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Exploring How Institutional Structures and Practices Influence English Learners’ Opportunity to Learn Social Studies


by Tina L. Heafner & Michelle Plaisance - 2016

Background/Context: Current research addresses the marginalization of social studies and trends in teaching English learners (ELs) in monolingual schools; however, few studies have examined the way in which support services provided to ELs impact their exposure to social studies instruction.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Social studies is a difficult content area for ELs, as they grapple with culturally specific concepts in addition to language barriers. School structures and institutional practices sometimes result in less access to social studies instruction for ELs than their English-speaking peers. We sought to describe ELs’ opportunities to learn social studies in the face of educational reforms designed to increase accountability. We also examined how institutional structures, such as ESL programs, influenced ELs’ exposure to the social studies curriculum.

Setting: The study took place in a suburban elementary school with a moderate population of ELs, situated within a large, urban school district in the southeastern United States.

Participants: Six classroom teachers, three instructional specialists and one administrator participated.

Research Design: We present a qualitative participatory inquiry that was guided by an opportunity to learn theoretical framework, in addition to research that suggests an important relationship between the quality and intensity of classroom instruction and students’ academic success.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected across one academic year and included transcribed interviews, field notes from observations, classroom artifacts, teacher journals, and district resources. We employed a multitiered inductive analysis using a three-phase coding process.

Findings/Results: Our findings suggest that ELs do not receive an equitable opportunity to learn social studies. Factors included variance in social studies time, instructional schedule design, the ESL program structure, and communication/collaboration gaps. Additionally, we found disparities between the type and general overall quality of social studies for these linguistically diverse learners and their native speaking peers.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We recommend the inclusion of instructional specialists, such as the ESL teacher, in planning, professional development, and decision making. Furthermore, we advocate for flexible, yet monitored scheduling of special services to ensure curricular access to all content areas. Furthermore, we emphasize that administrators must have a clear understanding of the needs of their ELs and that they must adopt a long-term vision for these students that includes simultaneous support for their content and language development.



This is certainly not the first article to address the response of the U.S. educators to the growing immigrant population in the United States, and in particular the New South as it emerges as a gateway for a tidal wave of foreign-born residents seeking to capitalize on its growing economy and opportunities for employment (Singer, 2004). Countless articles and chapters describe the way in which the tremendous spike in nonnative speakers has overwhelmed school resources and confounded policy makers. In truth, however, the “problem” of linguistic diversity in U.S. schools is hardly a new one. Since the turn of the 19th century, monolingual schools staffed with monolingual educators have grappled with the best manner in which to teach multilingual children, with approaches that range from bilingual education programs to complete immersion. These varied program models ultimately impact students’ opportunities to learn. Based on an opportunity to learn theoretical framework (Kurz, Elliott, Lemons, Zigmond, & Kloo, 2012; Stevens, 1993b) and research that suggests an important relationship exists between the quality and intensity of classroom instruction and students’ academic success (Monte-Sano & De La Paz, 2012; Reisman, 2012; Saye & The Social Studies Inquiry Research Collaborative, 2013), we examined English learners (ELs) educational experiences in an elementary school in the New South.


BACKGROUND: ENGLISH LEARNERS’ ACCESS TO SOCIAL STUDIES


Despite the history of linguistic diversity in the United States, there remains a lack of consensus and direction in terms of policy and program model for serving English learners (ELs). The result is a great deal of variance from district to district, and even school to school in how and to what degree ELs are integrated into the school community. Unlike many classrooms in states such as California and Arizona, where there is a sizeable Spanish-speaking population, many communities in the New South are comprised of students with multiple linguistic backgrounds. In addition, the region’s unique pattern of immigrant population expansion into suburban areas (Plaisance, Shockey, & McDaniel, 2015; Singer, 2004) results in schools with only a handful of linguistically diverse students, limiting staffing options to improve language services. These challenges largely exclude the possibility of bilingual programs, which have consistently proven to be the most effective means of educating multilingual students, as they afford the opportunity to learn content material while simultaneously developing English language skills (Collier & Thomas, 2002). Instead, elementary schools throughout the south rely heavily upon English as a Second Language (ESL) pull-out programs or, in some cases, a more inclusive approach, such as co-teaching or “push-in” models that bring the ESL specialist into the general education classroom.


Each program model comes with distinct advantages and disadvantages, many of which are closely related to the content and instruction received by ELs, as well as their access to the curriculum. These attributes of learning are associated with the opportunity to learn and are measures of the quality of educational experiences (Stevens, 1993a). Standards-based school reforms and high-stakes testing result in school administrators who are increasingly aware of the nuances of each program and are taking measures to maximize ELs' exposure to the general curriculum. This administrative focus is most clearly illustrated in district- and school-level policies that prohibit the scheduling of ESL class time during English Language Arts (ELA), mathematics and other tested subjects, such as science. Uninterrupted instructional time of sacred or protect content areas ensures equitable access for all students (Stevens, 1996). In contrast, ancillary subjects and enrichment content do not have the same guarantee of instructional time or continuity. Thus, we wondered if the opportunity to learn is ensured for ELs in content areas that are often considered disposable due to a lack of accountability or testing. To explore this phenomenon, we focused on ELs’ experiences in social studies, typically a subordinate content area, to enable a close examination of the quality and intensity of content and instructional opportunities.


Social studies within national education policy context remains absent. No Child Left Behind legislation, Race to the Top, and the more recent Common Core State Standards movement do not single out social studies in the same manner as math, reading, English language arts, and science. STEM incentives solidify notions of sacred content and reinforce the elusive status of social studies. Even though efforts have been made by national social studies organizations to elevate the discipline’s standing, state and local priorities appear to be driven by formalized policies and funding directives. Amidst an entrenched testing culture and the prevalence of associated remediation demands, trends suggest that nontested subjects compete for importance, scramble for instructional time, and are forced to grapple with secondary status (Center on Educational Policy, 2007, 2008; Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Lazarin, 2014). Thus, nontested subjects, like social studies, are often relegated to the sidelines of the elementary school curriculum (Au, 2009; VanFossen, 2005; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009).


The marginalization of social studies is particularly problematic for ELs in U.S. schools. ELs often lack "a working knowledge of American culture that can serve as a schema for new social learning" (Cruz & Thornton, 2013, p. 3), making the opportunity to learn social studies, more urgent. Social studies has the distinct purpose of developing well-informed, active, responsible, and engaged citizens who are well versed in discipline literacies, academic language, and unique ways of knowing. College, career, and civic life readiness are the cornerstone of social studies curricula (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013), representing goals which are equally important to first- and second-generation immigrants. Social studies is about “democratic values and their importance for personal, social, and civic decision making” (McGuire, 2007, p. 621). Yet, educational policies and associated accountability pressures, as well as changes in teacher training and textbooks have shifted the balance from civic and citizenship preparation to an academically narrow curriculum (Levine, Lopez, & Marcelo, 2008). Furthermore, the absence of social studies instruction for a growing EL population poses concerns in light of research examining the relationship between social studies instructional and political behaviors, such as electoral engagement and civic participation, among older immigrant youth (Callahan, Muller, & Schiller, 2008, 2010).


Given the well-researched trend toward social studies marginalization in elementary schools (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Fitchett, Heafner, & Lambert, 2012; Heafner & Fitchett, 2012b), we sought to explore and describe ELs' access to this critical content area in light of the need to provide these students with the language development support they require. Through the lens of a framework informed by scholarship related to opportunity to learn (Kurz et al., 2012; Stevens, 1993b, 1996), we examined social studies learning experiences for elementary school students within a multigrade, spiral, state-regulated curriculum.


