Asset-Based Mindsets for English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) have often been considered a minority segment of school populations. However, ELLs are growing as a learner population twenty-five times faster than overall student population growth (Mavrogordato & White, 2020). While many schools currently implement specific pedagogical approaches to serve ELLs, these approaches often reinforce a deficit narrative about ELLs that has been written through policy in the United States. To better serve ELLs, educators must understand the formation of current mindsets about ELLs and then combat the status quo through asset-based mindsets that actively advance equity and social justice.

Policy’s Role in the Formation of the Mindsets About ELLs

Deficit mindsets about ELLs, whether explicit or implicit, may be the product of decades of ineffective policy that has left ELLs underserved. Although the 1954 landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that segregation was inherently unequal, many ELLs remained effectively segregated through the means of language (Cruze & López, 2020; Torres-Velasquez, Sleeter, & Romero, 2019). “Prior to the Lau Remedies, resulting from the 1974 Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decisions, [Dual Language Learners (DLLs)] were denied access to grade-level curriculum due to schools’ use of language grouping that separated DLLs from mainstream classrooms despite the Brown (1954) desegregation orders” (Cruze & López, 2020, p. 82). The Lau Remedies provided guidelines about instruction and resources, but they were nebulous and did little to recognize the assets of non-English-speaking students (Robinson-Cimpian, Thompson, & Umansky, 2016).

It was not until the Castañeda v. Packard ruling in 1981 that policy gained definition in the form of 3 provisions: 1) ELL programs must be research-based, 2) programs must be adequately resourced, and 3) effectiveness of such programs must be evaluated (Cruze & López, 2020). While more explicit than the Lau remedies, the Castañeda provisions did not ensure every non-English-speaking student would receive a quality education equal to that of their English-speaking peers. As with the Lau Remedies, the Castañeda ruling left execution to already inequitable schools and did not define criteria for success. Moreover, Mavrogordato & White (2020) describe how the Castañeda policy is often interpreted rigidly and with perfunctory understanding, without considering the nuance of serving ELLs.

For example, some systems, such as Arizona, allow instruction in English only, even though there is evidence that native languages can be used to make instruction more effective (Cruze & López, 2020). English-only instruction creates two disadvantages for ELLs: the language barrier denies access to grade-level curriculum, and it minimizes the student’s native language (Cruze & López, 2020). In the case of Martinez v. State of New Mexico, plaintiffs alleged that education was insufficient for at-risk populations, including Native and ELL students, on the grounds that their culture was minimized in favor of American English-speaking culture (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019).

Such cultural minimization is pervasive. In 2010, legislators passed a bill barring a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Arizona because it was viewed as an attempt to overthrow the national government (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019). The legislators claimed the curriculum was a threat to national security, even though the program had demonstrated positive academic results for students (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019).  Cultural minimization reaches far beyond the Southwest.

Within the last nine years, 32 states have implemented the Seal of Biliteracy as an award for students who graduate high school with proficiency in two languages; many states have intentionally omitted ELLs from policies framing the Seal, meaning ELLs who become biliterate cannot receive the award because their native language is not recognized within policy (Heineke, Davin, & Bedford, 2018). By and large, such omission is an attempt to avoid political opposition, demonstrating the deficit mindset toward ELLs in the sociopolitical system (Heineke, Davin, & Bedford, 2018). Over the last 66 years, policy has remained vague and minimized heritage cultures.

In the words of Cruze and López (2020), “The U.S. has a long history of tension surrounding equitable access to education for students who speak a language other than English at home” (p. 81). It is important to understand how the history of educating ELLs in America has created a context in which unequal instruction can persist, native languages and cultures are seen as a deficit, and limited understanding of both the law and research can result in poor results for ELLs.

Leadership Postures that Advance Equity and Combat Deficit Orientations

Two leadership postures that promote equity for ELLs are: 1) affirming students’ native culture – including language – as an asset, and  2) insistence on grade-level curriculum for ELLs (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019; Robinson-Cimpian, Thompson, & Umansky, 2016; Mavrogordato & White, 2020) Affirming students’ cultural and linguistic identities might include practices such as culturally-relevant curriculum, cultural pedagogy, multicultural education, bilingual education, and including students’ communities as stakeholders (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019; Heineke et al., 2018).

Torres-Velasquez et al. (2019) define multicultural education as a philosophy that promotes justice, equity, and dignity in such a way that students are ready for the responsibilities of a globalized world because of their pluralism. It is important to note that none of these practices in isolation fully affirm heritage cultures. In the 2014 case of Martinez v. The State of New Mexico, legislators asked whether students should receive a bilingual or multicultural education, but such questions present a false choice (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019).

Rather than seeking a singular system or practice, strategies that affirm students’ heritage should be used in concert. One affirming strategy often overlooked by schools is the explicit engagement of ELLs’ families and communities, which is frequently avoided because school leaders fear the language barrier (Cruze & López, 2020). Additionally, promoting ELLs’ full integration into the school community such that native English speakers build an appreciation for ELLs’ cultures is key to affirmation (Cruze & López, 2020; Mavrogordato & White, 2020; Robinson-Cimpian et al., 2016).

While access to grade-level curriculum is not a singular lever to promote equity, it is central to the learning experience. A common practice is to provide ELL instruction as a pull out from the general education classroom. As a result, ELL students frequently do not participate in grade-level curriculum necessarily for equitable schooling (Torres-Velasquez et al., 2019; Robinson-Cimpian, Thompson, & Umansky, 2016; Mavrogordato & White, 2020). 

“Research identifies four main ways in which access to core content is frequently limited for ELs: (a) English-only instruction without appropriate accommodations, (b) weak or slow-paced curriculum in separated classes for ELs, (c) tracking into low-track (low-level) classes, and (d) exclusion from core subject area classes” (Robinson-Cimpian et al, 2016, p. 132). In pull-out classes, teachers may struggle to teach grade-level content to ELLs, and students do not have access to meaningful content discussions with peers (Robinson-Cimpian et al., 2016, p. 132). These low-track courses often teach through rote practices and avoid critical thinking which compounds the problem (Robinson-Cimpian et al., 2016). When students cannot access advanced courses with challenging curriculum, dropout rates increase (Mavrogordato & White, 2020).

Conversely, Cruze & López (2020) indicate that when students have access to grade-level curriculum, a virtuous cycle of achievement is created and students are able to learn increasingly advanced material which has positive impacts on student achievement and graduation rates. Access to rigorous, grade-level curriculum is paramount to move toward equity for ELLs. The impacts of such access goes far beyond academic success and may determine ELL persistence (Mavrogordato & White, 2020). By affirming cultural identity and providing access to grade-level curriculum, educators promote asset-based practices to better serve ELLs.

Author’s Biography

Matt Strader has been an educator for the past decade in underserved communities. He is committed to a global education system that works for all students. Mr. Strader is currently a doctoral student at Texas A&M University. 


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