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Disadvantaged Language Minority Students and Their Teachers: A National Picture


by Jennifer F. Samson & Nonie K. Lesaux - 2015

Background: Educational outcomes for language minority (LM) children are of great concern across the nation because these students have lower grades, are rated by their teachers as having lower skills, perform worse on standardized tests, and are more likely to drop out than are non-LM students. Given this context of underperformance, there is a need for educators to better understand the factors that are associated with their academic outcomes.

Purpose: This national study examines demographic and school contexts of LM students as compared to their non-LM peers to highlight the disparities between them that extend beyond language differences. A nationally representative sample of LM students and their peers participated in this study, along with their parents and teachers, beginning with kindergarten in fall 1998 and continuing in first, third, and fifth grades. In particular, data on key student variables (race, gender, etc.) and the characteristics of their teachers were examined. Teacher characteristics included: years of experience, certification status, highest educational level achieved, and specialized coursework (reading methodology and ESL). By comparing descriptive statistics for LM students and their non-LM peers, the authors hoped to identify possible factors that may contribute to the achievement gap between these two groups.

Research Design: For this descriptive and comparative study using secondary data, the authors analyzed a full sample of kindergarten students, including both LM and non-LM students (n = 15,026), in order to describe key demographic variables (i.e., gender, race, SES, etc.) for the two subgroups. Proportions for each subgroup variable and Fisher’s exact test results were reported, in order to determine statistically significant differences between groups for categorical variables. The analytic subsample was then restricted to students from homes in the two lowest SES quintiles to compare mean values, associated t-tests, and histograms for five dimensions of teacher background to identify differences related to LM status.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study demonstrated some of the great disparities that exist between LM and non-LM students that go beyond language differences including: 70% of LM students come from the lowest SES group versus 37% of their non-LM peers. Also, teachers of LM students had fewer years of experience and lower rates of certification than teachers of non-LM students. Finally, many teachers of LM students (as much as 50% in first grade) reported feeling inadequately prepared to teach LEP (limited English proficient) students. These findings suggest the need for careful attention in the form of educational policies that acknowledge the disproportionate effect of poverty and low SES on LM students. The negative effects of limited resources and inadequate social capital overshadow limited English proficiency and their ability to overcome academic challenges. Furthermore, it is important for education decision-makers to recognize the role that inexperienced, uncertified teachers may play in the educational outcomes of LM students.



Concern over the low academic achievement of language minority (LM) students in the United States has risen along with the growth of LM populations across the country. Numerous reports have shown that, compared to their non-LM peers, LM students underperform on a number of educational indicators: they have lower grades, are rated by their teachers as having lower skills, perform worse on standardized tests, and are more likely to drop out than are non-LM students . Unfortunately, the existing body of research on the factors associated with low academic outcomes for LM students is still emerging, and many questions remain (August & Shanahan, 2006). Often, limited academic English-language proficiency is among the factors that are hypothesized to contribute to differences in achievement between LM students and their non-LM peers (Collier, 1987; Cummins, 1980; Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000; Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). Like their non-LM peers, LM students have to master academic language and meet content standards; however, LM students often face additional challenges from having to acquire basic English-language skills (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). The added burden of developing proficiency in English is likely an issue for many LM students; however, it is important to consider other factors that may play a role in their low academic outcomes.


Two factors that have been tied to low achievement among non-LM students, but have received less attention in the LM literature, are demographic background (i.e., race, socioeconomic status [SES], and urbanicity) and teacher quality (i.e., years of experience, certification, and education level). In fact, only one previous national study has reported empirical data on elementary-aged LM student demographics and their teachers (Buron et al., 1998). This critical gap in the LM literature may be due to an overemphasis on English-language proficiency as the culprit explaining low achievement, at the expense of considering other influential factors. In an effort to contextualize the low academic performance of LM students within an ecological framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1977; Gonzalez, 2001; Kainz & Vernon-Feagans, 2007), the present study reports on differences between LM and non-LM students in their home backgrounds and their teachers’ characteristics in kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grade, generating a comprehensive national picture of the multiple disadvantages that LM students face. For this study data were drawn from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort 1998–99 (ECLS-K), including a sample of LM and non-LM students (n = 15,041) who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998. Data were collected on key student demographic variables (race, gender, etc.) and on the characteristics of their teachers. The teacher characteristics included in the analyses were: years of experience, certification status, highest educational level achieved, and specialized coursework (reading methodology and English as a second language [ESL]). Finally, teachers’ feelings of confidence about their training relative to LM students were reported.


BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT


Concerns about LM students in the United States highlight their rapid growth coupled with their low achievement outcomes (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; August & Hakuta, 1997; August & Shanahan, 2006; Buron et al., 1998; Camarota & McArdle, 2003; Kindler, 2002; National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition [NCELA], 2007). Recent reports showed that the population of LM students grew by 57% between 1995–1996 and 2005-2006 (NCELA, 2007). Rapid growth of the LM population would ordinarily cause little concern if they demonstrated adequate performance in school. Unfortunately, LM students have consistently scored below the basic level as compared to their non-LM peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2011). In the absence of additional information, it would seem that LM status is the primary cause of low achievement. However, it is important to note that most LM students come from disadvantaged backgrounds where poverty, parental educational level, and limited access to important resources in the form of books and literature-rich environments affect their learning . Research dating back more than 40 years on non-LM populations has demonstrated the negative achievement outcomes that are associated with low SES (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Coleman, 1966; Li, 2007; Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990; Parcel & Dufur, 2001; Smith, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1997). This compelling research suggests the need for more research that disaggregates data to account for the effects of SES on LM students.