This qualitative participatory inquiry (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011) took place in one public elementary school in the New South that, like so many others across the country, was teetering between program models to serve its moderate population of ELs. There were several factors which made this a particularly compelling case to explore. First, it was a school that had recently experienced demographic changes that resulted in a higher population of ELs than in previous years. Second, the teachers and administrators were adapting to a district initiative that added 45 minutes of instructional time to the school day. Finally, the school was in its second year of a new formative and summative testing program that included assessing social studies achievement at the elementary school level for the first time in district history. Each of these reforms held promise for making social studies more prevalent and accessible to all students. Examining how these enacted policies were associated with ELs opportunity to learn social studies served as our primary research focus.


CONTEXT FOR LEARNING SOCIAL STUDIES


There is a sizeable body of literature related to the education of ELs in U.S. schools. There is also a great deal of research focused on the current state of social studies addressing its positioning and prioritization within the curriculum. However, there are few studies that combine these two important inquiries to provide an in-depth examination of the manner in which social studies instruction is enacted for ELs and under what circumstances. To explain the context for learning social studies, we begin with the literature that informed our theoretical construct of the opportunity to learn as a lens for examining ELs educational experiences. Then, we briefly review current contributions to our understanding of how social studies has fared the testing era. Next, we provide an overview research related to the integration of content and language instruction for ELs. Finally, we include a discussion of scholarship related to ELs and factors that impact their access to the general curriculum.


THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN


Stevens (1993a) defined the opportunity to learn as what teachers do in their classrooms when they are teaching students and whether or not they grant students sufficient access to time, information, and resources to enable all students to learn curriculum appropriate for their grade-band. He identified four instructional variables that moderate learning experiences: content coverage, content exposure, content emphasis, and the quality of instruction. Thus, the opportunity to learn is a measure of the degree to which a teacher dedicates instruction to content prescribed by standards using pedagogical approaches that address a range of cognitive processes, instructional practices, and grouping formats (Kurz et al., 2012).


Opportunity to learn also encompasses school and classroom contexts, instructional practices, curriculum, standards, and assessments associated with student learning (Carroll, 1963; Stevens, 1996; Wang, 1998). It also includes equitable access to educational resources, rigorous coursework and content, and high quality instruction (Stevens, 1993b), thus making the opportunity to learn an important indicator of the overall educational experiences of all students. Within the field of social studies, researchers propose that the quality and intensity of classroom instruction, as it relates to the opportunity to learn, is linked to students’ academic achievement (Monte-Sano & De La Paz, 2012; Reisman, 2012; Saye & The Social Studies Inquiry Research Collaborative, 2013; Stevens, 1993a).


THE STORY OF SOCIAL STUDIES


Time for social studies surfaces in elementary schools in many different instructional forms and with varying quality (Au, 2009; Heafner & Fitchett, 2012a; Wills, 2007). In an effort to compress social studies curriculum into an already overloaded school day, the subject is often amalgamated with English Language Arts (ELA) instruction through a model of integration (Au, 2013; Heafner, Lipscomb, & Fitchett, 2014; Leming, Ellington, & Schug, 2006). Not surprisingly, analysis of national data revealed that while time spent on social studies has significantly decreased, time allotted for ELA has increased—suggesting that integration has become the accepted norm for social studies instruction (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Fitchett et al., 2012; Levine et al., 2008). Social studies finds its place in the elementary curriculum under the guise of ELA, creating learning environments in which literacy aims often overshadow social studies content objectives (Hinde, 2009; Pace, 2011; Wills, 2007). Similarly, there emerge contexts in which teachers view social studies as a “by-product of reading” (Boyle-Baise, Hsu, Johnson, Serriere, & Stewart, 2008, p. 235).


Despite its secondary status, social studies still holds the primary responsibility for nurturing the cultural, social, linguistic, and fiscal capital all students need for active and engaged citizenship in an American democracy and capitalistic economy (Callahan, Muller, & Schiller, 2010). The challenge for ELs is that the "content of social studies is particularly culturally embedded and incremental" (Cho & Reich, 2008, p. 238), making this abstract and complex subject uniquely challenging. The potential lack of familiarity with American culture and social norms may hinder ELs’ ability to use schema for connecting content-specific learning (Cruz & Thornton, 2013). Furthermore, social studies is a vocabulary-laden subject that poses word-learning problems for ELs. Specifically, ELs may be challenged by culturally different word meanings, unfamiliar content-specific words, and the iterative nature of disciple-oriented word learning (Bailey, 2007). The challenge ELs often face in successfully negotiating the complicated, conceptual organization of social studies is compounded by a gap in background knowledge and limited English academic language (Allen, 2005; Antuez, 2002; Marzano, 2005). Thus, social studies is one of the most challenging subjects for ELs to comprehend (Cruz & Thornton, 2013; Weisman & Hansen, 2007).


Teaching English Learners


U.S. schools respond to the needs of ELs through a variety of instructional models, with the ESL pull-out model frequently implemented in elementary schools. However, this model has been widely criticized for academic, social and linguistic reasons (Calderón, Slavin, & Sánchez 2011, Collier & Thomas, 2002, 2012; Valdés, 2001) The pull-out model requires ELs to leave the general education setting for a specified duration of time in order to receive specialized language instruction from a language specialist or aide. Collier and Thomas (2002) presented national testing data that suggest the ESL pull-out model is the weakest mode of instruction, both because it isolates ELs from their English-speaking peers and because it disrupts their instructional day by removing them from the classroom when important content-area material is being introduced. Moreover, Rios-Aguilar, Gonzalez Canche, and Sabetghadam (2012) found that linguistic isolation and cultural segregation, for the sake of teaching students English, does not yield better academic achievement for ELs.


Exposure to the academic language embedded in content area courses like social studies is essential in supporting ELs’ development of the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) necessary to compete academically (Cummins, 1979) and perform well on standardized assessments. In addition, research from the field of second language acquisition suggests that language learners benefit more from the context-rich environment of a content classroom than from isolated language lessons in which targeted vocabulary tends to be arbitrary or based on superficial themes that are unrelated to academic learning (Cummins, 1979; Ellis, 2008; Krashen, 1982). Furthermore, these contexts are essential in supporting discipline-specific academic vocabulary acquisition (Au, 1993; Cruz & Thornton, 2009; Graves, 2006, 2009; Vaughn et al., 2009). This is not to say that ELs do not benefit from the expertise of a language specialist, but rather that they may do better in an environment that addresses content and language objectives simultaneously (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010; Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2007; Freeman, Freeman, & Mercuri, 2002; Short, 1994).


In recognition of the benefits of increasing ELs’ exposure to content instruction, sheltered programs have become popular because they are thought to promote language development in English learners as students are simultaneously exposed to the standard course of study (Ariza, Marales-Jones, Yahya, & Zainuddin, 2010; Short, Fidelman, & Louguit, 2012). These programs also allow for valuable teacher-student interaction in the discourse of the content area that promotes second language acquisition (Gibbons, 2003). However, in order for English learners to be successful in sheltered courses, DelliCarpini (2008) argued that teachers must have an understanding as to how to connect the content material to students’ lived experiences, a potentially formidable challenge for educators who have limited experience working with students from diverse cultural backgrounds.


Over the past decade, the incorporation of language minorities into state testing programs (Zacher-Pandya, 2013) as well as the inclusion movement in special education (Klinger, Hoover, & Baca, 2008) has caused educators to reconsider current programming for English learners. There is a general trend toward push-in and coteaching models of instruction that require collaboration between language specialists and general education teachers (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010; Platt, Harper, & Mendoza, 2003; Reeves, 2004; Staehr Fenner, 2013). Short et al. (2012) argued that this shift in preference for ESL programming is a response to political constructs (i.e., high stakes testing via NCLB) rather than the needs of individual students.


English Learners and Social Studies


Specifically acknowledging the position of social studies in the periphery of the elementary school curriculum, Short, Vogt, and Echevarria (2010) stressed the importance of maximum exposure to this content area for the benefit of ELs academic success as well as their linguistic development. They argued that the language of social studies is the key to understanding current events and other critical stories taking place in the general education classroom. These educators defined a distinction between the academic language that can be learned in any content classroom and the technical language that is specific to social studies and crucial to the academic progress of ELs. Furthermore, they identify several elements of the typical social studies classroom that are not only conducive to learning the content material, but also to supporting English language development, such as the opportunity for content-based group work and the exposure to expository writing found in social studies textbooks.


