• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2005

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealTwo years ago, the No Child Left Behind Act became law and is being considered a historic and far-reaching piece of legislation. It is designed to help states address issues of language and cultural differences, inadequate instruction, inadequately prepared teachers, increased accountability and effective parent engagement.

But many are asking whether the NCLB is doing what it should for the 4.1 million English language learners in the nation’s public schools.

Title III of NCLB specifically addresses issues related to English language learner education. Politically, the issue is so important that it was assured a special place in the NCLB. The student achievement purposes of the Title III legislation are listed in the box below. This article outlines the grades the NCLB should receive in several aspects of serving English language learners.

“English language learner” is a generic term used for many hyphenated-Americans who are adding to or perfecting their use of the English language. Sociological studies point to the fact that the term personifies Americans with a wide range of characteristics and experiences, each with a diverse set of implications for educators and policymakers. Not acknowledging this fact turns NCLB into an opportunity for some and an illusion for others.

An English language learner may be a recent immigrant who arrives in this country well educated, with a strong academic foundation in his or her mother tongue, and economically advantaged.

Or it could be someone with limited academic opportunities in search of the American dream.

An English language learner also may be a third or fourth generation offspring whose ancestors saw the birth of many communities in the United States, have lived here for many generations and have been deprived of the opportunity to part of the American dream. Their parents were denied educational opportunities, were not the recipients of a quality education, are currently facing barriers in achieving the American dream, and are marginally exercising their rights as American citizens.

In either case, their challenges when enrolling in our school systems are many, including a new language, the adjustment to a new environment, and a new set of expectations.

NCLB represents an opportunity for the recent immigrant who is on his or her way up the economic ladder of success in this country and an illusion for all the other English language learners. These students are referred to in research literature as “dropouts” or “push-outs.”

An Illusion for Many

Acknowledging the fact of non-education as the United States’ fault line, former President Bill Clinton referred to further neglect in the following manner: “Let’s not forget that we also have an educational deficit. Education is the fault line in America today. Those who have it are doing well in the global economy; those who don’t are not doing well. We cannot walk away from this fundamental fact. The American dream will succeed or fail in the 21st century in direct proportion to our commitment to educate every person in the United States of America” (1995).

In discussing non-education in the United States, Sanchez questioned the educational curricula that “produced so many dropouts and so-called mentally retarded children and so few pupils who finally made it through high school and into colleges and universities” (Clinton, 1995).

Although some improvements have been documented, the fact remains that Mexican Americans, the second largest group among the Hispanic and minority populations, face “a system that has not accepted responsibility for implementing a program compatible with cultural and learning characteristics” (Cárdenas, 1995).

The Public Education Network and IDRA recently convened a public hearing in Texas about the NCLB as part of a series of such hearings across the country. Students, parents, community advocates and business leaders testified in San Antonio (see “Communities Can Influence the Impact of NCLB” article). This article captures insights provided by the presenters and is supplemented by IDRA’s experience around issues associated with the inclusion of English language learners in the NCLB legislation and implementation. The time is now to alter our course. Further neglect will exacerbate the social and educational inequalities and intensify the national and individual consequences that this educational impasse already has and continues to produce.

Rating the NCLB’s Inclusion of English Language Learners

The NCLB should be the landmark federal legislation that ensures “all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”

This legislation argues for inclusivity of all children, including English language learners. Below are ratings provided by IDRA as a means of assessing inclusivity. IDRA first outlined eight components that define “inclusivity.” Below is the rating scale:

A = Policies and actions provided in NCLB promote the component.
B = Policies and actions provided in NCLB are partially enforced but such neglect does not negatively impact the education of English language learners.
C = Policies and actions provided in NCLB lack enforcement, which has a negative impact on the education of English language learners.
D = Policies and actions provided in NCLB negatively affect the quality of education of English language learners.
F = There is total disregard for a critical factor in the education of English language learners.

Funding is adequate to support an appropriate instructional program = D

Title III of NCLB provides funding for improvement of education opportunities for English language learners. The specific allocation for these students in NCLB is set at $750 million per year. There are 48.2 million public school students in the United States. About 4.1 million students, or 8.5 percent, are English language learners (U.S. Department of Education, 2003).

