As the year comes to a close, I cannot let 2015 dawn without noting the important anniversaries that passed this year.
· Sixty years ago (1954), Brown v. Board set the stage for racial desegregation, that “separate but equal” was not enough.
· Fifty years ago (1964), President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion and national origin.
· Forty years ago (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Lau v. Nichols, a landmark decision declared that the same educational treatment given to English Language Learners as that given to native English speakers without taking into account their language circumstances violated the Civil Rights Act.
· Thirty-five years ago (1989), the governors under leadership from President George H. Bush convened at a national education summit chiming in the era of “standards”, setting the stage for a wave of reforms that have culminated in the Common Core and related College- and Career-Ready Standards.
Phew, that’s a lot of history!
From where I sit, the new year brings promising opportunities for making education better for all students, based on the history that has brought us here -- if we commit and build the will and the capacity of the system to learn from our experiences.
English Language Learners have always been the “canary in the mine” in English-only environments – among the most vulnerable of students in the face of the fact that human learning and cognition are grounded heavily in language. Language is the primary tool for communication as well as mental representation and cognitive processing. When the chain of connections between the mind and language is disrupted, such as when a student does not understand the language of instruction, learning is disrupted. In our history, we have recognized this disruption, and tried various programs of bilingual and of English-as-a-Second-Language and sheltered language methodologies to help the students – none being a silver bullet, and all leading to the realization of the importance of commitment, capacity, and implementation.
Well, the most obvious face of the Common Core is the magnitude and depth to which successfully meeting the standards requires student active engagement using language – and this applies to *all* students. The math standards for example require students not just to come to the correct answer, but to explain their reasoning through language. While in the past English Language Learners struggled, now *all* students are struggling to put their language to sophisticated use, to explain their reasoning. I am certain that the results of this academic year’s testing in Spring, 2015, will bear out the enormous challenge that language has now posed for *all* students, not just English Language Learners.
This fact is now dawning on thoughtful educators throughout the nation. School districts as different as Seattle, Dallas, Hartford and Sanger have come to the realization that promoting rich student discourse and other academic uses of language in the disciplines is essential to attaining new content standards not just for English Language Learners, but for all students. They have arrived at the systemic realization (many individuals have long know this, but they have been separated by the stovepipes of bureaucracy) that collaboration across the system is essential for student success.
The conditions necessitate a systemic response against separation of language and content. The first signs of recognition can be found in the language or recent policies of states such as California and New York that recognizes that ESL (or ELD, ENL, whatever one wants to call it) needs to happen in a dedicated as well as an integrated manner within the content areas. The second is the beginning signs of acceptance of the effectiveness of bilingual education programs and of the benefits of bilingualism for all students – this can be seen in the growth of two-way immersion programs in many school districts.
So, even recognizing the many troubling conditions in which we humans find ourselves, there is promise that good work in the coming year will yield progress in the realization of the important role that language plays in how we learn and how we communicate – and that it applies to all of us. We sit on the shoulders of Brown, King, Lau, and (whoa!) Bush, and all have contributed to our progress.
I feel enormously fortunate to have you among my many friends and collaborators at all levels of the profession – may 2015 be an important landmark year for you both personally and professionally!
Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education