Teacher quality is another topic that has received much attention in the wider literature on factors that impact achievement in non-LM students , but has received relatively little attention in the research literature on LM students. On top of limited English proficiency and low SES, differences in teacher quality may account for some of the discrepancies in achievement between LM and non-LM students. Research on culturally responsive teaching has demonstrated the need for teachers to attend to students’ family and cultural backgrounds when working with students from diverse backgrounds (Gay, 2002; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Unfortunately, many teachers may not have developed cultural responsiveness in their teaching; thus, it is quite possible that LM students’ low achievement is attributable to inequalities that they experience from being in urban schools with teachers who are inexperienced, uncertified, and less skilled than teachers of non-LM students (Peske & Haycock, 2006). A review of the literature reveals a paucity of empirical studies documenting the differences between LM students and their non-LM peers in terms of race, SES, urbanicity, region, and teacher characteristics such as years of experience, certification status, education level, and specialized coursework, and clearly more studies are needed.

Existing Research on LM Students in the United States


One of the few studies conducted on differences between LM and non-LM students was the Prospects Study, which began in the fall of 1990 (. This congressionally mandated study was designed to examine the effects of Title I on two cohorts of LM students.1 Demographically, the first-grade cohort of LM students in the Prospects Study was mostly Hispanic (73%) and Spanish-speaking (74%). LM students were also nearly equally represented in urban (46%) and suburban (48%) settings, with only 6% living in rural settings. Fifty-five percent of LM students were located in the West, 30% in the South, 10% in the Northeast, and 5% in the Midwest. The Prospects Study also reported that three-fourths of LM students lived in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared to only one-third of non-LM students. Since the Prospect Study, no studies have reported on the status of LM students using a nationally representative sample, and it is not known whether the SES and demographic background of LM students has changed. The ECLS-K provides a unique opportunity to examine whether national trends for LM students have changed, and it gives insight into the early schooling experiences of a cohort of children who are currently (2008–2009) in the 10th grade.


The Prospects Study also reported on important differences between the characteristics of teachers of LM and non-LM students . Approximately 87% of LM students’ teachers had a standard certification compared to 95% of non-LM students’ teachers. Forty-seven percent of LM students’ teachers had beyond a bachelor’s degree, whereas only slightly more than the 42% of non-LM students’ teachers reached the same level. One notable difference between the groups was that teachers of LM students had fewer years of teaching experience than teachers of non-LM students, on average. Approximately 52% of LM students’ teachers had fewer than 10 years of experience, compared to only 36% of non-LM students’ teachers. In addition, a higher proportion of LM students’ teachers (8%) than teachers of non-LM students (3%) were in their first year of teaching. Only one-third to one-half of LM students’ teachers reported having a background or training in ESL. Since the 1998 Prospects report, there have been no reports on the status of elementary-aged LM students and their teachers at a national level. Therefore, it is not known whether the large increase in the number of LM students has been accompanied by changes in the living conditions and quality of their teachers. Generating such information—the goal of the present study—is important because of the complex ecological relationships that exist between student achievement and the quality of their teachers and the environments in which they live.


PRESENT STUDY


In this study, descriptive statistics and associated statistical tests are reported on the full population of LM and non-LM students who started kindergarten in 1998 and were followed through fifth grade, as part of the ECLS-K study. Because of the important role teachers play in the school experience of LM students, the second part of this investigation examines how teachers of disadvantaged (low-SES2) LM students differed from teachers of low-SES, non-LM students in experience, education, certification status, and specialized coursework. Finally, this study reports teachers’ feelings of inadequacy/adequacy as related to teaching disadvantaged LM students with limited proficiency in English. Three research questions guided the study:


1.

What was the composition of the LM kindergarten population in the United States in race, gender, SES, region, and location?

2.

Were there significant differences between teachers of LM and non-LM students in years of teaching, highest educational level achieved, certification status, and specialized coursework?

3.

Did teachers of disadvantaged LM students report feeling adequately trained to teach students of limited English proficiency?


RESEARCH DESIGN


DATASET


Data for the present study were drawn from the ECLS-K, a federally funded study of approximately 22,000 children and their parents and teachers. The ECLS-K, which followed the children from kindergarten through fifth grade, was designed to describe schooling experiences at a national level for all children. Demographic data on children was based on information obtained during the kindergarten year. Information on teacher background was drawn from questionnaires administered to the children’s kindergarten, first-, third-, and fifth-grade teachers.


The ECLS-K is ideally suited for this analysis because it not only provides key demographic information on LM children and their teachers, but also offers the possibility of making inferences about the entire U.S. population of LM students. However, because the ECLS-K was not specifically designed to answer questions about LM students, some important educational data, such as the type of school or program that a child was enrolled in, could not be recovered from the publicly available dataset.


