Welcome to Learning the Language
Education Week

February 2, 2007


Learning the Language


Mary Ann Zehr is an assistant editor at Education Week. She has written about the schooling of English-language learners for more than seven years and understands through her own experience of studying Spanish that it takes a long time to learn another language well. Her blog will tackle difficult policy questions, explore learning innovations, and share stories about different cultural groups on her beat.


ELL Expert Lands D.C. Post

If Adrian Fenty, the mayor of the District of Columbia, gets approval from the D.C. Council to take charge of the District of Columbia schools, he'll have an expert on hand who understands the needs of English-language learners.


Julia Lara headed various initiatives to benefit English-learners for 20 years at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, but left that organization in June. After some gardening and relaxation, she started a new job on Jan. 16, she told me in a telephone interview last week, as the special assistant for the D.C.'s deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso.


Ms. Lara's most recent claim to fame was directing a consortium for the CCSSO that produced a test for English-language proficiency that states can use to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act. I wrote about these tests for Education Week in July. The test Ms. Lara helped to create is designed to meet federal requirements for assessing children in reading, writing, speaking, and listening and is estimated to take four to six hours to administer. I can see why she needed to garden and relax after leaving her CCSSO job.


In her new post, Ms. Lara's first task is to try to improve early childhood education in the District of Columbia. "My job's not focused on English-language learners," she told me, "but because of who I am and where I've been, I plan to infuse those considerations into the work, so we always include the needs of children with special needs as we talk about early childhood education and education."

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Testing Showdown

I'm curious to see what the next move will be in the chess game between Virginia education officials and U.S. Department of Education officials regarding how to include beginning English-language learners in large-scale testing under the No Child Left Behind Act.


The No. 2 official in the U.S. Department of Education, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon, has told Virginia officials to enforce testing requirements for such students OR ELSE. Mr. Simon said in a Jan. 31 letter to Virginia’s superintendent of public instructionRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, Billy K. Cannaday Jr., that he was “greatly distressed to hear that some of Virginia’s districts voted on resolutions that may cause them to be out of compliance with certain assessment requirements” of the NCLB law.


School boards in Fairfax County, Prince William County, and Harrisonburg, Va., have passed resolutions saying they will not give some beginning English-learners the state’s regular reading test, as federal officials require. See the Feb. 6 Washington Post article on how the issue is playing out. You can also read my Jan. 31 article about why school officials in Harrisonburg took a stand on the issue.


One thing that stuck with me was that Donald Ford, the superintendent of Harrisonburg City schools, liked the idea that Harrisonburg school board members were going on the record criticizing federal demands on how to test beginning English-learners in time for discussions in the U.S. Congress about reauthorization of NCLB. This sweater-vest and plaid-shirt kind of guy has already been to Washington twice to express his views on the subject and seems very capable of holding his own.


Virginia education officials seem to be doing what they can to back the school districts. Charles B. Pyle, the director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, told me in an interview for Education Week that there's no need for Virginia officials to take any action right now because no school districts are disobeying the law. How can they be, he said, when standardized testing doesn't happen until spring?


Lots more people are going to jump into this debate over the effect of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act on English-learners. Jack Jennings, the president and CEO of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, just invited nearly 30 organizations to a symposium on the subject to be held March 20. He told me in a telephone conversation last week that Diane August, a researcher who specializes in studying English-language learners, and Stanley Rabinowitz, a program director for WestEd, have agreed to write background papers for the one-day meeting.


The purpose, says Mr. Jennings, is to have organizations share their proposals for how to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act's requirements for English-language learners. He says that congressional staff are telling him they're hearing about the problems with the law concerning such students but not solutions.


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Welcome to Learning the Language

Welcome to Learning the Language, a new blog at edweek.org about immigrant children in U.S. schools and the teachers and policymakers who help them to learn English.

I started working for Education Week more than nine years ago writing about school technology. But I soon realized that I really wanted to be the reporter who wrote about immigrant students. I wanted to travel to pockets of the country and learn about people from interesting parts of the world.


Seven years ago I got the beat I wanted, and I've had a blast with the cross-cultural experiences that it has given me. I've reported on Somali refugee teenagers in Columbus, Ohio, schools; Ukrainian Pentecostals in Harrisonburg, Va., schools; Mexicans in the Senath-Hornerville school district in the "boot heel" of Missouri; and recently, Hmong in St. Paul Schools. I've visited mosques, tasted Hmong egg rolls, shared a meal seated on the living room floor with a Kurdish family, and dropped in on a quinceañera (a 15th birthday celebration for a Mexican girl). This is all in the United States.


But I didn't forget that I work for a newspaper about education policy. I've also written about how voters in Arizona and Massachusetts approved ballot measures to curtail bilingual education, and lots of articles about new requirements for English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act. A couple of times, I compiled 50-state charts about the progress of states in meeting those requirements.


It's taken me a while to realize how much state and federal policy affects English-language learners at the classroom level, but I have seen the light. Otherwise, I wouldn't have just written four articles in a row for Education Week about testing.


In this blog, look for insight about some of the interesting groups of immigrant students in schools, such as the thousands of Meskhetian Turks from Russia who have recently resettled in this country, and new developments in education policy concerning English-learners.


Please, also, let me know what's going on in your schools. What have you learned about the culture of a group of immigrants who has come to your school? What kind of training do you think teachers need to work well with English-language learners? What methods have you found to be effective? What are the biggest challenges your school or state faces in improving schooling for English-language learners? You can reach me by e-mail at mzehr@epe.org.