California. Texas. Florida. New York. When most people think of English Language Learners (ELLs), big states with historically large influxes of immigrants come to mind. And sure enough, the four mentioned above are indeed home to nearly 60 percent of all ELLs in the U.S.
But populations of these students in perhaps less-predictable, mid-size states have also swelled in recent years. Case in point: Washington.
Washington State has more ELLs than all but seven other states in the country, and that number is climbing. During the 2014–15 school year, nearly 120,000 students represented over 10 percent of the state’s K–12 student population, marking a whopping 8.2 percent increase in a single year. Most of these students (67 percent) speak Spanish at home, followed by Russian, Vietnamese, Somali, and Chinese, respectively.
The rise of Washington ELLs in recent years — their families attracted to tech-booming Seattle and rural towns with year-round agriculture — has left northwest educators grappling with how to best serve these students. Now, a big, new education law signed by Governor Jay Inslee has the potential to drive important changes for these students.
(Related: Why Arizona is America’s worst state in serving students still learning English)
The legislation — which finally reached the political finish line after several years of attempts by House Democrats — aims to boost outcomes for all students of color, including ELLs, through a series of structural changes to the state’s education system. Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, chair of the House Education Committee, championed the new law.
The new legislation illustrates a comprehensive, state-level strategy to serving this population’s unique educational needs. It offers a set of concrete policies that can spark other states’ thinking on better serving ELLs. Specifically, it makes promising strides in preparing teachers to work with ELLs, supporting districts’ outcomes for ELLs, and boosting all educators’ abilities to work with families from varied cultural backgrounds, providing an example that other states and educators are free to follow.
How? The new law addresses ELLs uniquely in three big ways:
1. More qualified teachers
Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, all classroom teachers using state ELL funds must hold an endorsement in English Language Learner or bilingual education. This will be a new requirement for Washington.
Indeed, nationwide, only 20 states explicitly require ELL-specific teachers to hold a specialist certification. Washington’s action is a much-needed step in the right direction: unsurprisingly, research shows such certification boosts outcomes for ELLs.
2. Closer state monitoring of student performance
The new law beefs up state-level support and monitoring for districts with ELLs. Under the new law, the state must go beyond general technical assistance and specifically support school districts in their selection of ELL instructional models, materials, and professional development.
Moreover, the new law requires all schools to report academic data on any federally required subgroup of students — including ELLs — where 10 or more are enrolled. (Previously, Washington had set the minimum bar at 30 students). The idea is to make it harder for ELLs — even at schools where there are not many of them — to fly under the radar.
For all students of color, the law also requires further disaggregated data on race and ethnicity, distinguishing between countries of origin for Asian students and, for black students, between those who identify as African versus those who are native to the U.S. with African ancestors. More detailed data like this provides greater clarity on which ELLs are struggling academically to better target interventions. At the federal level, leaders are pushing for clearer, more meaningful data in much the same way. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new million dollar grant program to help states disaggregate data on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students and English learners. Washington State is already ahead of the pack.
3. More administrator training = more valuable feedback (and evaluations)
In addition to requirements for ELL educators’ training and development, the new law also requires the state to develop and offer professional development on cultural competency for all teachers, principals, and administrators.
“Cultural competency” is a popular yet amorphous buzzword, the sort of phrase that could be thrown at a problem as a substitute to solving it. However, Washington has been working to define the term for its schools for some years now. Back in 2009, the Washington legislature mandated the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board to create a set of cultural competency model standards. The standards that resulted from the mandate include topics like understanding civil rights and nondiscrimination law, English language acquisition theory, reflective self-awareness of racial bias and privilege, and collaborating with family and community members as partners in a child’s education.
Further, the law requires principals and administrators to receive training on cultural competency before conducting teacher evaluations. This is a critical move to supporting school leaders to better understand what they are seeing and give fairer feedback to teachers. For example, a principal might misinterpret a teacher’s repetitive, explicit instruction of select vocabulary words as a low rigor approach when, in fact, it may be a wholly appropriate strategy for students at certain levels of English proficiency.