SAMPLE


For this study, a subsample of 15,041 children (1,468 LM students and 13,573 non-LM students) was drawn from the larger ECLS-K dataset. Included in these analyses was information from 3,211 kindergarten, 5,029 first-grade, 4,352 third-grade, and 4,734 fifth-grade teachers. The majority of the teachers were female (greater than 97%) and White (approximately 85%). Roughly half of the teachers in the ECLS-K sample responded that they had LM students in their classrooms, and among those with LM students, as many as 65% responded that their students included those who had limited English proficiency.3


MEASURES


Child-Level Variables


LM and non-LM students were identified based on a questionnaire completed by a parent or guardian who was asked, “What is the primary language spoken in your home?” If parents named a language other than English, their child was designated an LM student, whereas children whose parents indicated that English was the primary language spoken in the home were designated non-LM. The SES composite (1 = low SES; 5 = high SES) was derived from parent-reported information, including family income, level of parental education, and job status. This variable was also used to create a subsample of disadvantaged students (SES quintiles 1 and 2) for some of the analyses.


Teacher-Level Variables


Each teacher’s number of years of experience was determined by his or her response to the following question: “Including this year, how many years have you been a schoolteacher, including as a part-time teacher?” Teachers were also asked, “What is the highest level of education you have completed?” Response options included high school/associate’s degree/bachelor’s degree; at least one year beyond bachelor’s; master’s degree; education specialist/professional diploma; and doctorate. To determine teachers’ level of certification, they were asked, “What type of teaching certificate do you have?” Response options included none; temporary/probational certification; alternative program certification; regular certification, less than highest; highest certification available. Because the effectiveness of teacher certification is widely debated in the research literature, for this study two variables were created. The first identified the type of certification (none, temporary, alternative, regular, or higher). The second variable was dichotomous and indicated whether the teacher was certified (alternative, regular, or higher), or had no certification or temporary certification.


Specialized Coursework


Two variables on specialized coursework indicated the number of courses teachers had completed in methods of teaching reading and English as a second language.


Teacher Confidence


Teachers were asked to respond to the following statement: “I am adequately trained to teach children in my class who have limited English proficiency (LEP).” The response options were on a 5-point Likert scale format, with 0 indicating that they strongly disagreed and 5 indicating that they strongly agreed.


Region


Home states were assigned the following codes: 1 = Northeast: CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT, NH, NY, PA; 2 = Midwest: IL, IN, IA, MI, OH, WI, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD; 3 = South: AL, AR, DE, DC, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV; 4 = West: AK, AZ, CA, CO, ID, HA, MT, NV, NM, OR, UT, WA, WY.


Urbanicity


This variable reflecting the students’ home environment was coded as follows: 1 = Urban/Large city—a central city with a population greater than or equal to 250,000; 2 = Suburban/Midsize city—a central city with a population less than 250,000; 3 = Rural/Urban fringe of large city—small town or rural setting.

DATA ANALYSIS


This analysis began with a full sample of kindergarten students, including both LM and non-LM students (n = 15,026), in order to describe key demographic variables (i.e., gender, race, SES, etc.) for the two subgroups. Proportions for each subgroup and Fisher’s exact test results were reported, in order to determine statistically significant differences between groups for categorical variables. For research questions two and three, the analytic subsample was restricted to disadvantaged students—those from homes in the two lowest SES quintiles. For this subgroup, mean values, associated t-tests, and histograms for five dimensions of teacher background (teacher experience, certification, highest education level, specialized coursework in reading, and special training in ESL) across the early elementary grades were reported in order to identify differences related to LM status. Finally, the results from teachers who indicated that they were adequately trained to teach LM students were reported.


FINDINGS

DEMOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION OF LM STUDENTS IN THE UNITED STATES


Table 1 presents a summary of demographic statistics for the full ECLS-K sample (column 1), and for the subgroup of LM students (column 2) and non-LM students (column 3). The last column on the right presents Fisher’s exact test results, indicating the significance of differences in proportional representation between LM and non-LM students. LM students represented 7.94% (approximately 303,371) of children in kindergarten during the 1998–1999 school year. The overwhelming majority of LM students identified as Hispanic (82%), followed by Asian (10%) and White (4%). Among non-LM students, the majority identified as White (62%), followed by Black (17%) and Hispanic (14%). The percentage of female LM students (55%) was not significantly higher than the percentage of female non-LM students (48%). Seventy-six percent of LM students spoke Spanish at home, and 12% reported speaking other languages—10% Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American, and 2% other European languages.


Of note are the differences in SES quintile distribution between LM and non-LM students in the middle of Table 1 indicating that LM students were overwhelmingly skewed toward the lowest SES quintiles; 71% came from homes in the two lowest quintiles, compared to only 37% of non-LM students. Most alarming was the finding that 51% of LM students were in the lowest quintile versus only 17% of non-LM students. Only 15% of LM students were in the two highest quintiles compared to 44% of non-LM students.


LM students tended to reside in the Western (43%) and Southern (31%) parts of the United States, with the remainder living in the Northeast (15%) and Midwest (11%). Non-LM students were more evenly distributed across the regions: South (36%), Midwest (24%), West (21%), and Northeast (19%). The majority of LM students (67%) lived in urban settings, compared to 34% of non-LM students. Twenty-nine percent of LM students lived in suburban neighborhoods, versus 43% of non-LM students, and only 5% of LM students called a rural setting home, compared to 23% of non-LM students.