Thus, the average entitlement for each English language learner is approximately $183 per year. This meager amount, when added to the under-funding by the majority of states, moves the minute hand just one notch, but not sufficiently to make a substantial educational difference.

Appropriations, moreover, have not matched the allocation set forth in the legislation. Appropriations for English language learners represent about 3 percent of the overall NCLB appropriations, a 5.5 percent disparity. Furthermore, in 2002, the first appropriation under NCLB for Title III was approximately $664 million, which is $86 million less than the original $750 million. The allocation has since increased to $684 million, and currently is at $681 million.

The intention is good; but the commitment is poor. This amount of funding is not sufficient to make a difference to local educational agencies and schools where needs are greatest.

The definition of English language learners is flexible to embrace the range of instructional demands = C

English language learners are identified for NCLB purposes on the basis of low proficiency in the English language or low academic achievement caused by non-participation and poor engagement in class activities as a result of language incompatibility between the school and the student.

However, Cárdenas and Cárdenas cite language as only one of the incompatibilities that lead to dysfunctional instruction (1977). They list four other factors (poverty, culture, mobility and societal perceptions) that contribute to incompatible instruction.

This NCLB definition is not robust enough to be inclusive of the various factors that contribute to the educational condition of English language learners.

Instructional programming is bold, innovative and addresses the real educational issues = C

NCLB clearly describes that to ensure its mission is accomplished it should close “the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.” This mission cannot be met when only cognitive challenges are addressed.

“Literacy deficits” have become the outcome of unresponsive educational and instructional experiences for many English language learners. Without adequate instruction these “literacy deficits” compound pushing many students out and seriously interfering with their academic calling.

Instruction involves more than just cognitive challenges. It also involves the integration of social, emotional and psycho-social realities that affect the learning in the classroom. Culturally-responsive and culturally-relevant instruction are two terms that have been used to describe a classroom condition where discourse and context for learning are manipulated by the teacher to make new content knowledge and skills meaningful and comprehensible.

In other words, knowledge is socially constructed and applied. The application of knowledge to varying social contexts becomes a skill that must also be learned in the school setting. Such is not the case here. The absence of this language in NCLB is proof of its narrow focus on cognitive challenges. This lack of focus on social context narrows NCLB’s focus on the “total child” and is a classic example of “neglect by commission.”

Assessment instruments are reliable and valid = C

Assessment plays a significant role in planning, delivering and evaluating the acquisition of language, content knowledge and critical skills. Assessment is crucial to NCLB’s accountability requirements. Because assessment instruments are plagued with validity and reliability issues (content, linguistic and cultural, norming biases) when applied to English language learners, serious problems exist when alternative assessment modalities are ignored.

NCLB promotes the use of standardized testing as the sole assessment instrument. Furthermore, even when states allow for alternative forms of assessment, NCLB expresses disapproval in its accountability system. This shortcoming is a disservice to English language learners who must, many times, be faced with standardized testing with serious reliability and validity problems.

Teachers of English language learners are adequately prepared to address the challenges of a linguistic and culturally-different student population = C

NCLB targets teacher quality as an essential component of any plan to address its mission by ensuring “that all teachers hired after such day and teaching in a program supported with funds under this part are highly qualified.”

Programs for English language learners require teachers with very specific competencies. A “culturally competent” teacher is one who has the commitment, is compassionate and an advocate of children’s rights, and knows about and has the skills necessary to address the cognitive needs within a social context that mirrors the culture and families of English language learners.

Critical teacher shortages exist in states with high concentrations of English language learners, particularly those states with hyper-growth rates of immigrant students. Among the areas of critical teacher shortages such as mathematics and science teachers of English language learners. NCLB provides funding for teacher preparation and continuing education for teachers of English language learners and supports funding for the alternative certification of bilingual and ESL teachers. Although NCLB does not recognize the importance of “culturally competent” teachers, it does emphasize teacher quality.

Schools articulate a “first priority” status and assume greater responsibility to educate English language learners = B

Tying funds and “providing greater decision making authority and flexibility to schools and teachers in exchange for greater responsibility for student performance” is a way of persuading schools to make high performance of students a priority. The condition of education of English language learners calls for an “all-out attack” on an escalating problem with catastrophic consequences.

