• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1999

Editor’s Note: “Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared: Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative” was published by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) in December 1998. It fills a void by showing educators what is necessary to develop and maintain appropriate programs for secondary level recent immigrant students. The monograph shares the lessons learned from participation in IDRA’s Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative (TIEC) project in two sites – a middle school in Houston, with an international immigrant student population, and a border high school in El Paso, with a primarily homogenous Mexican immigrant population. The TIEC was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter.

Pam McCollumThe story of the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative (TIEC) project presented here does not chronicle all project initiatives. This monograph presents descriptions of select project initiatives, analyzes factors that enhanced or detracted from successful implementation, and reviews the lessons learned from our participation in the TIEC project. Another aim of this document is to provide educators with basic information and resources on immigrant education to facilitate the implementation and maintenance of successful programs for immigrant students.

Many documents that chronicle the course of educational innovations conclude by providing inventories of program characteristics that should be present in successful programs. Barth (1990) refers to such approaches as “list logic,” i.e., if one has all of the things on the list, one will have a successful program, school, administrator, etc. This document purposely avoids such an approach. Instead, it shares the process of how certain TIEC program initiatives were implemented and maintained. This shows how programs came to have particular characteristics given a particular context.

While avoiding the “list logic” or recipe approach to designing programs for recent immigrant students, a discussion of how to proceed in the future given our lessons learned is in order. Recommendations for future collaboratives on the education of immigrant students are given in the following section.

The spark that ignited the excitement and advocacy for improving the education of recent immigrant students in the TIEC project was the opportunity the project afforded educators to affect change. The support provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave educators the opportunity to improve their schools from within. In most cases, teachers had good ideas about what the wanted to do to improve their students’ education. What they lacked was time to interact and a forum in which to build advocacy for immigrant students.

Teachers had clear ideas about what was best for their own education. Staff development was much more successful when teachers had the freedom to select the topics they wanted to study. Study groups, where several topics of interest were explored, enabled teachers to survey new teaching techniques and select one to focus on in depth. This approach led to a “buy-in” on the part of teachers and ensured they were getting what they needed and wanted. All too often, traditional staff development satisfies neither of those criteria.

The TIEC project provided a forum where teachers interacted with each other as well as with outside consultants and volunteers to solve their problems. IDRA’s model for change engaged project participants in action research to improve the experience of immigrant students at their campus. Project participants assessed their situation, created a vision and planned how the vision would be realized.

One lesson learned was the slow nature of programmatic change. This type of project calls for a more realistic expectation about when changes should be expected and what is realistic to expect at different stages. Change occurs on many levels, not just in student test scores. Expecting rapid changes in recent immigrant students’ test scores is an unrealistic expectation given the length of time that is required for second language acquisition to take place. In addition, in the case of older students, many have completed a fewer number of years of schooling in their country of origin than required here. They also may not know how to read.

Common sense dictates that students should learn to read and calculate before grade level curriculum and state-level accountability testing becomes a concern. For this reason, early program results from standardized tests need to be seen in a different light. The focus should be on documenting growth using multiple indicators and describing the process that contributes to that growth. Evaluation mechanisms need to be built into educational interventions. These mechanisms should evaluate various dimensions of change in order to reflect accurately the type of effect a program is having on a campus.

A successful early outcome of a program for immigrant students, for example, would be a change in the number of students eligible to take the TAAS test the third year after the implementation of a newcomers center. Teaching non-English-speaking high school students enough English to take the TAAS should be acknowledged as an index of success.

Strategies are needed to speed programmatic change and improve the running of collaborative multipartner educational projects. Perhaps the factor that retarded project progress the most was the bureaucracy of large urban school districts. From the project’s perspective, the simple task of tracking students across years of the project or collecting achievement data presented incredible obstacles. While districts are happy to receive grant funding for special projects, their policies can jeopardize continued funding by not providing student accountability data.

The use of test score data to measure progress of immigrant students is also problematic since many recent immigrant students are excluded from taking the state accountability measure until they attain sufficient levels of English proficiency. Programs for recent immigrant students need to institute assessment systems, such as portfolio assessment, to document student progress in the initial stages of acquiring English oral proficiency and literacy.

Another issue related to the bureaucratic nature of schools is the use of a “one size fits all” approach to policy. Both at the district and campus levels, policy is framed for mainstream students but must be modified to include special programs for recent immigrants. Failure to modify policy leads to ludicrous, but all too prevalent, situations where recent immigrants are required to take classes or participate in activities that will not teach the many thing or teach what they already know.

For example, the high school course credit system needs to be modified. Students should not be made to sit in ESL classes below their level of English proficiency just to gain course credit. Another failure to modify school policy has led to pre-literate newcomers center students sitting through classes on how to take the TAAS test.

In a similar vein, low-schooled immigrant high school students who do not know how to multiply or divide should not be placed in an algebra class due to an inflexible policy. Inattention to modifying policy for immigrant students can also jeopardize the existence of programs, as in the previously discussed case of calculating the student-teacher ratio for a district newcomers center in the spring as opposed to the fall or in the case of stipulating that high schools can only have one writing lab per school.

Special programs need to be built into the district structure from the beginning. Absence of district support and advocacy of special programs slows progress. While starting small and later enlarging the scope of a project is often an effective strategy, outside funding may end before project initiatives are taken to the district level.

The TIEC project had district representatives on the campus implementation teams at both campuses, yet in many cases they served only in an advisory capacity. A more effective strategy is to balance campus-level activities with district-level advocacy for immigrant students. Our experience with the career center project in El Paso ISD provides an excellent example of such a two-pronged approach.

District “buy-in” is essential to the success of special programs at individual campuses. Closely linked to “buy-in” is the issue of coordination of special programs with district initiatives. Ideally, district personnel should become invested in the work of special projects and be encouraged to participate actively rather than viewing them as competing or being at cross-purposes with district programs.

Another issue that relates to the scope of the project is the importance of extending special projects throughout the school. As previously discussed, building a wedge into existing school structures is much less expedient than organizing the school so that immigrant student concerns are integrated throughout the school’s management structure, policy and course offerings. For this reason, projects need to begin by including teachers and administrators outside the ESL department in project activities.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the TIEC project was that the scope of this project was enormous. Great strides were made in a short amount of time with a small staff. At the completion of the project, advocacy and general awareness of the needs of immigrant students was very high. Two project initiatives were taken to the district level, which attests to their success. When foundation funding ended, it was difficult to distinguish between programs that originated within the TIEC project and those that had their origins within the district, community-based organizations or project partners.

We worked as a collaborative with the common goal of improving the education of immigrant students. From that experience, we learned valuable lessons about how to effectively work in schools with large numbers of immigrant students to develop, implement and sustain appropriate educational programs and services. Those lessons are shared here to assist others who wish to provide the best possible education for immigrant students. They are our future.

Dr. Pam McCollum is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

“Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared” provides information on immigrant education concerning legal issues, effective instructional programs, and educational resources – including Internet listings – for this unique group of students. Copies of the publication may be purchased by sending a check or purchase order to IDRA (ISBN 1-878550-66-7; 53 pages, 1998; $24.95 each).

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1999 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.]