Table 1. Proportions, Frequencies, and Fisher’s Exact Tests for Differences by Language Minority Status in Race, SES, Region, and Location Type


  

All

 

LM

 

Non-LM

  
  

Percent

n

 

Percent

n

 

Percent

n

 

p

All

   

7.94

1468

 

92.06

13573

  

Race

          
 

White

58

8716

 

4

98

 

62

8618

 

<.001

 

Black

16

2064

 

3

15

 

17

2049

 

<.001

 

Hispanic

19

0

 

82

879

 

14

1701

 

<.001

 

Asian

2

806

 

10

427

 

2

379

 

<.001

 

N. Hawaiian

1

182

 

1

30

 

1

152

 

0.004

 

N. American

2

262

 

<1

9

 

2

253

 

<.001

 

Mixed

2

416

 

0

6

 

3

410

 

<.001

 

Total

 

15026

  

1464

  

13562

  

Gender

          
 

Female

52

7385

 

55

719

 

48

6666

 

0.761

 

Male

54

7656

 

45

749

 

52

6907

 

SES Quintile

          
 

First

19

2637

 

51

601

 

17

2036

 

<.001

 

Second

20

2845

 

20

289

 

20

2556

 

0.42

 

Third

19

3040

 

14

202

 

20

2838

 

<.001

 

Fourth

21

3143

 

7

188

 

22

2955

 

<.001

 

Fifth

21

3376

 

8

188

 

22

3188

 

<.001

 

Total

 

15041

  

1468

  

13573

  

Region

          
 

Northeast

19

2808

 

15

233

 

19

2575

 

0.003

 

Midwest

23

3868

 

11

207

 

24

3661

 

<.001

 

South

36

4881

 

31

346

 

36

4535

 

<.001

 

West

22

3484

 

43

682

 

21

2802

 

<.001

Location Type

          
 

Urban

36

6109

 

67

917

 

34

5192

 

<.001

 

Suburban

42

5692

 

29

462

 

43

5230

 

<.001

 

Rural

22

3240

 

5

89

 

23

3151

 

<.001

   

15041

  

1468

  

13573

 

<.001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 (ECLS-K), Longitudinal Kindergarten-Fifth Grade Public Use Data File


DISADVANTAGED LM STUDENTS HAD LESS EXPERIENCED AND MORE UNCERTIFIED TEACHERS


The top panel of Table 2 presents the summary statistics associated with teachers’ years of experience. It demonstrates that there was no significant difference in the years of experience for teachers instructing disadvantaged LM and non-LM students in kindergarten at the .05 level t(13908) = -1, p = .3. However, in first grade, t(4377) = -6.3, p < .001, third grade, t(3329) = -3.8, p < .001), and fifth grade, t(3283) = -3.9, p < .001, teachers of LM students had significantly fewer mean years of teaching than teachers of non-LM students.





Table 2. Mean Years of Experience and Highest Education Level Achieved by Teachers of Disadvantaged Language Minority and  Non-Language Minority Students in Kindergarten, First, and Third Grades

 

 

            
  

LM

 

Non-LM

 

 

Variable

n

M

SD

Min

Max

 

n

M

SD

Min

Max

p

              

Years Teaching

            
 

K

769

13.18

0.34

0.5

44

 

4141

13.57

0.14

0

52

0.3

 

First

675

11.79

0.36

1

35

 

3704

14.28

0.17

1

35

<.001

 

Third

510

12.96

0.44

1

35

 

2821

14.79

0.19

1

35

<.001

 

Fifth

604

12.14

0.39

1

35

 

2681

13.84

0.2

1

35

<.001

              

Highest Education Level

            
 

K

714

2.17

0.03

1

5

 

3965

2.07

0.014

1

5

0.01

 

First

674

3.18

0.03

1

5

 

3692

3.13

0.015

1

5

n.s.

 

Third

508

2.09

0.038

1

4

 

2817

2.17

0.017

1

4

0.07

 

Fifth

600

2.18

0.04

1

4

 

2656

2.18

0.018

1

4

n.s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 (ECLS-K), Longitudinal Kindergarten-Fifth Grade Public Use Data File





Figure 1 depicts the proportional distribution of teachers by years of experience, with a panel for each grade. Within each panel there are two histograms, one for LM students (right) and one for non-LM students. What stands out in the histograms across all grades, regardless of LM status, is that although the distribution for years of experience was wide (min = .5 years; max = 52 years), it was skewed toward the lowest number of years of experience. The mean number of years teaching across all grades ranged between 12 and 14 years. All panels demonstrate that a high proportion of teachers had fewer than five years of experience. The skew is exaggerated in the case of teachers of LM students, with an even higher proportion having had fewer than five years of experience.



Figure 1. Number of years of experience by teachers of language minority (1) and non-language minority (0) students.



