Supporting America’s English Learners: A Promise We Must Keep

Libia Gil Portrait

Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition Libia Gil

In today’s increasingly competitive, global economy, we must deliver a world-class education to all students—regardless of the circumstances that they bring to their learning.  This is a promise we must keep to our nation’s English learners, and to all of America’s learners.  Working together at the federal, state, and local school levels, I know that we can achieve this goal. 

I am committed to making this goal a reality as a researcher, educator, and as the newly appointed assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education. OELA supports high-quality instruction for linguistically and culturally diverse students as well as professional development programs for teachers of English learners. Our programs are supporting progress in classrooms across the country, but I know we have so much more work to do. 

Recently released results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—also known as the Nation’s Report Card—show us why. Students, including English learners, made modest performance gains in reading and math. But a wide achievement gap between English learners and their English proficient peers persists.  Particularly worrisome is a 45-point gap in achievement in eighth grade reading, given the importance that reading skills play in literacy development and accessing knowledge in other subjects.

I was especially disappointed that the NAEP results reflect a persistent wide achievement gap between English learners and English proficient students, portending diminished socioeconomic opportunities for the nation’s fastest growing population of students—which numbers approximately 4.7 million, or 9.4 percent of K-12 enrollment.

The achievement gap and its potential impact on our nation’s economic competitiveness serve as a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do. Ensuring that English learners are supported and educated to achieve the same rigorous learning standards for all students is not only a moral obligation; it’s an economic imperative.  

America’s long-term prosperity is linked to whether English learners attain the knowledge and skills they need to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate and enter a fulfilling career that will not only afford them an enhanced lifestyle, but also ensure that they are productive contributors to our society. 

This is why the Department remains committed to the advancement of English learners by including this population in large-scale education reform initiatives, such as Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Investing in Innovation program.

Since 2001, OELA has provided national leadership in helping to ensure that English learners and immigrant students attain English proficiency and achieve academic success with appropriate social, emotional and cultural supports.  OELA continues to oversee a number of federal funding programs that aim to improve instruction for English learners and assist educators who work with this student population.

For example, OELA’s National Professional Development (NPD) program helps to train teachers so that they may facilitate and accelerate students’ progress toward English language and academic proficiency.  To date, the NPD program has achieved tremendous outcomes with more than 7,200 pre-service teachers having completed programs that led to teaching credentials. More than 6,700 in-service teachers have completed programs that have led to bilingual or English as a Second Language certification and hundreds of bilingual paraprofessionals are enrolled in and completing associate degree programs. 

Another example of OELA’s support to the field includes the Native American and Alaska Native Children in School (NAANCS program. This initiative provides grants to eligible entities that support language instruction projects for limited English proficient children from Native American, Alaska Native, native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander backgrounds. The program is designed to ensure that limited English proficient children master English and meet the same rigorous standards for academic achievement that all children are expected to meet. 

I’m also pleased to announce that OELA recently awarded a new contract for the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA).  Under the terms of the new contract, NCELA will be given a fresh, newly designed website that will be more interactive and will include an upgraded and updated resource library. The new clearinghouse will collect, analyze, synthesize, and disseminate information about the latest research and best practices for educating English learners. 

Through the new clearinghouse, OELA reaffirms its continued commitment to supporting research, technical assistance and teacher professional development. We hope that the information and resources will spur meaningful progress that moves us closer to the goal of ensuring every student’s success.

–Libia Gil is the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education

ED-Funded Training Helps Displaced Welder Find Calling as Bilingual Teacher

A few years ago, José Grimaldo found himself at a crossroads when he lost his job as a welder at a factory in Illinois. With three children and a wife to support, what was he to do? Grimaldo, like many others who have found themselves jobless during the recent economic downturn, decided to go back to school.

Initially, he began working towards a degree to become a social worker. During one class project, he volunteered in a local school and found himself in a classroom with young students.  There, Grimaldo realized how much he enjoyed working with children and applied for a position as a teacher assistant in a special education program. He worked in this capacity for several years until he began to yearn for his own classroom.

Grimaldo soon decided to abandon his plans to become a social worker, and he enrolled at Illinois State University to study for a bachelor’s degree in education. However, much to Grimaldo’s dismay, he soon learned that most of the education courses were offered only during the day, which posed a problem since Grimaldo was working full-time and could only attend classes at night. Not one to give up easily, he discovered the Bilingual Paraprofessionals in Transition (BPT) program at Illinois State University and quickly enrolled.

