English is not the first language for more than one in ten public school students in Virginia. For decades, education efforts have aimed to immerse these students in English-only environments while teaching grade-level appropriate content. Yet despite those efforts, in Virginia and across the country, these students continue to be more likely to fall behind their classmates in major education benchmarks.
“We have a lot of smart people who are trying to fix the inequitable education that English learners are receiving,” said Chang-Bacon, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. “But largely it hasn’t worked.”
In an attempt to address these inequities, states often implement new policies around teaching English language learners. The process of implementing these policy changes include many layers of interpretation and decision-making. Policies passed by state legislatures or departments of education are interpreted by school division leadership and ultimately interpreted by individual teachers in their classrooms.
Chang-Bacon is studying how policies for English language learning (ELL) make their way through those layers and ultimately shape the learning experience for students.
“What if we don’t just start thinking about a new curriculum,” Chang-Bacon said. “But instead think about the underlying foundations of our education system that make it rather predictable that ELL students are failing?”
Massachusetts passed legislation requiring all of its 70,000+ teachers earn an endorsement in Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), a nationally utilized ELL education model. The goal is for all teachers to build skills in educating English language learners in whatever grade level or subject they teach.
In his most recent study, Chang-Bacon tracked the interpretation process of this new policy, noting the impact of the policy in addressing ELL needs is dependent on how it is implemented. He studied current teachers receiving professional development coursework to earn the endorsement as well as pre-service teachers earning the endorsement as part of the university-level studies.
The study found that teacher educators, both faculty members teaching future teachers and those leading teachers during professional development, were influenced by a number of factors as they worked to translate this policy into their efforts to train new teachers.
“My research found that teacher educators were significantly influenced by their own personal experiences, the context in which they taught and their own ideological experiences,” Chang-Bacon said. “As a result, these teacher educators represented a wide range of understanding about how to implement these lessons into their practice.”
According to Chang-Bacon, teachers are not receiving the same training, some experiencing a basic course while others a more nuanced course where educators made improvements to the materials they were given.
Teacher educators are influenced by what Chang-Bacon calls “key experiences.” These might include events from their own backgrounds that lead them to decide what to do with the coursework.
“Some of these changes might be subtle,” Chang-Bacon said. “An educator might tweak the content in a way she or he believes will resonate more with high school teachers than elementary school teachers.”
Other changes were more significant, such as augmenting the content with the latest research on the benefits of bilingual education, or discussions of racial justice.
“English learners who are also students of color often face discrimination based on language, race, and presumed citizenship status,” said Chang-Bacon. “And some teacher educators really augmented the course in powerful ways by prioritizing these topics.”
Personal language experiences also mattered. Most of the teachers grew up as English-only speakers with about half having learned another language through study. But teachers who had, themselves, learned English in school brought an important personal perspective to how schools could be improved for English learners.
Context was identified as the second element that influenced how teacher educators were translating the policy. When and where the coursework was taught influenced the implementation of the policy.
“For example, university faculty members likely have more flexibility in designing the content for their own syllabi than a district-level professional development educator who is teaching with state-level observers in the room,” Chang-Bacon said.
The context varied within sectors, too. According to the study, some universities were stricter about how the content was taught, while some district instructors had more autonomy than others.
Finally, the educators’ ideological dispositions influenced their interpretation and implementation of the policy. According to the study, some educators were inclined to follow the policy guidelines more strictly and others less so. Personal beliefs about bilingualism also mattered.
“There are a number of perspectives on bilingualism,” Chang-Bacon said. “For example, there continues to be an accepted understanding that monolingual English-speaking students benefit from speaking a second language. As a result, we have seen an increase of Spanish immersion elementary schools, for example.”
However, according to Chang-Bacon, accepting that type of bilingualism does not always translate into acceptance of English language learners speaking their home languages while also learning English.
“Teachers are Americans and they reflect the biases that we see in the general public,” Chang-Bacon said. “That can include a bias against English learners, even when those students are born in the US and are American citizens.”
Chang-Bacon agrees that national rhetoric plays an important role in this discussion but warns not to blame the current environment, exclusively. Anti-immigrant rhetoric was a part of the national discourse as a result of data released in the early 2000s showing an uptick in undocumented immigrants and that the US would shortly become a majority minority country.
Ultimately, Chang-Bacon believes the move for all teachers to be trained in elements of English as a Second Language (ESL) is a hopeful one and has the potential to make an impact in all students’ educational experience.
“One thing we used to hear from general education teachers was that it’s ‘not my job’ to teach students English,” said Chang-Bacon. “But as our student populations are changing, and we’re understanding more and more what educational equity looks like, teachers really do want to know they’re meeting the needs of all of their students. And they usually find that emphasizing language learning in the classroom helps students of all language backgrounds.”
However, he does not believe all of the responsibility should fall at teachers’ feet to fix.
“Many policy makers believe that our schools and programs are fine, and teachers just need to do more,” he said. “But we need to step back and say, wait. What if there are things in addition to teachers that need attention? It is looking at the whole system, including how policies are interpreted and implemented that will allow us to close this persistent opportunity gap for English language learners.”