[39_17772.htm_g/00002.jpg]



To investigate differences in the educational attainment of teachers of LM and non-LM students, descriptive statistics and histograms were examined. The bottom panel of Table 2 presents the mean values for the highest education level achieved by these teachers, along with associated t-test statistics. It appeared that the teachers of LM kindergartners (M = 2.07, SD = .014) had significantly higher mean levels of education than teachers of non-LM kindergartners (M = 2.7, SD = .01; t(4677) = 2.7, p = .01). However, in grades one, three, and five, there were marginal or no significant differences in the mean level of educational attainment between teachers of LM and non-LM students. A better picture of the differences in educational attainment is presented in Figure 2, which includes a pair of histograms for each grade showing the proportion of teachers by educational level. Nearly all of the teachers in the sample had at least a bachelor’s degree. A higher proportion of teachers of LM students, approximately 42%, had at least one year of coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree across all four grades, whereas approximately 34% of non-LM students’ teachers had extra coursework. Similar proportions of LM and non-LM teachers had at least a master’s degree (28%–30%) and doctorate (3%–6%) across all the grades. These findings suggest that teachers of LM students take extra coursework, perhaps in ESL or related to LM needs, but it is unclear from the data whether this is the case.



Figure 2. Highest education level achieved by teachers of language minority (1) and non-language minority (0) students in kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grades.


[39_17772.htm_g/00004.jpg]


Note: Education level: 1—high school/associate’s degree/bachelor’s degree; 2—at least one year beyond bachelor’s; 3—master’s degree; 4—education specialist/professional diploma; 5—doctorate.





Table 3 presents the proportion of teachers of LM and non-LM students who had at least a temporary certificate, along with Fisher’s exact test statistic to indicate significant differences. At kindergarten, first grade, and fifth grade, a significantly higher proportion of non-LM students’ teachers were certified than teachers of LM students. In kindergarten and first grade, approximately 90% of non-LM students had certified teachers, compared to 83% (p < .001) of LM students. This means that in the primary grades, 17% of teachers of LM students had no type of certification. There was no significant difference between the proportion of certified third-grade teachers for LM and non-LM students, and in fifth grade the difference was marginal (p = .06). Table 4 shows the proportions of LM and non-LM students’ teachers for each certification type (none, temporary, alternative, and regular). On average, more teachers of LM students than teachers of non-LM students had temporary and alternative certifications in kindergarten, first, and third grades. A lower proportion of LM students versus non-LM students had teachers with regular certification in all of the grades.


Table 3. Proportion of Language Minority and Non-Language Minority Students’ Teachers Certified in Kindergarten, First, Third, and Fifth Grades

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

          LM

  

Non-LM

 

p

                     Grade

        n

      Percent

SD

 

      n

      Percent

SD

 
 

K

 

799

83

0.3

 

4146

89

0.004

 

<.001

 

First

 

667

83

0.28

 

3660

90

0.004

 

<.001

 

Third

 

505

89

0.29

 

2805

89

0.01

 

ns

 

Fifth

 

588

98

0.24

 

2608

99

0.00

 

0.06

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 (ECLS-K), Longitudinal Kindergarten-Fifth Grade Public Use Data File


Table 4. Proportion of LM and Non-LM Teachers with No, Temporary, Alternative, and Regular Certification

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

LM

 

Non-LM

 

Grade

Certification Type

n

       Percent

 

n

       Percent

 

        

K

None

3

1.54

 

53

2.37

 
 

Temporary

27

14.98

 

177

7.96

 
 

Alternative

9

4.73

 

32

1.42

 
 

Regular/Highest

142

78.76

 

1965

88.26

 
        

1

None

2

1.03

 

37

1.81

 
 

Temporary

14

9.35

 

144

7.08

 
 

Alternative

11

7.11

 

32

1.55

 
 

Regular/Highest

127

82.51

 

1825

89.57

 
        

3

None

1

0.79

 

32

1.74

 
 

Temporary

13

10.3

 

141

7.59

 
 

Alternative

8

6.53

 

6

0.31

 
 

Regular/Advanced

104

82.38

 

1672

90.36

 
        

5

Emergency

4

2.64

 

9

0.43

 
 

Provisional

2

1.04

 

93

4.53

 
 

Probationary

16

10

 

97

4.7

 
 

Regular

137

86.31

 

1835

89.36

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 (ECLS-K), Longitudinal Kindergarten-Fifth Grade Public Use Data File



Table 5 presents summary and t-test statistics for the mean number of reading methodology courses taken by teachers of LM and non-LM students across the grades. On average across all students, teachers reported taking about three reading methodology courses. Significant differences between LM and non-LM students’ teachers were observed in kindergarten, t(4826) = -.21, p < .05, and first grade, t(4122) = -3.54, p < .001), in the number of reading courses taken. In first grade, 28% of non-LM students’ teachers had taken six or more reading courses, whereas only 15% of LM students’ teachers had done so. In third grade, 36% of non-LM students’ teachers reported having taken six or more reading courses, versus 25% of LM students’ teachers. These findings suggest that teachers of LM students were less likely to be skilled in teaching reading than teachers of non-LM students.


