• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2009

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealThe struggle for equality in education for minority students appeared to have been vindicated with the passage of the Equal Education Opportunities Act (EEOA) in 1974. Its promise represented hope. A new era of educational equality for minority students was in the making. This promise has become an illusion for 5 million English language learners (ELLs), a student group that has grown by more than 60 percent in a decade in the United States (NCELA, 2008).

It didn’t take long before the hope of equality began to fade away as statistic after statistic showed a disheartening continued disregard for the educational welfare of a majority of minority students. In a recent article titled “At Current Pace, Schools will Lose Many More Generations,” published in the October issue of the IDRA Newsletter, Roy Johnson states that for the 2007-08 school year, “44 percent of Hispanic students, 38 percent of Black students and 18 percent of White students were lost from enrollment” in Texas (Johnson, 2008).

Also recently, Judge Wayne Justice from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas accentuated the importance of closing the academic gap between ELLs and non-ELLs as the criteria for measuring a school’s success with ELLs. Furthermore, he expressed an urgency to address the “failing ESL” program for secondary ELLs because “it is equally unjust to perpetually fail to provide the resources and LEP [limited-English-proficient] programs necessary to ensure LEP students catch up.” (LULAC-GI Forum vs. State of Texas, 2008)

The judge pointed out that academic achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs that range from 34 to 50 percentage points across grade levels represent a “substantial gap in achievement [that] demonstrates a significant and continued failure of secondary students,” a condition that violates the protection offered under the EEOA.

Every school that fails to meet the criteria of comparable achievement of ELLs to non-ELLs has a moral and legal obligation to comprehensively change its programmatic efforts along a broad continuum of school-based activities essential to students’ academic success.

In reviewing critics’ resistance to Judge Justice’s opinion, which finds fault with the educational program offered to ELLs in Texas, it is clear that misconceptions abound on who is to blame for a failing educational program. Many of the responses are based on myths and stereotypes, such as blaming parents’ supposed lack of interest, students’ lack of academic preparation, and the lack of an education tradition among ELLs’ families.

The fact is that failure to address the educational needs of ELLs is vested in schools (Gibson, et al., 2004). Thus, it is schools that, by omission or commission, have in great part contributed to an educational mediocrity that presently exists for ELLs in many school settings, while schools have the resources and potential to make a difference, they have mismanaged or squandered them, and have fallen short of assuming responsibility to educate ELLs.

At the school district level, the commitment to make the achievement of ELLs a priority must have its genesis in school board policy. School board members have a legal responsibility to adopt such a policy as an expression of the oath they take to uphold state and federal laws as guardians and advocates for the rights of all children to a quality education (Center for Public Education, nd). By adopting a policy that reflects an expectation of high achievement comparable to that of non-ELLs, boards optimize a case for action in a school district and create the momentum needed for administrators and teachers to act without hesitation. Furthermore, overt support for school reform efforts aimed at closing the educational gap allows teachers and administrators to gain confidence and buy-in to create a school culture that promotes high expectations for all students.

Any successful educational program for ELLs must address the variety of experiences that ELLs bring to school (Mercuri, Freeman and Freeman, 2002), including: (1) U.S. citizens with limited proficiency in English with a range of positive and negative experiences in our schools; (2) different levels of formal education ranging from performing academically at grade level in a language other than English to minimal or no formal education (Zehler, et al., 2003); and (3) recent immigrants with little knowledge of the educational system in the United States (Ruiz de Velasco, et al., 2000). Regardless of the level of student experience or education, the goals of high school graduation, preparation for college and the workplace, and consistent high academic achievement of ELLs should not be compromised.

This article focuses on the responsibilities of schools – in spite of mitigating and daunting conditions outside their walls – to commit to do whatever is in their power to offer a quality program that will close the academic achievement gap. In addition, it defines a set of research-based principles that represent a lens through which policymakers and school administrators can assess, design and adjust existing educational programs for secondary ELLs.

Important caveats to ensuring that ELLs receive educational services that meet the equality and equity standards are, at a minimum: (1) a deliberate and conscientious effort to make this issue a priority must be supported by the state and school district policymaking bodies; (2) a genuine commitment must be undertaken to make a difference in students’ lives; and (3) sufficient funding, based on a weighted needs approach, must accompany any educational mandate. The absence of these conditions creates a vacuum of support that affects implementation of a quality educational program and compromises the end results of increased ELL participation, engagement and achievement and a closing of the achievement gap.

