won the state spelling bee as an 8th-grader. Unsurprisingly, both were Chinese

  • Apollo

    More on the intersection of politics and education policy. I’d love to hear your take on this (the Russakoff book was the impetus for the column):

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