Angela Valenzuela: A superintendent for DISD’s English-language learnersAngela Valenzuela: A superintendent for DISD’s English-language learners | Dallas Morning News Opinion and Editorial Columns - Opinion and Commentary for Dallas, Texas - The Dallas Morning News
Published: 16 February 2012 06:01 PM
In light of the very high representation of English language learners in the Dallas Independent School District — an astounding 37.8 percent, more than twice the state average — the next superintendent should definitely be someone who knows and understands the research pertaining to this group of students.
This research consists of bilingual education, language acquisition, quality English as a Second Language programs and instruction, student placement and program evaluation. The new superintendent should bring experience in improving and enhancing ESL programs and services. Will transitional bilingual education models be maintained? If so, will these include both early- and late-exit models? Will the new superintendent promote dual-language instruction? If so, what models would apply best districtwide, given a context of school segregation by race or ethnicity and class?
Regarding bilingual education, a study commissioned by the Texas Education Agency in 2000, the Texas Successful Schools Study: Quality Education for Limited English Proficient Students, showed that English-language learners who remained in the bilingual program until they were designated as “English proficient” met or exceeded the performance of students in the all-English program in the same grade levels and at the same schools. Such findings are typical in research on effective bilingual education programs. This debate is more about politics than evidence.
For nonbilingual education and non-ESL personnel, the superintendent needs to consider how general education teachers can be better prepared to serve English language learners in their classrooms. Improving collaboration between ESL and general classroom teachers is often overlooked, yet this is so vital to a welcoming, positive school environment.
The benefits of bilingualism and biliteracy are widely recognized for children’s cognitive development. Both promote academic achievement, cognitive flexibility and problem-solving capacities that are not enjoyed by monolingual speakers. Indeed, all children stand to benefit from knowing a second language at an advanced level. To this end, what we need are rich opportunities for youths both at the elementary and secondary levels that promote the development of the students’ native language to keep pace with their academic development in the English language.
At the district level, central office and campus administrators also need to be prepared to serve the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Clearly, qualified teachers and administrators of English language learners are needed in great numbers, so what plans will the superintendent have to prepare, recruit and retain them?
Standardized tests provide metrics for determining program success. However, the information they provide is not only limited but is also language-dependent, in the case of English-language learners. Hence, what other criteria might this new superintendent use to gauge progress toward closing the achievement gap?
The new superintendent needs to promote high expectations and academically challenging instruction to prepare these youths for college. Minimum-track classes that lead to a minimum diploma should be avoided for all students in general and for English language learners in particular. Unfortunately, being an English learner and a student with college aspirations tend not to go hand in hand. How, then, can the next superintendent work to reverse such mind-sets?
Finally, it is not enough for our children to be bilingual. For them to function at advanced, professional levels in our global society, they must also be biliterate. They must command the ability to read and write at sophisticated levels across all content areas in powerful writing contexts for authentic audiences and purposes.
The future superintendent should promote bilingual or ESL programs that are well-funded, staffed and designed if they are to genuinely address the very achievement-gap problem that otherwise bedevils most superintendents and district leaders.
Angela Valenzuela is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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