The basic premise that guarantees the right to equality and equity in education originates in the U.S. Constitution, federal and state legislation, and court rulings (EEOA of 1974; Lau vs. Nichols of 1974; U.S. vs. Texas of 1970). The premise that accessible quality education is a right of all children in this country is reflected in IDRA’s Six Goals of Educational Equity (Scott, 2000; Scott, 2002), IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel, 2005), and quality schooling work (Robledo Montecel and Cortez, 2002).

These insights are the foundation of a theoretical framework of 10 principles that describe fundamental elements of an evidence-based secondary educational plan for ELLs. The theoretical framework (see box at right) includes the critical role of school board policy to support quality education for ELLs, a commitment to high achievement comparable to the achievement of non-ELLs, interim achievement goals, quality curriculum and instruction, quality staff, supplemental student services and support, parents as equal partners, a monitoring and program adjustment process and a clear accountability plan. Following is a brief description of the 10 principles.

Equity Principle 1

High comparable achievement and performance is evident among ELLs, and non-ELLs and a plan for achieving these outcomes is evident. This concept of high comparable achievement and performance is based on the idea that an achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs is the best indicator for measuring the presence of inequality and inequity in educational services. ELLs must be held to the same high academic standards as non-ELLs and must graduate ready to succeed in college and the workplace. ELLs in special education must be held to the same high academic standards. Schools must be constantly vigilant, monitoring ELLs’ level of success compared to the performance of non-ELLs and making the necessary programmatic adjustments to ensure quality and impact to reach that goal.

For example, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has set a goal that by 2015, college participation of all student groups (White at 5 percent, Hispanic at 3.7 percent and African American at 4.6 percent) will reach 5.7 percent of the total population. Likewise, Texas’ preK-12 educational system can adopt corresponding goals for closing the education gap by setting grade promotion targets, high school-holding-power rates at the various transition points (such as elementary to middle and middle to high school), and high academic achievement goals for ELLs comparable to non-ELLs.

Every school district with 20 or more secondary ELLs must be required to develop five-year goals for reaching high comparable achievement and performance of ELLs when compared to non-ELLs. This plan should include goals for making gifted and talented and advanced placement programs available to ELLs and, if ELLs are over-represented in special education, goals for addressing this issue within the year. Every secondary school in the district with 20 or more ELLs must develop five-year goals for reaching high comparable achievement and performance of ELLs when compared to non-ELLs in the district or the campus, whichever is higher. Each department in the critical content areas of English language arts, mathematics, science and social studies must develop five-year goals for reaching high comparable achievement and performance of ELLs when compared to non-ELLs in the district or at the campus, whichever is higher.

Equity Principle 2

The school board must support and assign the education of ELLs a high priority. School board action supporting a quality program for ELLs with an expectation that administrators and teachers will take action to ensure ELL success is one of the best predictors of success. A school is an organization that is no different from other organizations where the leadership sets policy and creates a culture of ownership and accountability across the organization. Providing leadership begins with local school board policy that officially mandates schools to make the educational success of ELLs a priority.

Keeping tabs on progress achieved in meeting a priority provides program implementers with the support needed for fidelity in implementation of any educational effort. School boards complement this mandate with the necessary resources to ensure that the program for ELLs is comparable to the program for non-ELLs. The school board can request periodic, at a minimum, twice a year progress reports, including progress in achieving a high comparable performance of ELLs to that of non-ELLs.

Administrative support for quality instruction of ELLs is critical, must be communicated to teachers and other support staff, and must be evident when working with parents and community representatives. The campus vision must be shared, inclusive of the academic achievement and success of ELLs and clearly articulated to parents and ELLs. Administrators must establish the education of ELLs as a high priority that is consistently monitored and programs adjusted to achieve success. Support for teachers with professional development activities, mentoring and coaching and resources should be evident and documented.