Table 5. Mean Number of Courses Taken by Teachers in Methods of Teaching Reading and English as a Second Language

 

 

          
  

 

Language Minority

 

Non-Language Minority

 

  

Variable

 

n

M

SD

 

n

M

SD

 

p

            

Reading Courses

         
 

Kindergarten

786

3.11

0.07

 

4042

3.26

0.03

 

0.04

 

First

 

628

3.28

0.07

 

3496

3.57

0.03

 

<.001

 

Third

 

470

3.3

0.09

 

2619

3.44

0.03

 

n.s.

 

Fifth

 

583

3.16

0.07

 

2559

3.25

0.04

 

n.s.

            
            

ESL Courses

          
 

Kindergarten

716

2.26

0.08

 

3506

0.65

0.03

 

<.001

 

First

 

617

2.29

0.09

 

3285

0.7

0.03

 

<.001

 

Third

 

445

2.36

0.11

 

2432

0.69

0.03

 

<.001

 

Fifth

 

553

2.09

0.09

 

2397

0.74

0.03

 

<.001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 (ECLS-K), Longitudinal Kindergarten-Fifth Grade Public Use Data File


The bottom panel of Table 5 presents the mean number of ESL courses that teachers reported having taken, along with t-test statistics. As expected, teachers of LM students on average had taken more ESL courses (approximately two) in all grades than teachers of non-LM students (less than one). What is notable is that a high proportion of teachers of both LM (approximately 40%) and non-LM (approximately 80%) students reported not having taken any ESL coursework.


TEACHERS OF DISADVANTAGED LM STUDENTS REPORTED INADEQUATE TRAINING


Across all grades, a high proportion of poor LM students’ teachers reported not being adequately trained to teach their LEP students. In kindergarten, approximately 43% of teachers reported that they strongly disagreed or disagreed that they were adequately trained to serve LEP students, whereas 35% agreed or strongly agreed that they had adequate training. In first grade, more than half (52%) of the teachers did not feel adequately trained to teach LEP students, whereas only 29% agreed or strongly agreed that they did have sufficient training. In third grade, more teachers reported that they were not adequately trained (42%) than those who were (27%). In fifth grade, however, equal proportions of teachers reported feeling adequately (41%) and not adequately (41%) trained.


A higher proportion of suburban (48%) and rural (55%) teachers than urban teachers (28%) strongly disagreed or disagreed that they were adequately trained to teach LEP students. Indeed, urban teachers were more confident about working with LEP students, with 53% feeling adequately trained, compared to only 32% of suburban and 28% of rural teachers. The teachers who felt least prepared to work with LEP students were in the Northeast, where 56% strongly disagreed or disagreed that they had adequate training, and only 17 strongly agreed or agreed. Teachers in the West were the most confident about working with LEP students; 73% strongly agreed or agreed that they were adequately trained, and only 18% strongly disagreed or disagreed with this statement.


DISCUSSION


When the low academic achievement of LM students is cited in the literature, limited academic English proficiency is assumed to be a primary cause, yet there are many other factors that influence achievement that have not sufficiently been accounted for. This study looked beyond language background, by focusing on student-, teacher-, and setting-level factors. In particular, these descriptive and comparative analyses of national-level demographic data on LM and non-LM students and their teachers highlighted several ways in which LM students in the United States began school and continued through their education at a greater disadvantage for academic and personal success than their non-LM peers. These results also demonstrated how demographic disadvantages may be exacerbated by the quality of their teachers.


Four main findings emerged from this study. First, a disproportionate number of LM students experienced extreme socioeconomic disadvantages, with more than 70% coming from families in the lowest SES quintiles, whereas only 37% of their non-LM peers came from low-SES families. Second, these results revealed a noticeable demographic shift from previous reports on LM students, with a higher proportion of LM students represented in urban settings and in Northern and Midwestern regions than was reported in previous studies. Third, disadvantaged LM students had teachers with fewer years of experience and lower rates of certification than disadvantaged non-LM students. Finally, a high proportion of disadvantaged LM students’ teachers (as much as 50% in first grade) reported feeling inadequately prepared to teach LEP students.


LM STUDENTS EXPERIENCED GREATER SES DISADVANTAGE THAN NON-LM STUDENTS


The findings from this study provided evidence for differences, beyond language, between LM and non-LM students that may contribute to the low academic achievement of LM students. First, economic conditions for LM students did not improve in the timeframe between the 1990 Prospects and 1998 ECLS-K studies. A large majority of LM students continued to have parents with low income, limited education, and low job status. These indicators of low SES have been linked to low academic achievement  and may help explain why LM students underperform relative to their non-LM peers. The challenges that LM students face due to low SES begin long before they start school, placing them at a disadvantage in accessing the social capital available to children of more gainfully employed, highly educated parents. More affluent parents are likely to boost the language and vocabulary development of their children by providing access to books, museums, computers, and environments that support school-based knowledge . In addition, children from middle and upper class backgrounds are familiar with the language and culture of schooling provided by teachers (often from middle and upper class backgrounds themselves). In contrast, children from low-SES homes face the challenges associated with coming from sociocultural contexts that are not reflected in the context of schools (Heath, 1986; Perez & Torres-Guzman, 1992; Purcell-Gates, 1995). For example, LM students are likely to develop language patterns and vocabulary that suits their home contexts, but does not promote school-based vocabulary and literacy development, which are critical in learning to read (National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Just as it takes time and scaffolding for monolingual children to acquire academic language, LM students who come to English later, or who come from homes with limited models for academic language development, will need the time and support to develop in this area. Many also face the negative effects of poverty on health, nutrition, shelter, and other resources—effects that have been shown to disproportionately affect low-SES children’s achievement in school. So it is no wonder that low-SES LM students underperform academically .