Weisman and Hansen (2007) argue that social studies may be the most difficult subject for ELs. They cite the language-dependent nature of social studies in terms of the linguistic prowess needed to comprehend abstract concepts and the decontextualized presentation of critical concepts in social studies textbooks. In addition, they asserted that culturally diverse student backgrounds result in gaps in the knowledge necessary to grasp new, culturally specific concepts. Phal (2007) supported this argument, adding that the language in social studies is difficult even for native speakers, and that classroom teachers must create environments where ELs can learn English while learning social studies to ensure that they excel academically.


Callahan et al. (2008, 2010), found links among social studies achievement, curriculum access, and school contexts with voter registration and civic engagement and immigrant youth. Their research examined national secondary datasets and suggested a relationship between social studies instruction and political behaviors. For children of immigrant families, the school curriculum and the amount of high school social studies courses taken were statistically significant predictors of active civic participation in young adulthood. Nonetheless, children of immigrant families enrolled in significantly fewer social studies courses having a large statistical effect on voter registration predictions for ELs. Callahan et al. (2008) contended, “improving immigrate students’ access to social studies curriculum . . . will not only promote overall academic preparation for the adult world, but will also likely bolster their civic contributions as young adults” (p. 26).


Curricular Access for English Learners


There are several factors that may impede ELs’ access to social studies in elementary schools. First, social studies teachers with high populations of ELs cite deficiencies in professional preparation and accommodations as major barriers toward instruction (Cho & Reich, 2008; O’Brien, 2011). For example, in the absence of purposeful models of support, traditional classrooms with linguistic diversity see skill development and content (i.e., social studies) instructional goals often sacrificed for students' literacy and linguistic needs (Bunch, Abram, Lotan, & Valdes, 2001; Chamot, 1995; Chamot & O’Malley, 1996; Pace, 2011). Moreover, teachers encounter ELs in mainstream social studies classrooms who lack early exposure to social studies curriculum in elementary grades (Szpara & Ahmad, 2007) or possess a limited understanding of cultural contexts for academic content vocabulary (Antuez, 2002; Cruz & Thornton, 2013; Thornton, 2005). Furthermore, many ELs are unfamiliar with U.S. cultural literacy (Cruz & Thornton, 2009). These instructional challenges create content knowledge deficits (Cho & Reich, 2008) and often prohibit access to current social studies instruction that is exacerbated by overemphasis on linguistic and literacy foci (Lintner & Schweder, 2008; Pace, 2011).


In addition to academic factors that might impede social studies instruction, ELs face structural barriers to the social studies curriculum. Because social studies at the elementary school level is often not included in high-stakes, standardized testing programs, it is often the first content area sacrificed when other priorities compress the school day. Thus, general education teachers may prefer that students receive their ESL services during instructional time allocated for nontested subjects like social studies (Heafner & Plaisance, 2013). Similarly, a study showed that students in North Carolina (a nontested state) were pulled for specialized instruction more frequently during social studies than in South Carolina, a state where social studies is included within the state testing program (Heafner, Lipscomb, & Rock, 2006). These state level differences were further documented with national data (Heafner et al., 2014). Given the spiral and recursive nature of the social studies curriculum and the academic challenges we have already described, these structural obstacles serve to create potentially insurmountable deficits in social studies content knowledge for ELs. Thus, understanding ELs access to social studies is an important consideration in addressing the opportunity gap (Darling-Hammond, 2010) in elementary schools.


METHOD


In this qualitative participatory inquiry (Emerson et al., 2011), we explored English learners' opportunity to learn social studies. Specifically, we focused on how institutional structures and practices influenced English learners’ exposure to social studies instruction. We defined institutional structures as arrangements or patterns that evolve from official policy or common practice. For example, a school’s ESL program model was considered an institutional structure. Institutional practices encompassed the accepted actions of the teachers and administrators within the school. Based upon this definition, the act of communal planning was considered an institutional practice.


SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS


The physical context for the study was a suburban elementary school in a large, urban district in the southeastern United States. In the year of our study, the school enrolled 729 students and employed 34 classroom teachers, as well as 28 support staff. The school served students from kindergarten to grade five and was selected based on its size, location, and accessibility.


The school recently underwent a shift in student demographics resulting in an increased population of non-Caucasian students, as well as students from economically disadvantaged households. In 2010, the enrollment was 95% Caucasian, compared with 76% in the year of the study. In these same years, the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch rose from 5% to 30%. During the year of our study, there were 56 students classified as English learners. In the year prior, almost 90% of students performed at or above the grade level standards defined by the district. Overall, the school boasted a strong track record of high performance within its district.


Six general education classroom teachers participated in the study. Enlisting one teacher from each grade level, kindergarten through fifth, allowed for a vertical illustration of curriculum and praxis from grade to grade. Teachers were selected based on professional experience, administrative recommendation, their overall willingness to participate in the study and, in some cases, upon their content area assignment and the presence of at least one English learner in their classroom. In order to observe content area instruction that might occur when students were receiving specialized instruction outside the classroom, we included the special education, English as a second language, and academically gifted teachers. Finally, we included one school administrator in order to gain insights into policy making at the administrative level. Overall, 10 educators participated.


Table 1. Participants

Professional Role

# of Participants

K–5 Classroom Teachers

6

ESL Teachers

1

EC Teachers

2

Administrators

1

TOTAL

10


PROCEDURE


In order to gain a broad and comprehensive understanding of the way in which classroom teachers and instructional specialists responded to the needs of ELs, as well as in an effort to increase credibility through triangulation, we collected data from a wide range of sources (see Table 2). For example, personal interviews provided insights into teachers’ perspectives and the multitude of complexities that underlie pedagogical and curricular decision making, class organization, and responses to individualized learning needs. Each participant was interviewed on three separate occasions over the course of one academic year. Interview formats included one-on-one, small group, and whole-group focus groups. In order to develop an in-depth illustration of administrative guidance and priorities, we also conducted two in-depth interviews with a school administrator. All sessions were recorded using a digital audio device while we simultaneously maintained field notes. We purposefully constructed the questions to be open-ended to provide participants the latitude to reflect and respond from their personal perspectives.


Table 2. Data Sources

Data Source

Quantity

45–60-Minute Open-ended Individual Teacher Interviews

9

60- Minute Small-group Interviews

4

2-Hour Teacher Focus Group

1

60-Minute Open-ended Individual Administrator Interviews

2

Weekly Planning/Time Journals (3 per teacher)

27

“Off the Clock” Journals

9

45–90 Minute Scheduled Observations (3 per teacher)

27

45–90 Minute Special Observations

6

Classroom Artifacts

n/a

Informal Discussions through Participation

n/a


In addition to the interviews, we asked that each teacher maintain a planning journal for one instructional week, three separate times during the study. In these journals, teachers presented their intended instruction for the day. Participants were given space within the journals to make notations and maintain anecdotal notes, especially as they related to any variances from or disruptions to their intended plans. Teachers also identified students who were removed from the classroom during the day for special services. Planning journals described time allotments for subjects, instructional objectives, curricular resources, and measures of learning outcomes (e.g., student tasks). Teachers were also asked to keep a one-week planning journal of any school-related activities completed outside of the regular school day. These “off the clock” journals provided descriptions of the time, purpose, and focus of this work. We used these data to document any collaboration among teachers that occurred beyond the planning time provided during compulsory hours set by the school administration.


