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Volume 20, Number 2
March/April 2004

Raising the Achievement of English-Language Learners

How principals are working to make a difference


According to federal survey data, there are 4.5 million English-language learners (ELLs) enrolled in U.S. public schools (preK-12), nearly one-third more than in 1997-98. Given this fast-growing number of linguistically and culturally diverse children, principals are dealt an increasingly urgent responsibility: to lead their schools in helping all students succeed academically. The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires educators to raise not just the overall achievement of their students, but that of all major student subgroups. Are the nation's school principals ready to rise to this challenge? What must administrators do to improve the academic achievement of young language-minority students and fulfill the requirements of NCLB?

Strong instructional leadership seems to be fundamental. The need to implement standards-based reform is not lost on Guadalupe Guerrero, a principal at Dever Elementary School in Boston, where approximately one-fourth of the school's 520 students are ELLs from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cape Verde, Vietnam, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Guerrero carefully monitors his students' performance, looking closely at classwork and test scores.

"This enables me to get a complete picture of where students are experiencing success, and where they are not," Guerrero says. "Wherever there seems to be a discrepancy, you need to uncover what the real causes are. This can be a painful discussion-that is, why one group of children is not achieving as well as another group in the same classroom. Sometimes this means the instruction is not meeting the needs of one particular group of students."

Guerrero has worked to implement a coherent plan designed to yield improved academic achievement in a school where more than 20 percent of the students have identified special learning needs. Also, Dever Elementary was recently designated as a center for English-language education, a move that propelled Guerrero to make some hard decisions to improve the quality of instruction. The firing of some bilingual teachers whose English fluency he viewed as inadequate caused many people to feel resentful, he recalls. However, as the school leader, Guerrero says it was essential that he remain "transparent" about his goals.

"I believe that teachers are our most important asset, and I make it a priority to support teachers," he says. "However, when a teacher isn't able to provide effective instruction, then I have to put on another hat and deal with it. I don't walk around with that threat, but it's important to know what kind of instruction is going to meet the needs of the students."

Acting Decisively

Guerrero's response highlights an undeniable reality: principals must sometimes make difficult decisions in order to make a difference in the education of language-minority students. Carmen Jimenez, director of the Professional Development Leadership Center in the Bronx, New York, agrees that strong, decisive leadership is key to the success of English-language learners. In her professional development work, Jimenez reminds the principals with whom she works that they must stay committed to a vision of academic excellence for all children. For one thing, she exhorts new principals to make sure that they—as well as their teaching staffs—are aware of the ways in which their behavior conveys expectations for ELL student achievement.

For example, suppose a principal walks into an ESL classroom and finds that the teacher has not prepared a coherent lesson plan. Jimenez says, "If you let that go, if you don't go completely nuts over that, you set a new standard, a low standard."

Of course, part of being able to make effective changes as a school leader involves what Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Richard Elmore calls "knowing the right thing to do." In response to reform efforts, school principals are under great pressure to take steps to improve instruction so that all students meet rigorous learning standards. Yet, Elmore says, many are simply expected to know what changes need to be made and to implement those changes. When it comes to raising the achievement of second-language learners, however, many administrators are at a loss for strategies.

How do principals figure out the "right things to do" to educate linguistically and culturally diverse children? Roger Nyeffler, an elementary school principal in Kearney, Neb., with 25 years' experience, didn't leave things to chance. Instead, he enrolled in a multiculturalism program at the local university to learn about the complex intersection of culture and student learning.

"I knew things were changing . . . and my knowledge [about the newcomer families] was limited," Nyeffler says. A city of about 30,000 residents, Kearney is home to a meat-packing industry that in recent years has drawn an increasing number of immigrants looking for employment. This year the cafeteria at Central Elementary, where Nyeffler is principal, displays 12 flags to represent the students' various countries of birth. Nyeffler also makes sure that the teachers in his school are given professional development opportunities, similar to his own, to learn about the cultures and traditions of the newcomer families.

Greater awareness about the needs of immigrant families has also led Nyeffler to call for more differentiated instruction at Central Elementary. Some teachers have welcomed these changes, Nyeffler says, while others have resisted. But like Guerrero, Nyeffler is clear about his responsibilities as an instructional leader in addressing the needs of the newcomer children. "At some point, you have to get on the bus . . . or get out of the way," he says. "In fact, my role is to help you know where you'll board and where you'll sit. By this I mean I should know how to place teachers where they'll be most effective."

Supporting Teachers' Growth

In the neighboring state of Colorado, principal Gayle Jones encounters similar issues in preparing her teachers to work effectively with the newcomer children at Dillon Valley Elementary School. In the mid 1990s, the Dillon Valley school district witnessed its ELL enrollment jump from an average of three students per school to more than 100 in about three years. Today about 43 percent of the children at Dillon Valley Elementary are English-language learners. The children are largely Latino and come from families who moved to the area seeking employment as service workers in the region's upscale ski resorts, such as Vail and Aspen.

Jones observes that the demographic changes in her district at first caused some disequilibrium among her faculty. "It's tough to see excellent teachers suddenly feeling unsuccessful. They doubt their own practice," she notes. "But the teachers who fare best are those who are willing to learn, to accept the changes."
Under Jones' leadership, the district has garnered Title VII money to support professional development, specifically to help teachers earn endorsement as ESL teachers. These funds, Jones says, certainly make her job as an administrator easier. The school was able to train bilingual paraprofessionals to work with classroom teachers and to hire a full-time English-language education coordinator, who offers teachers professional development workshops after school.