The disparity between LM and non-LM students’ socioeconomic resources is important to take into account, particularly in national reports like the NAEP, which showed an achievement gap between the two groups but failed to take SES into account when reporting data on LM students. The danger in reporting data on LM students without controlling for SES is that LM status is perceived to be a risk factor and the primary cause of low achievement. Several existing studies have demonstrated that LM students do not always underperform relative to their non-LM peers . When given adequate support, LM students outperform non-LM students in reading (Lesaux & Siegel, 2003). In order to better understand the true impact of LM status on achievement, future studies should compare LM students to their non-LM peers of similar SES.


The academic setbacks that LM students face have too often been attributed to limited academic English skills, but a closer look at the knowledge and skills of their teachers, particularly in relation to awareness of students’ sociocultural backgrounds, is essential. Currently, federal funds in the form of Title I that target disadvantaged students and Title III for LM students effectively recognize the need for policies and programs for students at risk for academic delays. Unfortunately, teachers lack specific guidance for properly addressing the diverse learning needs of LM students. Thus, additional efforts may be necessary to improve the quality and effectiveness of these federally funded and local programs for LM students. Convening expert panels to identify empirically validated strategies for teaching LM students literacy skills, as well as effective methods for developing teachers who use these strategies, may help to further the field in meeting its goals of improving LM student outcomes. Adequate support for LM students includes attending to the sociocultural contexts of their homes and communities (Heath, 1986; Perez & Torres-Guzman, 1992).


A second major finding of this study was the noticeable demographic shift between the 1990 Prospects Study and the 1998 ECLS-K study. In 1990, LM students were equally represented in both urban (46%) and suburban (48%) settings, but by 1998 LM students were more likely to live in urban (67%) than in suburban (29%) or rural (5%) settings. Although LM students were still residing mostly in the Western and Southern regions of the United States, in 1998 there was a 50% increase in the proportion of LM students living in the Northeast (15%) over the level than was estimated during the Prospects Study (10%). Similarly, in the Midwestern states, the population of LM students more than doubled, from 5% in 1990 to 11% in 1998.


The finding that LM students were concentrated in urban schools is a concern because urban settings are associated with overcrowding, lack of resources, racial and economic segregation, and chronic underachievement (Coleman, 1966. As a result, the challenges that LM students face outside of school due to low SES can be compounded by the difficulties associated with attending schools in urban settings. In addition, the finding that the LM student population grew by 50% in the Northeast and 100% in the Midwest means that many historically English-only districts may be ill prepared to meet the needs of the large influx of LM students. In the absence of trained teachers and high-quality programs, LM students are at risk for lower academic achievement than their non-LM peers (August & Shanahan, 2006). Fortunately, several studies are underway to evaluate the types of supports teachers need (Faltis, Arias, & Ramirez-Marin, 2009; Merino, Mendle, Tellez, & Bunch, 2009), including one in a setting with historically few LM students (i.e., rural, Northeast; Penner-Williams & Gonzales-Worthen, 2010. In addition, these findings show that teacher pre-service training and in-service professional development will need to include coursework on teaching LM students as part of the core curriculum because the likelihood of having an LM student is increasing in all parts of the country.


The third major finding of this study was that LM and non-LM students’ teachers differed on key indicators of teacher quality across the elementary grades. While most of the differences between students regardless of LM status can be attributed to SES, even when LM students were compared to their non-LM peers with similarly low SES, LM students had teachers with less experience, lower levels of teacher certification, and fewer courses in reading methodology. There are several possible explanations for why teachers of LM students had fewer years of experience. It could be that there are difficulties attracting experienced teachers to teach LM students, or that teachers of LM students either leave the profession after a few years or they stop working with LM students because of the challenges associated with working in high-needs schools (Haycock, 1998; Peske & Haycock, 2006; Johnson, Berg, & Donaldson, 2005).

Another possible explanation is that only teachers with few years of experience have obtained certification to work with LM populations because these teacher-training programs have only become widely available in the past several decades, and veteran teachers did not have the option of obtaining the same types of certification. As a result, LM students are assigned to teachers with fewer years of experience but more coursework in ESL. The finding that LM students’ teachers were less likely to be certified than those of non-LM students may indicate the teacher shortage where very few individuals have the necessary qualifications to work with LM students . In many states, specialized coursework is needed to be able to work in the English-language learner, ESL, or bilingual programs that serve LM students who are developing proficiency in English (Garcia, 1996). This requirement could dissuade teachers from pursuing a specialization to work with LM student populations. It was no surprise that teachers of LM students reported taking significantly more ESL courses than non-LM teachers. However, they took fewer courses in reading methodology, and it is unclear whether the ESL courses overemphasize developing conversational English-language skills over literacy-relevant skills, which could explain differences in the academic achievement of LM versus non-LM students. Since we know that reading instruction is especially critical in the primary grades, it is important that all teachers know how to teach the skills that children need for reading (Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005). Unfortunately, LM students may be at a disadvantage in this regard, and their teachers may not have adequate training to help support their literacy development. There is a clear need for research and policies that improve the distribution of high-quality teachers to LM students. Improving student outcomes is unlikely in the absence of teachers who are adequately trained and who know how to effectively teach LM students. The extant literature articulated critical components in ESL development that specify knowledge, skills, and dispositions in the areas of language and culture (de Jong & Harper, 2011; Tellez & Waxman, 2004), but instruction on supporting academic skills is often not explicitly included.