To further triangulate and cross-validate teacher-reported data, multiple classroom observations were scheduled to coincide with each participant’s journaling weeks. These sessions lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes and occurred at varied intervals throughout the day. Emphasis was placed on conducting observations when social studies or integrated social studies/language arts classes were scheduled. We also observed specialized or individualized instruction that occurred during push-in and pull-out times. For the pull-out observations, one researcher observed the general education teacher in the classroom, while the other researcher observed the instructional specialist’s lesson in another location. Our purpose was to document similarities and differences in opportunities to learn social studies for all students. We divided ourselves between the two classrooms and maintained detailed field notes throughout the observations. After the observations, we met to discuss the similarities and differences in what we had observed.


One final source of tangible data was the numerous documents and classroom artifacts we collected throughout the study, as well as the many photographs we took of classroom activities and resources. In addition to the lesson plans, worksheets, curriculum guides, and rosters given to us by participating teachers, we received school schedules, current and past calendars, as well as district and state standards documents from the school’s administration.


What we cannot quantify are the countless informal interactions and discussions had with the participants during walks to the bathroom, recess, class transitions, and even during instructional delivery. As is common in research with ethnographic roots, our presence in the classroom became less of an intrusion as the study progressed. Over time, the participants felt increasingly comfortable sharing personal insights and opinions related to the research topic. While we were conscientious in our efforts to document many of these instances in our field notes, it was not always possible to record the complex, nuanced, and often nonverbal manner in which information was conveyed to us.


DATA ANALYSIS


Employing strategies aligned with Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw’s (2011) qualitative inquiry approach, our multitiered analysis of the data began with the participant interviews. We inductively analyzed these data using a three-level iterative coding strategy: open, focused, and axial (Charmaz, 2006). Our analysis followed a constant comparative process in which initial open codes were compared with previous codes to assess similarities and differences. Codes that were sufficiently similar shared the same coding label; whereas, those which appeared to be sufficiently different were given a separate label. We employed this constant comparative strategy independently for several reviews of the interview data. Subsequently, we engaged in a series of weekly analysis meetings in which we collaboratively focused coding on emerging concepts. This led to the identification of conceptual interrelationships between the codes. These interrelations represented the patterns and overarching themes that we constructed from the data. We developed coding guides at each level as a means to organize and catalogue the codes.


Through this partnered analysis, we established both dependability and credibility of the research findings. These were achieved by overlapping data collection methods, including focus groups and interviews, triangulation of data analysis, use of multiple data sources, established data analysis methods, frequent debriefings, member checks, and inclusion of a wide range of informants (Shenton, 2004). We sought evidence for cross-validation of interpretations to increase the trustworthiness of our qualitative data analysis. Our data analysis revealed several emergent patterns, which we present shortly. We selected representative quotes to highlight key findings.


In the second tier of the analysis, we turned to the planning journals maintained by participating teachers. We read and reread the planning journals, highlighting key ideas and looking for emerging patterns (Creswell, 2011). Additionally, we compared the journals of the general education teachers with the instructional specialists. We sought to identify information that suggested differences in learning experiences for students who were served in different pull-out and push-in programs. During weekly meetings occurring over several months, we identified commonalities and differences between the journals and created lists of reoccurring concepts. We maintained a grid to assist in identifying these overarching patterns in an attempt to define our themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We identified quotes that represented the emergent patterns, highlighted different learning opportunities, and supported interpretative findings.


The third tier consisted of an in-depth analysis of our field notes. Replicating the analysis process in tier two, we coded the data independently, and later together, comparing and contrasting themes to improve our confidence in our findings. Throughout this process of triangulation and cross-validation, discussions of emergent themes and exploration of patterns occurred during weekly meetings from October until June. The classroom artifacts, lesson plans and school and district documents further contributed to our emerging understanding of how institutional structures and practices influence English learners’ exposure to social studies instruction.


RESULTS


The findings, emergent themes, and interpretations that follow relate to the original research question that guided our study: How do institutional structures and practices influence English learners’ exposure to social studies instruction? Our analyses led to the creation of four data strands associated with students’ opportunity to learn: (1) the design of the instructional schedule, (2) the structure of the ESL program, (3) communication and collaboration, and (4) the cumulative effects of differential social studies exposure. We include quotes from interviews and focus groups, classroom observations, planning journals, and field notes to support our interpretations, as well as to allow the voices of our participants to be heard.


INSTRUCTIONAL SCHEDULE DESIGN


The opportunity to learn can be evaluated by the access students have to social studies, the contextual structure for learning, and the time allocated to content. The design of the school day played a significant role in if, when, and how ELs received social studies instruction. The primary reason for the schedule design appeared to be rooted in the schedule of the ESL teacher, who was assigned to work with each grade level during a set time each day. Without exception, this time was scheduled during the ELA/social studies integrated instructional time for each grade level. For the grades that employed an ESL pull-out design, this resulted in ELs consistently missing social studies instruction in the general classroom in order to receive language support from the ESL teacher.


The following scenario illustrates a case of differential access to social studies. At the beginning of the study, our kindergarten teacher had one EL in her classroom, though there were 10 students receiving ESL services in this grade level. According to the master schedule, integrated ELA/social studies was scheduled for 60 minutes at the very beginning of each school day. Because of the heavy emphasis on peer relations and school procedures contained within the kindergarten social studies curriculum, our teacher elected to teach standalone social studies during the first part of this block of time as part of her morning meeting routine. By examining the ESL teacher’s schedule and the classroom teacher’s time journal, we determined that her EL student was consistently pulled from the classroom during this time for ESL support 3 days each week. The ESL teacher’s lesson plans and time journal reported that she used this time for activities such as “review letters already studied,” “segment and blend sounds together,” and “write and illustrate words that begin with the focus letter,” as well as other activities unrelated to social studies objectives. Our observations of the ESL classroom confirmed the absence of social studies content instruction during this student’s pull-out time. The result was that the EL student, in this case a newcomer to the United States, was not exposed to social studies concepts such as (from the classroom teacher’s journal), “creating class rules,” “reviewing class promises,” and “describing a home by naming its attributes.”


We found other similar instances. For example, the second grade teacher commented that her ESL student missed social studies. She attributed this to “the ESL teacher’s schedule. If she [the ESL specialist] didn’t take her out during the literacy/social studies time, she would then take her out . . . when we are doing stations, which would not be ideal, because that is when we are not doing social studies.” Similarly, the third grade teacher stated, “I’ve struggled with ESL students missing social studies, and administration is saying it is still my problem to figure out. But I don’t understand why they are being pulled from a time when they have to receive that lesson.”


Our classroom observations confirmed the accuracy of these grade level situations. Furthermore simultaneous observations of the ESL classroom provided evidence that social studies was not the focus of pull-out instruction. The specialist’s journal listed the following topics for second grade: “read, discuss and clarify vocabulary” from the literacy block reading. Likewise, the third grade pull-out curriculum focus was not social studies, but rather, “develops phonemic awareness and demonstrates knowledge of alphabetic principles.” Materials listed for one particular week were, “What Animals Need, Animal Habitats, and Journals.”


English learners in the departmentalized grade levels (fourth and fifth) appeared to receive more exposure to social studies instruction. Through multiple classroom visits we observed that the teachers responsible for the integrated ELA/social studies block consistently incorporated some type of social studies objective within their lesson plan. For example, in fourth grade, we observed students engaging in the creation of state maps to explain geographic regions and the reading of current event news articles to build academic language learning in context. We attributed this increase in social studies exposure to the way in which departmentalizing the school day placed each student with a teacher assigned to teach ELA/social studies for a set amount.   