Guadalupe Guerrero, Roger Nyeffler, and Gayle Jones are all principals who have made the academic achievement of English-language learners a priority and have taken steps to ensure that instruction is aligned with this goal. While the results of their efforts have been difficult to measure so far, their approach to leadership is one that California State University researcher Claude Goldenberg and teacher Jessie Sullivan have identified as highly effective in improving educational opportunity for ELLs. Co-authors of a 1994 study that profiled a successful effort to raise achievement in a largely Latino Los Angeles-area elementary school, Goldenberg and Sullivan say that school leaders need to provide both "support" and "pressure."

"Although these two [functions] appear to be at odds, we see them as complementary and as producing a creative tension," the authors note. "The skillful principal—indeed, the skillful leader—will know when to exercise one or the other or both simultaneously."

Dillon Valley Elementary principal Jones demonstrates this dual leadership role in her work with teachers who struggle to accept the curricular changes prompted by the area's shifting demographics. She works to reassure the teachers that they are capable of working with a diverse population of children, but she also expects them to participate in professional development and training on the needs of English-language learners.

This characterization of effective leadership stands in stark contrast to the "command and control" image of the principalship that prevails in many schools, say Elizabeth Hale and Hunter Moorman of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C. Hale and Moorman are critical of many educational leadership programs in higher education that prioritize managerial skills and place relatively little attention on developing instructional leadership competencies. These programs are an especially ill fit, they note, in today's educational context, where principals are expected to raise the achievement levels of a diverse group of learners. When principals understand the theory and practice of effective instruction for English-language learners, their teachers are more likely to feel supported in their use of new instructional strategies and approaches.

Facing Race and Equity Issues

Another serious gap in principals' professional growth programs is the lack of any explicit focus on race and equity issues. "A sad reality is that we're not doing enough. I don't think there is enough concerted, deliberate thinking about immigrant children among principals, at least not as much as there should be, given the focus on staff development under No Child Left Behind," says professional development director Jimenez. "What's lacking in the conversation is how the definition of multiculturalism or diversity has changed. For a long time it meant that you bring in the children's culture, the holidays, the ethnic traditions. That's a start, but I think the conversation has to be around why we are not bringing equity of resources to immigrant children."

As part of one of her recent professional development institutes for new principals, Jimenez provided them with cameras and instructed them to go into students' communities and take pictures of anything they thought was valued there. She also asked them to interview people in the communities about what they thought of the school. While some principals were reluctant at first, the exercise proved for many to be an eye-opening experience. Jimenez says she used the activity to highlight to the principals that they can bring "value-added perceptions" of language-minority students to their schools.

"I tell them that you need to make people conscious of the value diversity adds. If you don't, [this awareness] won't happen," Jimenez says.

Also, according to Jimenez, school principals need to be deliberate in helping teachers think about critical issues such as race and language differences, topics that are too often sidestepped in discussions about the education of language-minority children. She says that principals who are committed to the vision of academic achievement for all children have a clear mandate: "They must create the opportunity for the conversation, not in an accusatory manner, but they must help teachers come to terms with who they are as cultural beings."

Principal certification alone will not prepare a school leader to deal with the range of cultural, linguistic, and racial issues involved in educating language-minority children. "It's perhaps possible to come up with an 'ideal syllabus' for preparing school administrators," observes Guadalupe Guerrero. "However, you could prepare superstar graduates and they still might fall short in practice. You need to look at yourself and at your core values, and at your expectations for learning. You need to ask yourself, do you have a clear understanding of pedagogy? Are you willing to be an advocate for all students?"

The principalship is often called the loneliest job in education. A solitary search for answers to questions about ELL teaching and learning, says Gayle Jones, can be a serious barrier to effective leadership. Schools can make real progress, she says, only when the professionals working there pool their intellectual resources—and their commitment—and strive toward common goals. "You have to go with the energy you have. All administrators and teacher leaders need to understand that this is an opportunity to address the needs of all children and that we need to contemplate a range of possibilities," Jones says. "Together, we must remain open to change."

Maricel G. Santos is a research associate at the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy in Cambridge, Mass. She received her doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her research focused on the vocabulary knowledge of language-minority students.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    D. August and K. Hakuta (eds.), Educating Language Minority Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998.

    L.T. Diaz-Rico. Teaching English Learners: Strategies and Methods. Boston: Pearson, 2004.

    R. Elmore. “Knowing the Right Thing to Do: School Improvement and Performance-Based Accountability.” Washington, DC: NGA Center for Best Practices, 2003.

    C. Goldenberg and J. Sullivan. “Making Change Happen in a Language Minority School: A Search for Coherence.” Washington, DC: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, 1994.

    E.L. Hale and H.N. Moorman. “Preparing School Principals: A National Perspective on Policy and Program Innovations.” Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership, 2003.

    A. Kindler. Survey of the States’ Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services, 2000–2001

    Summary Report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs, 2002.

    M. Kuamoo. “Effective School Leadership . . . Like Riding a Bike.” NABE News 26, no. 1 (September/October 2002): 6–11, 33.