Taken together, the changes are encouraging — even more so because Washington’s existing approach to monitoring ELLs’ outcomes is already one of the more transparent in the country. Specifically, the state mandates keeping an eye on current and former ELLs for their whole K-12 career. Establishing this so-called “Ever EL” category is a simple but powerful policy for ELLs. Washington’s neighbor to the south, Oregon, began mandating similar data collection in 2013.
Consider: ELLs are, by definition, a constantly overturning population. That is, as soon as a student reaches English proficiency, she drops the ELL designation. And that is exactly what should happen, but this approach makes it incredibly hard to determine how well a state or district is doing at serving these students overall in the long term. The Ever EL category helps pinpoint exactly which kids are falling behind compared to their non-ELL peers because the data can be sliced in ways that compare students who were never, currently, or formerly ELLs.
The new law’s requirements for district capacity-building and clearer monitoring coupled with the existing Ever EL strategy is a promising combination. The data rules foster greater visibility, allowing the state to see which districts are struggling to serve ELLs, while the new law requires the state to offer actual solutions and strategies — a posture of nurturing districts beyond playing watchdog.
Too few states are making these kids a priority in the way Washington’s new law does. But the path to the bill’s passage wasn’t always smooth and its recent success was nearly a decade in the making. The law’s origins date back to 2007 when legislators commissioned five studies to gain a better understanding of the educational achievement gap from communities of color across the state. In 2009, the Washington legislature created a taskforce in response to address Washington’s so-called “opportunity gap,” the disparity in access to an excellent education for low-income students of color compared to their higher-income, white counterparts. The group, named the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee (EOGOAC), elevated leaders of color and their voices. Together, they examined the five studies and consolidated their discussions into a series of concrete policy proposals — and took them to state leaders, including the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education. In 2013, the original bill was introduced but stalled in committee. In 2014, it passed the House but was rejected by the Senate. In 2015, it was reintroduced for the new biennium, where it again failed in the Senate. Finally, in 2016, the bill made it to the Governor’s desk. And importantly, the state budget dedicates over one million dollars solely towards carrying out the new law.
“The most ardent, adamant obstacles to overcome are the local districts arguing against unfunded mandates and arguing their rights under local control,” Rep. Santos said. In particular, many voiced concerns over the financial burden of any new initiatives, a salient point for many legislators in the context of a major state Supreme Court decision in 2012 that found Washington was not adequately funding its schools.
All this is to say that the law was a long time coming. And certain compromises were made to make it happen. For example, the EOGOAC committee explicitly called on state leaders to endorse dual language instruction as the “primary recommended [ELL] model in Washington state,” adding that “districts who choose to use a different method must provide justification.” Yet the new law is silent on the dual language instructional model, though it does require the state to inform districts about “research-based” models.
For example, research repeatedly suggests that dual language instruction — where students are schooled in their home language in addition to English — is a powerful lever for closing academic achievement gaps for ELLs. However, most ELLs in Washington state receive an English-only education (“sheltered instruction”). As it stands, nearly 90 percent of ELLs in Washington are not educated bilingually. ” Santos hopes this may drive districts toward considering dual language programming. And the law’s focus on educators’ cultural competence also sparked some political friction. It became an area where the verbs made all the difference; the distance between 'requires' and 'strongly encourages' and 'supports' became apparent. Specifically, while school leaders must develop a plan for cultural competency training for school staff, the law only “encourages” them to implement it.
Still, while the final bill’s mandates have been tempered, it nonetheless is a substantial move forward for Washington’s schools.
“It is a big, bold step, and now there’s lot of the work of implementation to do,” said Amy Liu, policy director for Washington’s League of Education Voters (LEV). Growing demand from communities of color and efforts from advocate groups, such as LEV, helped pass the bill.
“The EOGOAC led this process for this process for many, many years and pushed the thinking of the states around the opportunity gap with regard to race,” Liu said. “[LEV] and others have played a supportive role to bring different stakeholders to the table who are coming to conversation from different places.”
It took years, and it took compromise, but changes were eventually made to make life better for ELLs. That’s a lesson more states would do well to learn.