Menu Close

Preschool Matters Today

Making ESSA Work in Early Childhood Classrooms for Dual Language Learners


July 18, 2017
Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, Ph.D.

The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) is proud to partner with New America on this blog series highlighting early learning opportunities and challenges under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states to customize policies to best meet the needs of their learners—much like teachers who design and implement plans for each child to ensure s/he is appropriately challenged and supported to reach personal goals. Now is the time for states to use this opportunity to enhance classroom instruction in meaningful ways for the growing numbers of young dual language learners.

One exciting difference between ESSA and its predecessor (The No Child Left Behind Act), is the approach to state accountability systems. For the first time, states have flexibility to choose among various models of analysis to measure growth toward proficiency for English Learners. Generally, Title III is where these supports and plans are detailed. This is critical as high-stakes math and language arts literacy tests that ELLs, and other students, are required to take allow schools and districts to report progress in ways that do not punitively impact them, but rather encourage honesty and, in turn, offer opportunities for schools to develop the supports children need. To this end, weights for reporting growth include variables such as time spent in school and English proficiency levels, rather than weighing all children equally to represent overall school performance.

In addition, under Title I, states can leverage resources to include plans for the expansion of pre-K; while under Title IX, states can develop new pre-K programs with Preschool Development Grants (PDGs). As many studies have noted, access to high-quality pre-K is particularly beneficial to young DLLs. National data shows only 32 percent of four-year-olds are currently being served in publicly funded pre-K. The recent National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) report recommends that funds be used to expand access to pre-K. Also, benefits from pre-K could be further enhanced if full-day kindergarten were also more universally available. Further, states should use ESSA planning to align pre-K and K-3 systems and ensure continuity of practices across summers and grades. In Nevada’s plan, schools with high populations of English Learners receive extra funds to provide both pre-K and full-day kindergarten.

Educators working with DLLs need support as well and Title II enables states to launch programs focusing on them. Research shows a wider range of diversity is needed in the education workforce, as many teachers and teacher leaders (administrators, coaches, program supervisors) lack specific competencies to work effectively with dual language learners in early childhood. These skills are especially important in pre-K where dual language learners are a growing population and research shows use of home language for instruction can be beneficial if and when teachers are bilingual. Title II monies could be tapped to support professional development and recruitment, while distance learning technology can be used to reach more diverse teachers when geographic distances are challenging. Further, states can utilize Title II funds to enable coaches to mentor teachers without the burdens of other responsibilities unrelated to true continuous improvement efforts in the classroom and focus on specific developmental stages (e.g., early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence). These changes target coaching in ways that would be more effective and provide ongoing interaction and feedback to teachers.

Licensing and credentialing processes are additional ways to address recruitment and hiring to more equitably staff schools. New Jersey, for example intends to use Title II funds to streamline its certification system, speeding up the licensing process by updating the information system that handles these processes (see p.g. 87 of NJ ESSA plan). Similarly, Louisiana’s plan envisions using Title II funds for residency mentorship programs. Louisiana also plans to use funds to monitor teacher preparation programs by checking on coursework, connections to practice, and quality of feedback given to student teachers. Louisiana’s approach is important when thinking specifically about supporting teaching practices for dual language learners and carefully tracking pre-service programs in addition to in-service.

Finally, under Title IV Part A, states can plan supportive practices for a “well-rounded education.” While practices related to language acquisition are important for DLL children, so are activities more directly associated with the development of broad knowledge and critical thinking. One example lies within research on literacy practices and eliminating gaps relative to reading comprehension– a highly valued educational goal for all students, but one particularly challenging for English Learners. Currently, practice in early elementary grades focuses largely on teaching of discrete literacy skills to ensure that children ultimately reach student growth objectives. However, research shows mastery of constrained skills (e.g., letter ID, word ID) are not as predictive of increased reading comprehension as are more unconstrained skills related to language and knowledge.

While constrained skills are easy to measure, they are not the only skills worth teaching and measuring. To this end, as ESSA encourages, state plans should give careful consideration to use of curricula, integration of subjects, and varied learning formats, as these decisions influence child outcomes by design. LEAs should rely on current research for decision-making yet understand that effects of more deep approaches to teaching are not immediately visible (as on a spelling test). So while accountability is important, inputs matter, too.

As the number of dual language learners in our schools increase, states should take advantage of the opportunity ESSA provides to evaluate and redesign their programs so every young learner has a genuine chance to succeed. DLLs bring diverse cultures, experiences, and stories with them into the classroom. Better serving these children will not only enrich their school experiences, but also expand horizons for their classmates who also benefit from learning about new cultures.

Alexandra Figueras-Daniel is an Assistant Research Professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research. Her research interests include classroom practices and professional development, dual language learners, classroom practices that support dual language acquisition, and measurement of quality in multicultural contexts. She has contributed extensively to NIEER’s research on DLLs and classroom quality.