José Grimaldo teaches bilingual special education at Foreman High School in Chicago

José Grimaldo teaches bilingual special education at Foreman High School in Chicago

The BPT program follows a grow-your-own model that recruits individuals already working in high-need schools as paraprofessionals or teacher assistants and enables them to take on-site course work and supervision leading to certification and/or endorsements in bilingual/English as a second language (ESL) education. The BPT program is funded by a National Professional Development (NPD) grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). NPD is the only federal grant program that targets professional development exclusively for education personnel who serve English learners.

NPD-funded projects provide participants with tuition assistance and a network of support while completing their program of study. To date, the NPD program has achieved tremendous outcomes with 6,828 pre-service teachers having completed programs that led to teaching credentials; 6,239 in-service teachers having completed programs that led to bilingual or ESL certification; 8,412 in-service teachers having completed professional programs that did not lead to bilingual or ESL certification; and 115 bilingual paraprofessionals having completed associates degree programs.

Since Illinois State’s first NPD grant in 2007, the university’s BPT program has graduated 57 paraprofessionals and all of them have gotten jobs as teachers. More will graduate in May.

The impact of the BPT program on the lives of students and teachers alike has been exceedingly positive, as Grimaldo can attest. Despite working long days as a teacher assistant and then staying after work to take classes, Grimaldo never once complained, said George Torres, director of the BPT program.

Grimaldo graduated cum laude in the spring of 2011 and now teaches bilingual special education at Foreman High School in Chicago. He credits his own struggle as an English learner (EL) with his ability to understand the challenges that ELs face in the classroom as well as in their community.

He said he feels that his choice to live within the same community where he teaches is important. He often sees his students while out doing errands, and his students see that his commitment to them extends beyond the classroom.

Grimaldo’s accomplishment is important, not only because he has found an important and rewarding profession, but because he is helping to solve one of our country’s biggest educational challenges: recruiting teachers who look and sound like our students. According to a 2008 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than 22 percent of our nation’s students are Hispanic, while just over 7 percent of our teachers are.

Asked how his experience in the BPT program has affected him and his family’s life, Grimaldo said, “I feel that I am setting a good example for my children – Joanna (20), Joseph (18), and Jonathan (11). My wife, Ana, is also working toward a degree in this program. She will graduate this spring. Our children state that they feel proud of what we have and will continue to accomplish, and that we inspired them to continue their education.”

Earlier this week, ED announced the award of nearly $24.4 million for 73 grants to improve instruction for English learners. Click here to learn more.

Anthony Sepúlveda is an education program specialist in the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA)

ED Wraps Up National Conversations on English Learner Education

The lack of valid and reliable assessments for English learners (EL), the loss of instructional time due to an overemphasis on testing, and the lack of English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching strategies in teacher preparation and professional development programs were dominant themes that emerged from the six National Conversations on English Learner Education hosted by the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) over the last four months. The needs for fostering greater family and community engagement, and ELs with special needs were also themes that cut across all six conversations held in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Other themes from these conversations will be identified and synthesized in a report, which will inform the work plan for this office for the coming year.

Hosted in collaboration with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), the office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH), the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), these meetings brought together a diverse group of EL stakeholders including educators,  researchers, policymakers, university instructors, and advocacy groups who were asked to consider and discuss the question, “What makes for a quality education for English Learners in the 21st Century?”

Utilizing a format that was intentionally meant to be participatory, interactive, and action-oriented, these meetings were characterized by dynamic and engaging dialogues that served to identify current areas of major concern,  share promising practices for classrooms and schools, and define new directions for reform and transformation in English learner education.

In addition to this series of national conversations, our office has many complementary efforts planned in the coming months.  These include two forums: one on English learners with disabilities that will take place in Las Vegas on May 18th in collaboration with the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), and a second on English learners and STEM education that will take place in DC in July. OELA will also host webinars for practitioners and continue working to inform key initiatives including ESEA reauthorization.

There is no question that human capital is our nation’s greatest resource.  Failure to prepare the nearly 5 million ELs in our pre-K–12 systems – more than a tenth of all our students – would squander something very precious and is something our nation cannot afford. Ensuring that all students are ready for college and careers has never mattered more than now, if we hope to realize President Obama’s goal for the United States to have the best-educated workforce and the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Rosalinda B. Barrera, Ph.D. is assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education