ELL Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap?

by Sarah Ottow

In just ten years, experts project that nearly one in four US public school students will be an English language learner (ELL).  These students, from richly diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, bring unique assets and challenges to our schools every day. Unfortunately, largely due to our underprepared teaching force, current ELLs are underachieving at alarming rates.  Hence, we have the 'achievement gap'.  But is it an 'achievement gap' or an 'opportunity gap'?

Instead of viewing underachievement as a 'within child' underachievement issue, let's step back and examine the 'systems issues' at play here in ensuring that every student has the opportunity to have a prepared, competent teacher in front of him or her every day.  Hence, we have an 'opportunity gap'.

Our current training model for educators of ELLs is not accomplishing what it sets out to do--building educator capacity and, in turn, improving student outcomes.  Unfortunately, training and professional development methods are not staying ahead of this issue efficiently and effectively enough.  Educators entering the teaching force report not being fully prepared by their training programs.  Though the United States spends upward of $18 billion in professional development (PD), teachers report being disappointed and disempowered by PD that is fragmented, irrelevant and provided in a ‘sit and get’ mode. Professional development without teacher voice and choice, application to the classroom issues or flexibility of when and which resources are utilized is doomed to fail.  

So what do we do?  How do we close the opportunity gap?

Let's remember that there is no 'one size fits all' for students.  Likewise for teachers.  As we learn how to better differentiate for our students, we also must learn how to better differentiate for our teachers in respectful and responsive ways.

But how do we differentiate for teachers so we can bridge the gap?

We need to urge leaders to think differently about offering innovative PD for their staff.  We need to allow teachers agency in choosing and designing PD.  We need to leverage the power of collective expertise to bring educators together in examining problems of practice through trial and error.

Together, we can move beyond 'admiring the problem' of ineffective training towards more inquiry-based, innovative PD models where all educators have the opportunity to improve.  That's what our students deserve.

--Sarah Ottow, former teacher and current director of Confianza: Equity, Language & Literacy, designs student-centered, teacher-driven ELL professional learning for districts and teachers.  


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  • Posted by Cindee Hawkins on

    I believe teachers definitely need to have a voice in what PD is offered and it should have continuity. We need practical PD that addresses the current issues in the classroom.

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