ELLs’ Achievement Is No Longer a Subgroup Issue

Meeting the unique learning needs of non-native English speakers must involve entire school communities, and not just the teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms.

By Gloria Rodriguez — 

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December made important changes in accountability for English Language Learners (ELLs), one of the fastest-growing and lowest-performing subgroups of students in the United States. The new law shifted accountability for English learners from Title III, the section previously authorizing funding for language acquisition programs, to Title I, the program encompassing accountability for all student groups. What this means is that accountability for ELLs’ achievement no longer falls solely on schools with significant ELL enrollments. Instead, the new law holds all schools accountable for the education of non-native English speakers.

As a bilingual teacher, curriculum writer, professional developer, school administrator, and EL leadership specialist, I have worked to advance the needs of ELLs for over 30 years. I have spent my career supporting teachers and school leaders as they build more culturally and linguistically responsive classrooms and schools. As an advocate for ELLs and their families, I commend this federal recognition that ELLs’ achievement matters in all schools and districts. My experience working with schools across the country has shown that this work must be viewed systemically. Meeting the unique learning needs of non-native English speakers must involve entire school communities, and not just the teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms. Although teachers are often willing and committed to improve student learning, they cannot be expected to take on this critical challenge alone.

Professional development and training are often the primary methods schools and districts use to improve teachers’ practice. Efforts to improve instruction for ELLs often rely on these methods: Teachers may be offered professional development sessions on instructional strategies for ELLs, or they may be offered the chance to acquire additional certifications in ESL. While these offerings can be important steps towards improve classroom instruction, they may not include school leadership or others in the community who are critical for embedding essential school-wide practices that reach beyond specific instructional techniques. Improving educational outcomes for ELLs must also involve system-wide efforts to build more linguistically and culturally responsive environments. Unless professional development and training focusing on school leadership and the broader school community in creating these environments, educating ELLs will continue to be seen as a subgroup issue.

What, then, can we do to advance the systemic changes that lead to improved outcomes for ELLs? This work starts with school-wide attention to equity—closing the achievement gap between ELLs and their non-ELL peers. School communities must confront their achievement gaps head-on and recognize universal responsibility for closing them. In addition, school leadership and teachers alike must recognize the importance of building school communities that recognize their student populations in a meaningful way.

To create culturally and linguistically responsive schools, school leadership teams should:
1) Be knowledgeable about ELL education and practices such as ELL program planning, instructional practices, assessment, English language development, building ELL staff capacity, and family engagement.

2) Have a vision and system-wide strategy for the education of ELLs that is based on an understanding of the importance and features of quality instruction for ELLs.

3) Conduct ELL program reviews to ensure the services are responding to the current needs of the diverse student population. As the student population changes, the data should be analyzed and services should be revisited.

4) Advocate for a data system that tracks multiple measures of ELLs’ educational progress. The collection and analysis of the data on the characteristics, English proficiency level, program placement, and academic attainment of ELLs will ensure the success of students.

Effective schools need bold leaders who are willing to examine organizational, structural, instructional, and staffing issues behind the achievement of English language learners. Tailoring support to entire school communities—including school leaders and teachers—is essential to raising achievement for ELLs. Just as the ESSA now holds all schools accountable for this achievement, so must school leadership teams recognize that all adults in their buildings share ownership of the success of their students.


Gloria Rodriguez is a former classroom teacher, resource teacher, administrator, and EL leadership education consultant. She is now a Senior Associate at PCG Education, where she heads up PCG’s consulting services focused on supporting schools and districts to better address the needs of English learners.

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