We contrasted this departmentalized model with lower grade levels, where we witnessed that the time allotted for social studies often fell victim to ELA objectives. For example, in second grade, social studies was listed on the daily schedule as a morning 1- to 2-hour “Literacy/Social Studies (Workshop),” and for a 1-hour afternoon, “Literacy/Social Studies (Direct Instruction)” block; yet, in the entire time we observed, not once did we see social studies taught in the morning. Even when social studies was taught in the afternoon, instructional usually occurred as a stand-along subject, immediately following recess, and only for approximately 15 minutes. When the second grade teacher described her approach to social studies instruction, she stated that it was “100% integrated,” and driven by “prepared district materials listing specific literature to use for social studies integration.” She acknowledged that, “the new curriculum is not integrated with the literature” and that she believed there was “not enough time to do the book skills in both literacy and social studies.” She explained, “When I focus on ELA, I am giving up social studies.”


In the departmentalized contexts of both fourth and fifth grades, social studies was grouped with English language arts. While the fifth grade teacher expressed a sincere desire to consistently teach social studies, she still delivered many lessons in which social studies was not taught. For example, in two of the weeks we scheduled observations, she indicated that, “this would not be a good time to observe because we are not learning social studies.” Our fourth grade teacher participant appeared to view a conflict in teaching social studies within the literacy/writing workshop. She stated on numerous occasions that, “these don’t go together.” Furthermore, she explained, “I can’t teach social studies, teach writing, and teach literacy skills. It’s an either/or and not both.” She articulated a strong feeling that, “one subject will always take precedence over the other.” For these reasons, the fourth grade teacher changed her integrated social studies/ELA block to alternating literacy/social studies units. This allowed her to create lessons like the study of state geography and state history. From our classroom observations, we confirmed that this teacher maintained this structure and in doing so, created instructional time for social studies as a standalone subject. She did include literacy supports for vocabulary learning, reading strategies for current events, and writing protocols. In contrast, social studies was not observed once in an ELA-focused lesson.


In summary, for each grade level, the amount of exposure for ELs depended greatly on their presence in the classroom during this instruction, something that the structure of the ESL program at each grade level determined. We will address the manner by which the ESL program influenced social studies exposure in the following section.


STRUCTURE OF THE ESL PROGRAM


The quantity and quality of social studies instruction for ELs, in other words, their opportunity to learn, depended heavily upon the structure of the ESL program at each grade level. In our initial interview with the school administrator, she explained that for many reasons she favored a push-in model of program delivery for her students with special needs, such as language support. She also described the complexities of creating a schedule to accommodate push-in instruction, citing the need to provide opportunities for her literacy facilitators to get into classrooms that contained struggling readers to provide additional support. As she explained:


Last year we did literacy push-in, which was beautiful. We pushed in the ESL, TD, and EC teachers during literacy; we had literacy staggered all over the place- it gave so much help. We couldn’t do it this year because of the way the schedule went Monday through Friday. It was so effective last year because they did [push-in] with fidelity.


The end result was that each grade level team was left to work independently with the instructional specialists serving their students who required specialized instruction to determine the most practical and effective program for meeting their needs.


Left without firm direction, plans to adopt an inclusive model for English learners appeared to fall apart. In interviews with the school’s ESL teacher, we noted a great deal of relief that push-in instruction was no longer required. In discussing her feelings about this program she explained, “it works really well if you have a lot of intermediate students in one grade level.” However, on multiple occasions she expressed her hesitancy toward pushing into general education classrooms. For example, she described one earlier experience:


They wanted me to teach. . . . I couldn’t do what they were asking me to do, so I called in (an ESL administrator from the district central office). I had two completely non-English speaking students and they wanted me to teach a novel called The Westing Game. There were several hundred pages and no illustrations. All of the clues were related to the national anthem, which my students could not identify with. I spent a lot of sleepless nights at the beginning of the year. Finally with the support of (the central office administrator), I convinced administration that those students needed to be pulled out. So, I pulled them out, and I taught them the basics. We worked on science, social studies, and math vocabulary, because they are going to have to take the science, social studies, and math end of grade tests.


Given the flexibility to choose which program model to adopt, very few push-in classes were scheduled, and thus, ELs spent more time outside of the general education classroom. Even in the one grade level that opted for push-in instruction, the ESL teacher explained that she frequently opted to pull her students out:


This year so far I am doing all pull-out except fourth grade, I push-in there . . . and there it is kind of a combination between push-in and pull-out. I pull them out at the beginning, during the vocabulary lesson, because it is too fast paced. I can see my two students kind of zoning out. So, since she is just two doors down I bring them in here (her classroom).


Thus, in the case of the ESL specialist, it appeared that she did not view push-in instruction as a viable or beneficial option for the students she served. Similarly, she did not perceive herself as capable of enacting the type of ESL instruction she believed to be most effective within the context of the general education classroom.


We observed another motive for the ESL teacher's decision to move from a push-in model to a pull-out model. During a fourth grade push-in class, we watched as the classroom teacher lead a lesson while the ESL teacher was an "extra body in the room." From our field notes, we noted that, "her students were engaged in a hands-on activity, but she was working on crowd control and watching the clock." When discussing this situation with the ESL teacher at the end of the day, she expressed feelings of being underutilized and explained that the general education teacher often struggled with how to integrate her into class instruction.


The general education teacher affirmed this point in her interview when she confessed that she did not know how to bring the ESL teacher into the lesson. She was frustrated with the lack of initiative of the instructional specialist to get involved and made several comments during our early classroom visits expressing these sentiments. On one occasion she stated, “I don’t know what to do with [the ESL teacher]. She pushes in with her students but doesn’t help with the lesson’s instruction. Her students also seem to be falling behind.” By the second interview, both were relieved with the decision to move to a pull-out model. The ESL teacher expressed how this change benefited her instructional approach: “I like to watch the lesson and then reteach the lesson in small pull-out groups. This allows for more literacy support and vocabulary learning.” She indicated feelings of uncertainty in being in the mainstream classroom due to “my lack of content training in all subject areas.” None of our specialists indicated confidence in teaching all content areas and none had received content-specific training in more than one content area. Thus, lack of professional development appeared to be a further hindrance for inclusive models of ESL instruction.


Not all of the general education teachers were pleased with this pull-out arrangement, with many noting that they felt the missed instruction was harmful to their students who were pulled from the classroom during social studies. As one teacher noted:


Out of 22 students, I have 12 that are on a PEP, IEP, or being referred. (Those students who do not meet benchmark) will be pulled from me at some point, so I will have no one left in my room. I have three that leave during [literacy/social studies] workshop time to go to TD/literacy, I have three that go to IEP services, and one going to ESL services. I never have my whole block ever, all day long. Never do I have 22 students in my room. I am struggling greatly with the fact that I don’t believe in pull-out services to begin with, and on top of it, I never have my whole class, but I am responsible for their scores. I am really struggling morally with that.


Another general education teacher appeared to suddenly realize the long-term ramifications of missed instruction in one content area over an extended period as she explained the daily schedule of one of her EL students:


(An ESL student) goes out during the literacy social studies time, so a lot of times she is going to miss social studies. When I do social studies, she is going to miss it. . . . Now that I am thinking about it, I am the kind of person who will find a solution for it. It is just not right for her to miss a whole year of social studies. And she is smart enough to do both if we work our time right. I just don’t feel good about it.


For these teachers, the inability to find a common schedule accommodating all interests appeared rooted in a feeling of powerlessness in the face of multiple scheduling demands.


We asked the classroom teachers if they ever attempted to help their ELs recover any of the social studies instruction that was missed during their students’ ESL service time. One teacher reported that she sometimes sent class work home with her students who were pulled from class, but that she rarely saw this work completed and returned. Another teacher complained that there was no time in the day to reteach social studies lessons to students who were out of the classroom, adding, “it has been a struggle (to make up for missed instruction). I have not even attempted with my ESL student to integrate him in these lessons.” This teacher tried to reteach missed content for her pull-out students but she could not do this for all students due to the large percentage of students in her class receiving services (12 out of 22). Instead, she focused her efforts to recoup missed instruction by reteaching literacy lessons. Without exception, our participants expressed concerns that the new school system policy of mandated testing in social studies would reflect negatively on them given that they were, as the third grade teacher indicated, "held accountable for all students' scores, even including those not receiving social studies instruction."


COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION


The willingness and abilities of teachers to collaborate and problem-solve in order to support better outcomes for ELs appeared to be additional factors in determining exposure to social studies. For example, the ESL teacher consistently articulated a desire to support the instruction of the general education teachers, stating that she was, “always willing to do whatever they want me to in order help the students to be successful.” She also acknowledged the fact that language instruction could easily occur in unison with content area instruction. As a matter of fact, on several occasions, we witnessed the ESL teacher delivering lessons that related in some way to social studies or science.


Unfortunately, the ESL teacher appeared to lack a clear understanding of exactly what was being taught in the general education classroom, suggesting that communication played a significant role in when and how ELs received social studies instruction. For example, in an interview that took place approximately 4 months into the school year, we asked the ESL teacher if she planned to teach social studies to three third graders who were scheduled to receive her services during their ELA/integrated social studies time. She responded,


that’s what I am not real sure on. I’ve been talking to the teachers and apparently they are going to be doing literacy-based instruction on social studies two days a week, and just literacy the other days. I’m not real clear on that now. ESL teachers have to wait until the classroom teacher makes their plans before they can make their own. Last year, once a quarter, we got a schedule from the administration that told us what they are teaching in the classroom, I haven’t seen that this year, but I hope to.


One general education teacher became exasperated by the apparent gap in communication during an interview when she stated:


Why isn’t what (the ESL teacher) is teaching in her room connected to what I am teaching in my room? Why aren’t we given that collaborative planning time to plan that way so that she can cover (the missed) instruction and I don’t have to find a way to get it in later?


Given this teacher’s frustration, it appears that communal time for planning presented a sizeable obstacle to collaboration between general education and ESL teachers. Even when that time was granted, it was not always as effective as we might have hoped. Most grade level planning meetings that included the instructional specialists focused on completing paperwork required for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and parent communications. When meetings did include curriculum planning, the emphasis was not shared decision making. The ESL teacher at our focal schools explained:


(Last year) the administration planned it so I had planning time with each grade level, but the problem was, it really didn’t work that way. Usually during the time that I was there, they (the grade level teachers) broke into small groups; so really, I was only planning with one teacher.


Additionally, the three instructional specialists indicated in an early focus group that their administration told them “to choose one grade level and to attend that grade level meeting.” This directive was a response to the instructional specialists feeling overwhelmed by the numerous meetings required each month, in addition to their instructional and administrative responsibilities.


There appeared to be an inability or unwillingness on both sides to collaborate. This was compounded by an apparent lack of clear direction from the school’s administration. For example, it might seem logical for general education teachers to reach out and seek the support and expertise that could be offered by a language specialist, and our ESL teacher seemed eager to offer just that. Yet, this was something we did not witness once, in all of our interviews and classroom observations, until an occasion late in our study when one general education teacher remarked in an interview:


I haven’t asked (to plan with the ESL teacher). But now that we are talking about it, I guess that would be a really good idea. It would have to be outside of the school day. I think if I asked her, and said this is what we are doing in social studies today, she would do it. It is really not okay that (her ESL student) missed social studies every day. It is not satisfactory. Here’s what we can do to fix it, and then collaborate to do that.


Following this interview, we found evidence in the off-the-clock planning journals of the classroom and ESL teachers reaching out to each other by emailing lesson plans.


Traditional teacher-to-teacher planning was not the only activity that appeared to exclude the ESL teacher. In interviews with all of the instructional specialists in our study, we learned that they had not received content training in any of the grade level curricula. This was especially problematic since each grade level was implementing, during the year of our study, newly adopted Common Core State Standards for ELA and math, as well as revised state standards for social studies and science. All classroom teachers had engaged in professional development in the Common Core grade-level curriculum changes. However, instructional specialists did not consistently participate in professional development, team planning or grade level meetings. They did not serve on vertical alignment planning teams. Moreover, these teachers spent their own planning time completing required paperwork, developing IEPs/LEP plans, testing students, and providing special accommodations for general classroom assessments.


It became apparent to us that under the direction of the school’s administration, the ESL teacher and the general education teachers all held fast to the same objective for teaching ELs social studies. Broadly speaking, this objective involved exposing students to as much as possible, while simultaneously providing them with the language and academic support they need to become successful students in an English-speaking school. However, it appeared that school-level institutional practices, such as a lack of communal planning time and the fluctuating nature of the ESL program, inhibited the collaboration and communication necessary to make this mission possible.


THE CUMULATIVE RESULT OF AN INACCESSIBLE CURRICULUM


Content access and emphasis served as indicators of the quality of students’ opportunity to learn. The differential access to social studies had cumulative effects that merit serious consideration. In our second interview with the Kindergarten teacher, who had moved to Kindergarten from intermediate grades in the study year, she explained,


It's that trickledown [snowball] effect, if it [social studies] is not at least introduced and covered in every grade, then when they get to fifth grade they'll be way behind. It (curriculum) has to build foundational knowledge and so in fifth grade they are doing well, it's because they learned it along the way.


Acknowledging ELs students' lack of access to social studies in earlier grades, the fourth grade teacher explained her desire to keep ELs in the classroom during times when social studies was scheduled to occur, "because they [ELs] have always missed social studies, they are not touched during the literacy/social studies time. They [ELs] try really hard, but they are struggling. . . . They do get push-in during social studies." However, in the absence of an administrative watchdog, this protected social studies time and push-in approach in the general education classroom was converted to a pull-out model by October.


The fifth grade teacher had the most first-hand experience with the cumulative, snowballing effects of differential access to the social studies curriculum. She acknowledged that she often had to reteach content because of inaccuracies in student learning over the years. This was evident in one lesson we observed in which she corrected many misunderstandings about Christopher Columbus and early exploration of the Americas. This teacher also expressed concerns over content knowledge deficits that were clearly distinguishable by fifth grade. She stated, "it is student deficits in content that create the inability to teach the curriculum as outlined in the standards." She emphasized gaps in ELs' social studies vocabulary and lack of prior experience with state and U.S. history. However, unlike other grade level teachers, she felt that, "[ELs] get social studies every day." As we have already explained, the observations we conducted contradicted this notion of daily social studies instruction; however, it was evident that in fifth grade, more than any other grade, social studies was taught more frequently and was made more accessible to all students.


This fifth grade teacher referenced school system and administrative policies over the last few year as rationales for why ELs had not experienced the same opportunity to learn social studies throughout elementary school as their English-speaking peers. She explained that, "for low achieving students, they [school system administrators] told teachers not to teach social studies until students learned how to read and write." She believed that this, coupled with the prevalence of a pullout model, created an elementary learning context in which fifth grade was the first time that ELs experienced social studies instruction planned and delivered with fidelity within a general education classroom.


DISCUSSION


We sought to learn more about the how institutional structures and practices influence ELs’ content learning in an effort to understand motivations and priorities as they related to ELs and social studies. In addition, we hoped to identify the ways in which English learners’ opportunities for learning social studies differ from opportunities provided to their English-speaking peers. What we found were multiple factors that influenced English learners’ access to social studies and that these opportunities to learn social studies were clearly not equitable. We observed differences in content coverage, content exposure, content emphasis, and the quality of instruction. Just as we acknowledge variance from school to school and district to district, we witnessed variance from classroom to classroom in the amount of exposure to and quality of social studies instruction for ELs. We also observed a substantial gap between the intended opportunities for ELs to receive social studies instruction and the actual enactment of social studies instruction in the classroom. For ELs these differences are manifested as variations in the type of content taught, the resources available, and the content emphasis of each lesson.


We draw several interpretations and conclusions regarding social studies instruction for ELs from the results of our research. First, ELs in our study did not have the same opportunity to learn social studies. The opportunities they did have were impeded by inconsistencies in instructional time and delivery, the structure of the daily schedule, gaps in collaboration, as well as how and when ESL services were provided. The structural organization of grade levels also contributed to inconsistencies, as well as administrative perceptions of ELs’ needs.


