Bridging the English Learner Achievement Gap: Essential Lessons for School Leaders

reviewed by Corrie Stone-Johnson - April 22, 2013

coverTitle: Bridging the English Learner Achievement Gap: Essential Lessons for School Leaders
Author(s): Ray Garcia
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753602, Pages: 216, Year: 2012
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A little more than a decade into the twenty-first century, school leaders are under more pressure than ever to raise student achievement. As schools work to implement the Common Core Learning Standards and adapt to more stringent testing requirements and more onerous teacher evaluation systems, the need to focus on what works—and quickly—feels critical. Alongside this already complex challenge are changing demographics and the rising numbers of English learners who increasingly populate schools in the United States. However, woefully inadequate information about what such learners need and a serious lack of resources, both fiscal and human, toward improving instruction exist nationwide.

In Bridging the English Learner Achievement Gap: Essential Lessons for School Leaders, author Ray Garcia develops a sustainable reform plan for improving instruction for English language learners to begin to fill this gap. He highlights the above concerns, which he views as “cogwheels”: a changing student population, a widening achievement gap, and continuous waves of school reform. According to him:

Despite countless school reform efforts during the last 3 decades, the achievement gap is more pronounced among certain groups of students. Inarguably, educators are faced with a rude awakening to the inability of school systems to sustain reform efforts for sufficient duration to realize an implicit impact on student achievement (p. 1-2).

Throughout this book, Garcia points to the issues facing students, teachers and leaders in schools with English learners and draws our attention to the types of reform that are needed to improve learning and instruction for English learners.

In Chapter One, Garcia notes that if current trends persist, English learners are predicted to make up one-third of the student population in the next decade. At the same time, English learners consistently perform below their peers on national and state assessments. Further, English learners are not a homogenous group but rather quite diverse. Within this group are multiple languages, subgroups of learners within individual languages, varying skill levels of languages spoken, and individual languages with many different dialects that make it quite difficult to think of English learners as one group.

In spite of reform efforts to improve learning in schools, schools continue to struggle. Chapter Two includes a summary of the last several decades of reform efforts, highlighting two concurrent challenges: English learners are typically in schools that “lack the skill and/or the will to reform themselves sufficiently” (p. 17) and sustainability is rarely considered in the reform process. Both the way learning is structured and the entire educational system must be radically reformed to raise English learner achievement. In this chapter, Garcia presents what he calls a sustainability framework to address such systemic change. This framework has six indicators: instructional leadership, alignment, teacher commitment, sustained professional development, teacher retention and school capacity.

Chapter Three describes the process English learners go through in schools, beginning with identification. Garcia informs us that many of the tests that identify students as English learners are flawed. Once a student is identified, however, he or she is then placed in some form of modified instruction with the aim of improving English speaking and delivering content in the subject area taught. It is here, though, where problems arise, chiefly that English learners are often not provided the rigorous content-area instruction to which they are entitled and to which their English speaking peers may receive more ready access. Finally, students should go through the process of redesignation, after which they are considered able to function in English-only classes. While students continue to be identified, schools have yet to successfully move most students into English-only classrooms and, when they do, they are behind their peers. It is only with high quality instructional leadership, the first indicator in the framework, that English learner school reform will succeed. Such leadership includes “a focus on all students learning and is dynamic in that it connects and informs personnel, policy programs, and practices in the school” (p. 52).

Citing research from the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006), Garcia argues in Chapter Four that most assessments inadequately predict English learner performance on content area assessments in English and further serve to widen the already large achievement gap. In order to make high-quality decisions about learning and instruction for English learners, leaders must closely examine both the data from these assessments as well as how these data are used to make instructional decisions about English learners. This awareness can only come through alignment, the extent to which each piece of the schooling process works—or does not work—with others. A reform-minded instructional leader needs to work toward alignment in standards, assessment and classroom practices.

