Envisioning Equity for Our New Normal Going Forward

By Sarah B. Ottow

two girlsAs educators, it is our responsibility to look inward to unpack our own biases as social agents in positions of leadership and/or through our policies and pedagogy. As we examine who we are, we also need to consider who students are, across all identity groups—race, ethnicity, class, language, religious affiliation, gender identity, ability, immigration status—and understand the intersectionality of belonging to multiple identity groups. I refer to this increasing diversity in demographics in my book, The Language Lens for Content Classroom, as the “new mainstream” and I encourage educators to not make assumptions about their students but really get to know them and consider their perspectives as unique while integrating their identities into teaching and learning.

The approach I explain in the book and what I use every day in my consulting work is that if every educator adopted practices that work for language learners, then universal instruction, or core instruction, would improve, like how a high tide lifts all boats. English learners (ELs), also known as multilingual learners (MLLs) and emergent bilinguals, comprise almost 10% of the US public school population, and they are the fastest growing group of students across the country. ELs all share the same attribute of having a home language other than English, yet we need to keep in mind that this group of students is extremely diverse, speaking more than 400 languages and coming from many different identity groups. English learners can be bilingual (having proficiency in two languages) and they can be multilingual (having proficiency in more than two languages).

Learning another language is not a deficit but, rather, a major asset to be built upon and leveraged in inclusive ways.

boy in red hoodieIf equity is our mission as educators, then we need to not just acknowledge the world that multilingual learners bring into our classrooms but also actively support the content and academic language learning so that all multilingual learners can reach their educational potential. We also need to be aware of the intersectionality between different identity groups that our ELs may be part of. For example, over 90% of language learners are students of color (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). During this coronavirus pandemic, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) have been disproportionately affected by the virus – plus they face the results of systemic racism, including lack of access to health care, increased unemployment, and pervasive poverty. Moreover, Latino children are eight times and Black children are five times more likely than their white peers to be hospitalized with COVID-19 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).

Compounding the aforementioned equity issues, the language learner group as a whole also faces serious civil rights issues around mandated English proficiency tests occurring during the pandemic. Students identified as English learners are required to take federally standardized tests for both language and content. The most prominent English language proficiency test in the United States is not available digitally, which is a problem in places where learning has been happening in remote modalities, and the test takes up to four hours to complete over multiple sessions. Thus, groups, including the National Association for Bilingual Education and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, have brought forth concerns that this mandate is affecting students’ and families’ civil rights especially given the disproportionality of the coronavirus for people of color. This civil rights coalition has urged President Biden and his team to postpone these tests or make them optional altogether. While measuring English proficiency is an important marker of growth, the coalition asserts that “EL students and their families should not be forced into schools and expose themselves to unnecessary risks during these unprecedented times” (Wong, 2021).

The most prominent English language proficiency test in the United States is not available digitally, which is a problem in places where learning has been happening in remote modalities, and the test takes up to four hours to complete over multiple sessions.

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As a specialist focused on equity, language, and literacy in schools, I have advocated and coached on this topic of more valid, more responsible, and more useful assessment for ELs for years. We need to build in multiple measures of looking at English language development, not just proficiency in an ongoing, meaningful way for this group of students. Too much emphasis is put on one testing “snapshot” when the research on academic language shows us that language is dynamic, fluid, and changes greatly day-to-day based on sociocultural context. As one leader I work with says, “We need to continually ask who the children behind the numbers are.” To put so much pressure and reporting mainly on this one test is a major disservice to students and takes the power out of the center of all teaching and learning–the classroom. Instead, we need more of a “photo album” approach focused on growth, not just proficiency, infusing curriculum-based academic language objectives and student goals that drive meaningful learning. (Read more about the need for comprehensive EL assessments here.)

We need more of a “photo album” approach focused on growth, not just proficiency, infusing curriculum-based academic language objectives and student goals that drive meaningful learning.

What’s more is that EL families may not have the confidence, the skills, or the access to navigate school procedures and policies such as mandated testing. Many educators I work with refer to this population of families as “the silent minority” who isn’t always as vocal as the typical Special Education family cohort. Teachers and leaders can work together to help provide all families equal access to information from the school, and, even better, engage families in the schooling process by hearing their perspectives and bringing them into the decision-making process. (Read more about equity-based family engagement here.)

boy in front of schoolClearly, the pandemic has surfaced many long-standing inequities including systemic racism and unbalanced assessment systems. What we do now matters because we can keep those most historically marginalized at the center of all redesign, of all policies, of all re-imagining of the future of schooling. If we can remember that the many issues ELs face are not inherently within-child issues, but, in fact, they are within-systems issues, then we can take this opportunity to reshape a “new normal” that works for every student and every family. After all, the “normal” we experienced before the pandemic did not work for all students.

 

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