Second, the social studies curriculum in the pull-out classroom varied greatly from the content taught in the general education classroom. As a result, ELs did not receive the same quantity or quality of opportunities to learn social studies content as their English-speaking peers. ELs did not have access to equivalent content, books, resource (i.e., maps), and often did not engage in social studies learning at all. Even when content was similar, it was not presented in the same sequence as the general education classroom, and literacy goals superseded social studies objectives. Furthermore, content inaccuracies in pull-out classes raised concerns about gaps in ELs' cumulative social studies knowledge.


A third factor in differential opportunity to learn social studies was that the lack of communication that resulted in the ESL teacher and classroom teachers operating in isolation from one another. The ESL teacher strongly believed that pull-out classes were most effective for ELs. This belief proved to be a barrier to providing her students with social studies content that mirrored their English-speaking peers and influenced her decision to move to a pull-out model. The result was an institutional structure that resulted in inequitable access to social studies content for ELs.


The lack of communication between teachers became a critical indicator of gaps in instructional opportunities for ELs. Operating independently, the ESL teacher made programmatic decisions in favor of the pull-out model while the classroom teachers lamented this structural delivery shift. Their reservations related to a pull-out model appeared to revolve around test score anxiety, missed content instruction, and a recognized gap in cumulative content learning. Yet, without a clear directive from their administration, these teachers felt that programmatic decisions were beyond their control. In general, there appeared to be a lack of collaborative discussions of the benefits, tradeoffs, and ramifications of various ESL program models. The result was individualized decisions that did not effectively serve the collective school community.


Fourth, pull-out instructional services were provided almost entirely during the already limited social studies instructional time. The only grade in which ELs had almost daily access to social studies was fifth grade. By this point recognizable gaps in academic language and background knowledge for ELs were evident. The focus on literacy and language objectives during pull-out instruction each year through the fourth grade resulted in limited exposure to a culturally rich curriculum characterized by civic education. The resulting snowball effect created generative gaps in content knowledge and disciplinary vocabulary. Thus, we conclude that the opportunity to learn social studies did not represent a common learning experience shared by all students attending our focal school and that ELs were greatly disadvantaged, creating intractable opportunity gaps.


IMPLICATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS


While we recognize the limitations of generalizing our findings beyond the scope of our study, we believe that the outcomes of this participatory inquiry (Emerson et al., 2011) shed light on multigrade level, elementary school learning environments that share similar characteristics. In our urban school district, as well as in the New South, the experiences of these ELs are not atypical (Plaisance et al., 2015; Singer, 2004). Thus, we contend that far too often ELs are not given an equitable opportunity to learn social studies in elementary school. In summary, the decision to emphasize isolated language and literacy instruction holds the potential to create limited exposure to social studies, content emphases, and the overall quality of social studies instruction.


Our findings support the documented practice of prioritizing literacy when integration is the primary method for teaching social studies (Bunch et al., 2001; Chamot, 1995; Chamot & O’Malley, 1996; Lintner & Schweder, 2008; Pace, 2011). We suggest that the differential exposure to social studies serves to undermine academic success for ELs and create cumulative content gaps (Muller, Riegle-Crumb, Schiller, Wilkinson, & Frank, 2010; Rios-Aguilar et al., 2012). This snowballing effect as a result of limited access is yet another layer to the marginalization of social studies (Fitchett et al., 2012) and one that calls to question curricular inequalities for ethnically diverse students (Cho & Reich, 2008; O’Brien, 2011; Tonda, 2010). In summary, the ELs in our study did not have an equal or equitable opportunity to learn social studies. Deficits in content coverage, exposure, emphasis, and instructional quality, all measures of the opportunity to learn (Stevens, 1993a), were present for ELs across grade levels. These results mirror experiences for other minority student groups (Stevens, 1993b). In response, we offer a series of recommendations situated within existing literature that could address the inequalities documented in our study.


Flexible scheduling. ESL teacher scheduling of services should be more flexible. We wonder if it was necessary to serve each grade level, with varied numbers of ELs, the same amount of time each day. This professional should be respected, but not given the authority to create her own schedule without consultation with other educators impacted by her decisions. Rather, the schedule should be made in a collaborative effort between the ESL teacher (who knows the students), the administration (who sees the big picture in terms of content), and in consultation with the general education teacher (Duke & Mabbott, 2000). Moreover, ELs should not be pulled consistently from a single subject, which results in intensifying content deficits and inequitable curricular exposure.


Scheduling must ensure that ELs have access to the same education as other students and all learning should be guided by state standards in specific academic subjects (Wightman, 2010). Social studies should be available to all students, especially ELs (Cruz & Thornton, 2009) who may lack the cultural and social understanding needed for effective US citizenship (Cruz & Thornton, 2013). Furthermore, foundational civic knowledge and citizenship education taught in elementary schools should be considered essential curriculum for ELs in light of the documented associations between social studies and future civic participation for immigrant youth (Callahan et al., 2008, 2010). Social studies teaches young learners “democratic values and their importance for personal, social, and civic decision making” (McGuire, 2007, p. 621). Access to this content has bearing on children’s cultural literacy (Levine et al., 2008) and their college, career and civic life readiness (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013). Administrators have to be cognizant of patterns of inequalities in curricular access and stratification (Muller et al., 2010) that can arise from something as seemingly simple as scheduling. Of equal importance are administrative attitudes toward and knowledge of ELs’ pedagogical needs. Experiences articulated in our study were not representative of culturally responsive, balanced, and diverse learning experiences. Moreover, administrative decisions impacted students’ opportunity to learn. Addressing the larger issues of leadership and administrative vision in ELs’ achievement merits consideration. We recommend future research to explore these associations.


Unique school needs based on English learner populations. U.S. Census Bureau (2010) data reveal that Hispanics are the fastest growing population, and the youngest. Approximately 47% of children under the age of five come from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. When we think of the crisis facing ELs in U.S. schools, we often rely on images of schools where the linguistic minority has become a majority (Muller et al., 2010). However, schools with small to moderate EL populations have unique challenges that need to be addressed.


In our focal school, there were not enough students to justify multiple ESL professionals, but the diversity of the students’ needs made serving this school's population impossible for one person. It would appear unrealistic for one professional educator to master the intricacies of second language acquisition in addition the math, ELA, science and social studies curricula for all six grade levels she served. In the case of our focal study, the ESL teacher was required to serve another elementary school one morning a week because the population at the focal school fell under a required threshold. What we witnessed was a great deal of time that was wasted on transportation between and planning for two different schools. In addition, this arrangement created scheduling limitations that required students to always be pulled from social studies and a need for grouping ELs according to their linguistic classification instead of their learning needs. Both practices go against research-based recommendations for supporting diverse student learning needs and culturally inclusive learning environments (Abedi & Herman, 2006, 2010; Cawthon, Kaye, Lockhart, & Beretvas, 2012; Collier & Thomas, 2002; Muller et al., 2010).


Large-scale administrative planning. Large-scale planning that prioritizes ELs is necessary. Classroom clustering (small numbers of linguistic minorities) for more push-in can only happen if administrators plan from the beginning with the academic needs of ELs in mind. Administrations need to increase their knowledge of ESL program models, including their benefits and limitations. Furthermore, they need to couple this knowledge with a sophisticated understanding of diverse students’ pedagogical needs. This enhanced understanding could then be used to select and customize programs based on their teachers’ backgrounds and abilities, as well as the unique needs of their student population.


Regardless of the program model that is ultimately selected, regular and consistent planning time has to be scheduled by administrators to create spaces for collaboration between instructional specialists and general education teachers (DelliCarpini, 2008). This time needs to be identified within the school schedule and needs to be protected and monitored to ensure true collaboration occurs. Collective goals should be established to ensure that all educational stakeholders have a shared voice in curriculum, instruction, program, and structural decision making. Given the frustrations articulated by the teachers in our study, it appears that communal time for planning presents a sizeable obstacle to collaboration between general education and ESL and other instructional specialists (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010).