Chapter Five tackles the challenge of English learner instruction through an examination of school structures. According to Garcia, most schools have students in one of three types of program: Structured English Immersion, Bilingual Education, or Two-Way/Dual-Language. The problem, argues Garcia, is balancing English language learning with access to the core curriculum. Presently, there are inadequate supports in place for English learners who move into mainstream on the core curricular subjects. One solution is a more flexible program. A separate but related solution, as described in Chapters Six and Seven, is a deep and direct focus on research-based instruction. The English-only approaches found in most schools limit access to both instruction and fair assessment, according to Garcia. Improvement is needed particularly in the development of academic vocabulary instruction, language development in content-area teaching, and a comprehensive literacy strategy that focuses specifically on literacy development. These important concerns are complicated by currently inadequate professional development and the problem of teacher retention.  It is difficult to make these powerful instructional changes, says Garcia, without staff who develop their own knowledge and stay long enough to implement new and improved forms of instruction. In Chapter Eight, Garcia notes the importance of building school capacity for English-language learners. Building upon the work of Corcoran and Goertz (1995), Garcia argues that schools must improve intellectual capacity (of teachers), resource utility and organizational development. Without changes in these three areas, schools do not have the capacity to make or sustain the deep changes for which he advocates.

In the final chapter, Garcia presents a comprehensive model for instructional improvement for English learners. The model is built around four concentric circles. At the center of the model is English Learner reform. The second circle includes each of the six indicators that form the sustainability framework: instructional leadership, alignment, teacher commitment, sustained professional development, teacher retention and school capacity. The third circle includes another layer of sustainability indicators: instructional leadership, alignment, teacher commitment, sustained professional development, teacher retention, and school capacity. Finally, the outside circle includes desired outcomes: access to standards, differentiation, relevance, student engagement, literacy across the curriculum, and equity in the classroom. Garcia encourages school leaders to work with two dimensions of the circle at the same time.

As an educator of aspiring and current school leaders, I could not agree more with Garcia’s fundamental premise that a change is needed, and that this change must challenge existing school structures, norms and practices in order to be both effective and sustainable.  As a person who studies educational change, I applaud Garcia’s work to challenge the “grammar of schooling” (Tyack & Tobin, 1994) that has persisted even in light of both a rapidly changing student body and increasing standardization in schools. In Bridging the English Learner Achievement Gap: Essential Lessons for School Leaders (2012), Garcia has presented voluminous research suggesting that not only are we doing our English learner students a disservice by not fully preparing them to learn English and participate in English classrooms, most schools do a poor job of exposing English learners to rigorous content-area instruction, thereby increasing the achievement gap for these students.

Perhaps most importantly, Garcia argues that:

For change in education to be successful in dramatically improving learning for English learners, it will require a fundamental rethinking or mindset shift in the way learning is structured for children; it will also require a radical redesign of the entire educational system and its processes. This is simply another way of saying that the narrowing of the English learner achievement gap requires systemic reform in schools and not the piecemeal approaches that characterize most reform efforts (p. 21).

This book’s strength lies in the extensive review of the research on the challenges facing English language learners.  In reading the volume, however, I felt a few areas could have been further developed. In particular, the book felt a bit too heavy on research and not deep enough on how to engage in the kind of reform suggested. By this, I mean that while evidence is presented for the kinds of changes that are required in schools, not enough emphasis was placed on how to make such changes. Indeed, it is really only in the final chapter that a model for reform is described. I would have enjoyed reading more about what leaders could do—or even read examples or cases of what people are doing—to better understand how to make such instructional improvements in schools. Second, while the author is extremely dedicated to the idea of sustainability of reform efforts, I did not see enough of a connection between the framework and discussion of how it could be sustained. Each chapter ends with a table discussing the sustainability issues, but more formal conversation within the chapter would have helped me see the links more clearly. With such a deep and complex framework, I would also have appreciated more discussion about keeping the concentric circles in motion. Third, while there is much that a school leader can do to improve the learning of English learners, it is not just the role of leadership.  Although leadership is key, systemic challenges also face English learners—concerns such as poverty, for example, were glossed over in favor of the discussion about school leadership. I completely concur that leadership is essential, but alone it is not enough.  Finally, I would have liked to read Garcia’s thoughts on formal leadership preparation and how universities can better prepare future leaders for the kinds of schools in which they will work. While he covered the inadequacies of teacher preparation, I know that in my own experience leadership education does not pay sustained attention to the challenge of English learners.

Overall, I truly enjoyed reading this book, and I believe my students will benefit from reading about the challenges they face as new leaders in changing schools.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Corcoran, T., & Goertz, M. (1995). Instructional capacity and high performance schools. Educational Researcher, 24, pp. 27-31.

Tyack, D., & Tobin, W. (1994, Autumn). The grammar of schooling: Why is it so hard to change. American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 22, 2013 ID Number: 17101, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 5:41:24 AM

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