HOW SOCIETY CAN ADDRESS THE CHALLENGE OF EDUCATING LM STUDENTS


One positive finding of this study is that the settings and regions with the highest proportion of LM students (urban schools in the West) had teachers who felt the most confident about teaching LEP students. However, in settings where there were few LM students (Northeast, suburban/rural), a high proportion of teachers reported not being adequately trained to teach them. This implies that more professional development or support for teachers is needed in schools with low LM student enrollment. In general, school administrators have a limited pool of teachers to draw from who are qualified to teach their LM students (Garcia, 1996; Tellez & Waxman, 2004). As a result, a number of innovative approaches for filling vacancies have arisen, including district-sponsored alternative certification programs that were specifically designed to recruit, train, and retain teachers in areas with a shortage (Garcia, 1996; Johnson et al., 2005; Peske & Haycock, 2006). In addition, some districts may be responding to the gap in teachers’ knowledge and skills by providing onsite professional development.


This study presents a picture of how schools face many challenges related to assigning adequate teachers to LM students. The findings indicate the need for university- and district-based teacher-training programs to offer coursework relevant to the academic development of LM students as part of the core curriculum. In addition, state education departments may need to take a more active role in providing guidelines and technical assistance to districts on how to support teachers who work with LM students. What remains unknown in the research literature is whether and which teacher characteristics have an effect on disadvantaged LM students’ outcomes. If more is known about the school-based factors that improve LM students’ performance, then there is hope that educators can make a difference by creating better conditions for LM students to reach their maximum potential.


Some schools and districts hoping to strengthen the pool of educators working with LM students have offered incentives to retain teachers who have expertise working with high-needs students . In addition, the recruitment incentives schools provide need to be attractive enough for teachers to consider completing the extra coursework or training needed to adequately serve these students. Furthermore, once research has identified effective teacher-training methods and incentive programs, policies on teacher quality developed by state and federal legislators could support such initiatives. Indeed, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, also known as the Stimulus Bill that was recently passed by Congress (AARA, 2009), supports these efforts. The bill includes $200 million in funding for more research that identifies incentives that will increase teacher recruitment and retention in high-needs schools and subjects.


In light of the striking differences found between LM and non-LM students and their teachers, it is not surprising that LM students lag behind in school. The odds appear to be stacked against LM students on multiple levels. On top of their need to acquire English-language skills, LM students have to contend with disadvantages associated with low SES, living in urban settings, as well as having low-quality teachers who feel inadequately trained, and this limits their chances of school success. While educators and policymakers are unable to eradicate household and neighborhood poverty, there are a number of factors that are within their control, particularly teacher development and school quality, that would promote LM student achievement. In particular, teacher quality has received a great deal of attention recently in both the research and policy arenas, and it is important to ensure that the specific needs of LM students are not neglected. The findings that low-SES LM students face more disadvantages than their non-LM peers at home and in school, including unequal distribution of quality teachers, establishes a rationale for both more research and policies that can improve LM student outcomes. The common finding that LM students demonstrate academic underperformance is not surprising given the dire circumstances that they face with underprepared teachers; however, if educators are armed with the necessary knowledge and supports to provide LM students with a whole range of options for success, there is hope of helping them to reach academic and life milestones as fluent English or bilingual speakers, readers, and writers.


Notes


1. Title 1 is a federal program designed to meet the needs of disadvantaged students. The Prospects Study included two cohorts of students. The first cohort of 9,240 students was followed from first to third grade starting in 1991. The second cohort of 9,510 students was followed from third through sixth grade, beginning in 1990.

2. Authors acknowledge the importance of avoiding the adoption of a deficit view of LM students and recognize that when given sufficient economic, social, and educational resources, LM students achieve at a level that is commensurate or above their non-LM peers. The term “disadvantaged” in this paper is used to refer to students who do not have the benefit of coming from homes with high socioeconomic status.


3. Limited English proficiency is a term that the ECLS-K study used to refer to students that the school identified as not having proficiency in English. This term falls under the umbrella term of LM, which is composed of both students of limited English proficiency as well as those who are fluent in English.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 2, 2015, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17772, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 7:02:20 PM

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  • Jennifer Samson
    Hunter College
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER F. SAMSON is assistant professor of special education at Hunter College. Her research is focused on literacy development and teacher quality for students with learning disabilities and English language learners. Samson’s work has been published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, Teaching Exceptional Children, and Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
  • Nonie Lesaux
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    NONIE LESAUX is professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research on reading and vocabulary development, and instructional strategies to prevent reading difficulties has been published in the American Educational Research Journal, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology & Child Development.
 
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