Integrative content and language instructional goals. All teachers should write and incorporate meaningful language objectives into their lessons. Social studies offers sophisticated texts and curricular opportunities to expose ELs to academic vocabulary (Allen, 2007; Cruz & Thornton, 2009; Marzano, 2004; Short, 1994; Short et al., 2010), culturally rich content (Cruz & Thornton, 2013), and civic understanding (Callahan et al., 2008, 2010). Integrating strategies to support discipline-specific language acquisition within the content should be a consideration in every classroom (Abedi & Gandara, 2006; Abedi & Herman, 2010; Cruz & Thornton, 2009).


Ideally the development of language and content goals would be done in conjunction with the ESL specialist, as they are the ones who truly understand the ELs' language development (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010). Similarly, content goals should be directed by the general education teacher who is trained in the social studies curriculum and well-versed in content. ESL teachers logically focus on supporting second language acquisition, while classroom teachers are more likely to focus on content standards. Thus, we believe that targeted professional development, with a specific focus on integrating and balancing language and content, needs to be provided to all stakeholders on a consistent and ongoing basis. These efforts would support the creation of equitable partnerships that capitalize on the content expertise of the general education teacher while simultaneously utilizing the linguistic knowledge of the ESL teacher. This shared expertise model is the structure touted in current literature and one that is rarely embraced (c.f. Cruz & Thornton, 2009, 2013).


Specialist inclusion and access to resources. Greater collaboration should also encompass the inclusion of ESL teachers in all appropriate professional development and learning opportunities offered to general education teachers. The administration of our focal school assigned each grade level teacher to a vertical planning team to increase the potential for continuity between grade levels. However, we noted that the ESL teacher was not included in this activity. Schools should look for ways that the ESL teachers and other instructional specialists can be integrated into grade level planning meetings without overburdening teachers’ work time. Furthermore, the ESL teacher should be consistently involved in grade level planning meetings. The lack of engagement in existing collaborative structures exacerbated curriculum and instructional disparities. Alignment between the intended learning opportunities for ELs and the manner in which this instruction is enacted in the classroom must occur; and this can only be achieved with increased communication. Collaboration is a two-way street and classroom teachers should be expected to tap into the resources available in their schools, especially a language expert eager to do what is best for the English learners in her school (DelliCarpini, 2008; Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010; Nguyen, 2012).


Additionally, ESL teachers must be supplied with the same resources and planning opportunities as the classroom teacher. We witnessed far too much discrepancy in terms of access to curriculum materials, which furthered opportunity gaps. Furthermore, differences in the types of content and content resources need to be resolved. In our study, the ESL teacher did not even have a globe or map in her classroom, and her social studies resources were very limited in comparison to the grade level teachers. Administrative decisions will make strides in reducing these discrepancies, but teachers must also reach out to each other to become aware of the expertise of their colleagues, and thus, share in resources that can be gained through greater collaboration (Nguyen, 2012).


District-level decisions. School districts are complex bureaucracies that involve multiple agencies with very diverse responsibilities and agendas. We argue strongly that more collaboration and planning must occur at the district level in order to ensure the best possible outcomes for ELs and for social studies in elementary schools. Furthermore, classroom-level stakeholders must be involved in these initiatives. In the case of our focal school, the ESL teacher received direction, professional development and teaching resources from her ESL centralized school system department. She was largely excluded from all district training opportunities offered to the general education teachers. It is counterproductive to have professional educators working in the same building with different directives and objectives (Wightman, 2010).


Gone are the days when time allocated for professional development can be departmentalized, with teachers being sorted depending on their specialties. If we are going to hold all teachers accountable for the academic progress of all students, it would seem imperative that they all receive the same training and resources. Likewise, self-contained general education teachers and departmentalized content area teachers receive curriculum and pacing guides from their respective district-level leaders. These resources and directives must be designed to collectively support the standard course of study as dictated by the state, while simultaneously taking the needs of ELs into account (Wightman, 2010). If inclusive practices are to be implemented, there should be district-level mandates that are accompanied by the appropriate amount of quality professional development. We witnessed very few supports provided to general education teachers working with linguistically diverse students in their classrooms. It appeared as if many of our teachers had been sent into battle without the tools they needed to win, forcing them into a form of academic triage (Heafner & Fitchett, 2012b). Similarly, we saw a dedicated and hard-working ESL teacher who inarguably wanted what was best for her students. However, she seemed to lack the resources and preparation necessary to align interventions with content objectives.


In closing, this qualitative inquiry highlights systemic oversights in how elementary schools in the U.S. approach social studies education for their linguistically diverse students. While our results are limited to a single school, the documented trends of low academic performance on the NAEP U.S. History exams (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011; Smith & Niemi, 2001) and ELA/math (Cawthon et al., 2012; Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012) highlight the importance of how these findings might be more broadly applicable given the significantly lower performance of nonnative speakers.


Unless educators, both at the administrative level and in individual classrooms, are willing to critically reflect upon and revise traditional approaches to teaching elementary-aged ELs, we will continue to provide a constant supply of low-performing adolescent ELs. These students are at risk of joining the growing population of what educators have termed long-term English learners (Freeman et al., 2001; Menken & Kleyn; 2010; Olsen, 2010). The fundamental problem with the program we observed was the shortsightedness in thinking in terms of the lasting ramifications of inequitable curricular access and segregation. Unless a comprehensive, long-term vision for ELs is developed, we are unlikely to see improvements in their school achievement. ELs trapped in pull-out, segregatory programs, or what Valdés (2001) referred to as ESL ghettoes, consistently lag behind those who are given quality language support within the context of the content classroom (Flores, Batalova, & Fix, 2012).  


We hope that policy makers and school administrators will consider our findings and use them to develop policies that present more equitable opportunities for ELs to access essential curricular content, like social studies. In a country where a firm understanding of democracy affords a foundation for citizenship and civic participation for future generations, it appears critical that all U.S. students, regardless of English proficiency, be provided maximum exposure to social studies content from the earliest age possible. Moreover, inequities in the opportunity to learn, as we observed in our study, fall short of democratic ideals and democratic education. Attending to these needs demands a rich understanding of how the institutional structures and practices we have identified influence English learners’ cumulative exposure to cultural, social, and linguistic capital all students need for active and engaged citizenship in an American democracy.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 8, 2016, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21363, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:08:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Tina Heafner
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    TINA L. HEAFNER is Professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she also serves as the Coordinator of the M.Ed. and Minor in Secondary Education programs. Her research interests include social studies marginalization and policy, teacher autonomy and praxis, online and technology mediated learning, and social studies literacy. Selected recent publications include: Fitchett, P. G., Heafner, T. L., & Lambert, R. (2014). Examining social studies marginalization: A multilevel analysis. Educational Policy, 28(1), 40–68. Heafner, T., McIntyre, E., & Spooner, M. (2014). The CAEP standards and research on educator preparation programs: Linking clinical partnerships with program impact. Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, 89(4), 516–532.
  • Michelle Plaisance
    Greensboro College
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE PLAISANCE is Assistant Professor of English and TESOL at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She teaches graduate courses in pedagogy and theory related to second language acquisition and English learners in U.S. schools. Her research interests include the social context of learning English as a second language and the educational experiences of language minorities in monolingual classrooms in the New South. Selected recent publications include: Plaisance, M. Shockey, L., & McDaniel, P. (2015). From black and white to technicolor: Demographic change in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In R. Mickelson, S. Smith, & A. Nelson (Eds.), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte (pp. 119-136). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Heafner, T. L., & Plaisance, M. (2014). Exploring synchronous text chat in remotely-delivered early field experiences. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 25(3), 327–352.
 
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