Voices in Education

Are We Building a Wall Inside Our Schools?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about walls—walls that separate areas and people from one another. The scale of the wall some are calling for exceeds any other manmade barrier in the American landscape, dividing residents to its north and south by masses of cement and steel.

Just as the wall would divide two countries, the campaign to construct the wall divides our nation. Some in favor of the wall see it as a blockage to northern migration. Others who oppose the wall see it as a concrete manifestation of ethnocentrism.

But many individuals who reject the notion of a border wall may not perceive the invisible wall that separates students in our nation’s public schools. This wall has had pernicious consequences, however unintended, for a growing segment of our schools’ population—English learners.

English learners constitute the fastest-growing segment of K–12 student enrollment. As nonnative speakers of English who have not yet developed full proficiency in their second language (or possibly their third or fourth . . .), they offer the invaluable assets of their first languages and home cultures, resources that can help globalize curriculum and instruction for all students. But these resources can remain walled off from the rest of the class, trapping many English learners behind a linguistic and cultural barrier.

And behind that figurative wall dividing English learners from their native-speaking peers languishes potential achievement, pushed downward by an increasingly steep climb to reach proficiency in more complex listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in English as grade level expectations rise. National eighth grade mathematics test results from 2015 document this phenomenon, with 31 percent of English learners performing at or above basic in mathematics versus 74 percent of non-English learners,1  illustrating the importance of comprehending and expressing oneself in complex discipline-specific language.

Just as with any other students, factors outside of the purview of the school environment wield enormous influence on English learners’ achievement. And, just as with any other students, known elements of effective instruction hold true for English learners as well. A teacher who knows her students and their families, manages the classroom well, has high expectations for all, and provides support to meet those expectations is equally important for English learners and non-English learners alike.

English learners need something more, though, to make that steep climb to full proficiency in English. They need teachers who, in addition to being generally effective, have developed certain specialized skills that make their classrooms centers of successful communication for, between, and of English learners in all subjects and skills. Does accomplishing this require that every teacher be certified in English for Speakers of Other Languages? I don’t believe so.

If teachers seek to remove the language barrier wall, they need to understand and do certain things. First, they need to understand the process of developing full proficiency in a second language, in other words, what accelerates and elevates English learners’ acquisition of English. This means understanding, for example, the difference between a newcomer with no prior exposure to English, a student who has lived and studied in an English-speaking environment for a year or more, and a student who has developed native-like ability to communicate in social English but still needs support to develop proficiency in the academic register of English. The term “English learner” encompasses a multitude of variations.

In addition to this knowledge, teachers need to be able to adjust what and how they teach to make instruction as accessible as possible to English learners at different levels of English proficiency. They can no longer rely on an outside expert to provide this accessibility. It should be part of the skill set of every teacher. This applies to all schools, everywhere. Who would have guessed that the largest increase in the percentage of English learners enrolled K–12 was in Kansas?2

My colleagues and I have summarized what we believe is essential for every teacher to know and be able to do to tear down the classroom wall that separates English learners from their highest levels of achievement. Our approach is to encourage teachers to continue doing what works well with all students, and then provide just a little bit more to make instruction appropriate for their English learners, demolishing the wall brick by brick so that everyone gains from the advantages that linguistic and cultural diversity afford.

1National Center for Education Statistics, 2015 Mathematics Grades 4 and 8 Assessment Report Cards: Summary Data Tables for National and State Average Scores and Achievement Level Results, http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/files/2015_Results_Appendix_Math.pdf
2“Fast Facts: English Language Learners,” National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=96. Between 2002–03 and 2012–13 the largest percentage point increase occurred in Kansas (4.9 percentage points). 

About the Author: Joyce Nutta is coauthor (with Carine Strebel, Kouider Mokhtari, Florin Mihai, and Edwidge Crevecoeur-Bryant) of Educating English Learners: What Every Classroom Teacher Needs to Know (Harvard Education Press, 2014).