Just like any other educational matter of high importance, an acknowledgment of the issues form the basis for the response to an educational problem and an assignment of priority. By the mere fact that NCLB specifically addresses English language learner issues through Title III and an accountability requirement, it has acknowledged and assigned a high priority to English language learners.

Parents are afforded a “partner” status and participate in student and school goal setting = B

NCLB recognizes the important role of families and parents in the education of their children by “affording parents substantial and meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children.”

Parents play three major roles that define parents as critical “teaching” partners, teachers’ “funds of knowledge,” and educational decision makers. Villarreal and Rodríguez describe “parents as an important resource for teachers because they have valuable information about their children that is essential in planning meaningful educational experiences.” Secondly, parents and educators “share a common goal – to develop children’s social and academic skills to make choices and compete equitably in this society” (2003).

Accountability measures are focused on the education provider and not on the education consumer = C

NCLB recognizes that its mission will be accomplished only when it holds “schools, local educational agencies, and states accountable for improving the academic achievement of all students, and identifying and turning around low-performing schools that have failed to provide a high-quality education to their students, while providing alternatives to students in such schools to enable the students to receive a high-quality education.”

The cause for dysfunctional instruction must rest on the existing educational paradigm that fails to acknowledge its faults in serving English language learners. Instead of focusing on the “needs” of the students and addressing the “problem” as one where certain students must be “fixed,” schools must focus on their practices and begin establishing high standards to rate their successes or failures in meeting these challenges.

Although NCLB has shifted the burden to schools and has contributed significantly to school accountability, the fact remains that it does not forcefully regulate states who continue to blame their students for not learning what they have not been taught.


Although federal funding in general for education has increased over the last four years, funding for Title III has decreased by $2.5 million. Of great concern is also the fact that states are not spending the funds allocated by the federal government for education and, sadly, are sending funds back to the federal government.

This situation, amid the fact that student achievement for English language learners and low-income students continues to lag behind those of White students, their school dropout rates and student attrition rates are staggering, and their college enrollment and graduation rates are among the lowest, complicates this educational impasse even more (Johnson, 2004).

The conclusions are as follows.

  • States and school districts must review their budgetary processes to ensure that funds available to provide educational equity for all students are not wasted and are efficiently spent in a manner that best addresses the issues of inequity.
  • Parents and communities should more pro-actively exercise their right to question and their responsibility to participate in the education decision-making that affects the quality of education of their children.
  • Federal, state and local school districts must pro-actively engage researchers, educators, and communities in seeking real solutions to education problems instead of aligning solutions to political philosophies.

NCLB can be a catalyst for real change with real benefits for all children and put our nation on track as the model where diversity, honesty and compassion become the glue that makes our pledge of “one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all” hold forever as a model for an ever-restless world of nations.

Goals of the No Child Left Behind Act for English Language Learners

Title III of NCLB specifically addresses issues related to education of English language learners. Politically, the issue is so important that it was assured a special place in the NCLB, commonly known as Title III. The student achievement-related purposes of the Title III legislation are:

  • “To help ensure that children who are limited English proficient, including immigrant children and youth, attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging state academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet;
  • To assist all limited-English-proficient children, including immigrant children and youth, to achieve at high levels in the core academic subjects so that those children can meet the same challenging state academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet, consistent with section 1111(b)(1); and
  • To develop high-quality language instruction educational programs designed to assist state educational agencies, local educational agencies, and schools in teaching limited-English-proficient children and serving immigrant children and youth.”
    No Child Left Behind Act, 2001


Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995).

Cárdenas, J.A., and B. Cárdenas. The Theory of Incompatibilities: A Conceptual Framework for Responding to the Educational Needs of Hispanic Americans (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1977).

Clinton, W.J. Remembering Franklin D. Roosevelt, 50th Anniversary Commemorative Services (April 12, 1995).

Johnson, R.L. “Texas School Holding Power Improves – But Progress is Slow Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2003-04,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2004).

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Unpublished tabulations compiled from Common Core of Data for 2002-03 School Year (2003).

Villarreal, A., and R.G. Rodríguez. “The Home as a Significant Source for Developing Language and Study Skills: Fifteen Tips for Families,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2003).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2005 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.]