Equity Principle 3

Identification of secondary students for participation and exiting from the ELL program must be based on an assessment of language proficiency, students’ level of understanding and use of academic language in core content areas (mathematics, science, social studies) and students’ achievement in core content areas assessed in the English language. Identification of secondary students must not result in an under-representation of ELLs in gifted and talented programs nor an over-representation of ELLs in special education programs. ELLs must not be exited from a specialized program until they have achieved high comparable performance to that of non-ELLs. Any previously exited, former ELLs should be eligible for program services if additional services are needed. Upon exiting from the program, sustaining achievement for at least three years must be assured before all additional support is stopped.

Specialized academic support should be required until ELLs meet minimum expectations as measured through the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), for example, in writing, mathematics and reading. Specialized academic support should be diminished for each of the content areas where ELLs have met minimum expectations. Academic progress of ELLs must be monitored for the two years following exit. Falling behind academically as measured through benchmarking and state-mandated standardized tests in the content areas aforementioned is sufficient cause to re-enroll an ELL student in a specialized academic support program.

Equity Principle 4

High school graduation is an expectation for all students; there are no excuses for less. High schools in Texas offer three graduation plans: the minimum, recommended and distinguished graduation plans. The default is the recommended plan. Even when enrolling in the default graduation plan, ELLs in most cases are tracked to a less rigorous curriculum that appears to meet the default plan requirements but fails to prepare students for college. This practice is particularly troublesome because 56 percent of jobs and 80 percent of the emerging careers require college (Texas High School Project, 2006).

Isolated programs have shown encouraging results (e.g., Advancement Via Individual Determination [AVID], career academies, First Things First, Project GRAD [Graduation Really Achieves Dreams], IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, and Talent Development High Schools). However, these findings must be kept in perspective since these successful programs are still not being used to reach enough students, particularly ELLs, to close the achievement gap. The challenge is to isolate the changes – both structural and behavioral – that make a difference and integrate them into all parts of the educational system.

High school graduation is the coveted prize of all students. Evidence of disproportionate school dropout rates among ELLs and non-ELLs is troubling and represents another case of inequality and inequity in educational services (Robledo Montecel, 2008). The disappearance rate of ELLs is double compared to non-ELLs. In a closing-the-gap approach to educational excellence, decreasing student dropout rates must be a goal for all schools. Research shows that high expectations not only guarantee greater participation and graduation from high school, they also develop a sense of belonging, connectedness and efficacy.

The remaining six principles will be outlined in the February issue of the IDRA Newsletter.


Center for Public Education. The Role of School Boards, web page (nd).

Gibson, M.A., and P. Gándara, J.P. Koyama. “The Role of Peers in the Schooling of U.S. Mexican Youth,” School Connections: U.S. Mexican Youth, Peers, and School Achievement (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004).

Johnson, R. “At Current Pace, Schools Will Lose Many More Generations,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2008).

LULAC-GI Forum vs. State of Texas, Memorandum Opinion, July 30, 2007.

LULAC-GI Forum vs. State of Texas, Final Judgment, July 24, 2008.

Mercuri, S.P., and Y.S. Freeman, D.E. Freeman. Closing the Achievement Gap: How to Reach Limited-Formal-Schooling and Long-Term English Learners (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA). Pre-K-12 LEP Public School Enrollment, by State, 2005-2006, and Change in Enrollment from 1995-1996, table (Washington, D.C.: NCELA, 2008).

Padolsky, D. “How has the limited English proficient student population changed in recent years?” AskNCELA No. 8 web page (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Education Programs, 2002).

Robledo Montecel, M. “Presenting IDRA’s Framework for Effective Instruction of Secondary English Language Learners,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2008).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Robledo Montecel, M., and J.D. Cortez. “Successful Bilingual Education Programs: Development and Dissemination of Criteria to Identify Promising and Exemplary Practices in Bilingual Education at the National Level,” Bilingual Research Journal (spring 2002) Vol. 26, No. 1.

Ruiz de Velasco, J., and M. Fix, B. Chu Clewell. Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools, research report (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2000).

Scott, B. “We Should Not Kid Ourselves: Excellence Requires Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).

Scott, B. “Who’s Responsible, Who’s to Blame?IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2002).

Texas High School Project. Web site posting (2006).

Zehler, A.M., and H.L. Fleischman, P.J. Hopstock, T.G. Stephenson, M.L. Pendzick, S. Sapru. Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students with Disabilities (Arlington, Va.: Development Associates, Inc., 2003).

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

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2009 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.]