• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2015 •

On February 2, 2015, in San Antonio, IDRA convened a gathering of educators, researchers, policy reform advocates, and civic leaders to examine the status of English language learner education in Texas. The event was the first annual IDRA José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program symposium and was hosted by Our Lady of the Lake University’s Mexican American Studies Center.

Participants included more than 90 educators, university faculty and staff, state policymakers, researchers, and civic and community leaders who gathered to examine new research on ELL education in Texas, discuss pressing reform issues, and develop policy recommendations for improving the educational outcomes of one of the nation’s fastest-growing and increasingly geographically dispersed student populations.

Presentations included an overview of the status of English language programs and policies with summary information on the 900,000 ELL students enrolled in Texas public schools, issues that impact the type and quality of programs offered to those students, and development of policy recommendations for improving services provided to this student population.

Participants discussed an overview of ELL education in the state, including a long history of the under-funding of programs serving these students and the related gaps in academic performance between ELL and non-ELL students on the state’s academic exams. Researchers made reference to changing demographics in Texas and around the country and the need to recognize that failure to improve the educational outcomes and related economic opportunities for all students, and especially ELL students, will have serious negative economic consequences for the state’s and nation’s long-term economic well-being.

Dr. Oscar Jimenez Castellanos, IDRA’s inaugural Jose A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellow recipient, shared his key findings from a year-long study of secondary level ELL programs in Texas. Among the major findings were: fewer than 20 Texas high schools reported that their ELL sub-groups had met state standards on mandated state assessments in reading and mathematics; those schools that had higher operational expenditures had higher levels of ELL student performance; and add-on funding for ELL programs was well below the levels of funding recommended for similar programs in research conducted on similar programs around the country.

A cross-sectional panel at the symposium consisted of attorneys, policymakers, bilingual educators and university faculty who discussed the current status of ELL programs. Panel members agreed that there is need for improved teacher preparation, more targeted use of add-on funding,  improved curriculum and materials that are tailored to address the unique needs of ELL students, and higher funding levels based on actual needs and related costs rather than a funds- available approach.

Discussants also cited the need to provide sheltered instruction for ELL students at the secondary level, indicating that content area teachers must be provided specialized professional development that enhances their ability to adapt instruction to address the needs of their ELL students.

Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA’s President and CEO, cited the need to ensure that we hold all schools accountable for providing high quality services to ELL students, warning against the potential to dilute that accountability with a total elimination of some form of state assessment system that includes at least sample data for all student groups. Participants agreed that accountability systems must be designed not only to monitor ELL student achievement but also to include comparisons of ELL and non-ELL student achievement and specify the closing of that achievement gap as one of the state’s major policy priorities.

Participants alluded to the need for expansion and improvement of partnerships between policymakers, researchers, and community stakeholders to design and implement reforms needed to improve the quality of educational programs serving our growing ELL populations.

Following the day-long discussion, the participants created and inventory of policy priorities that need to be moved forward to improve educational opportunities for ELL students, not only in Texas, but around the nation. Among the policy priorities cited were:

  • Improving targeted funding levels for ELL students;
  • Funding ELL programs on the basis of what research identifies as actual costs;
  • Improving curriculum offerings, complemented by access to high quality instructional materials;
  • Expanding and improving reporting and accountability systems to ensure that monitoring of program quality and ELL student outcomes can be accessed and used to inform state level and local intervention;
  • Monitoring use of ELL targeted resources to ensure transparency and to inform effective resource utilization;
  • Improving ELL teacher certification, including expanding the pool of teachers with bilingual and ESL certification;
  • Expanding all teacher preparation requirements to ensure that all new teachers are provided some instruction in addressing the needs of ELL students, particularly given the growing number and distribution of ELL students;
  • Strengthening administrator training to ensure capacity in addressing ELL student needs and effectively supporting teaching staff providing services;
  • Expanding community engagement efforts to include ELL community members so that they participate in educational decision-making at the district and local campus level; and
  • Expanding partnerships between policymakers, business, researchers, university staff, educators and parents to assess the needs of ELLs, provide input on program design, and participate in ensuring program accountability.

The symposium was complemented by a briefing provided to policymakers and staff in Austin on February 3. In addition to sharing the results of the IDRA José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program study, participants engaged in a discussion of related policy implications for upcoming state policy debates. Video of the event is available on-demand online as well at www.idra.org.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of Policy. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at albert.cortez@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]