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Open Letter to Dr. Miguel Cardona

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Dear Secretary Cardona, 

On behalf of my colleagues at Ellevation, and the millions of English Learners and educators we serve, I want to congratulate you on your historic appointment as Secretary of the US Department of Education. It is inspiring, and energizing, to see someone with your background as an English Learner ascend to the highest level of government. Many millions of students will see themselves in your success; many more millions of educators will be reminded of the potential of every student in their classroom, no matter the language they speak at home. 

As you commence your term, the tasks ahead must be overwhelming, but we share your view that even with the challenges, there is a great opportunity to rethink how we serve our students. The focus on safely reopening schools will surely be a first priority, as will the urgent social and emotional needs of young unaccompanied migrants fleeing violence in their home countries. But as an organization focused entirely on multilingual learners, we want to humbly suggest that you are in a unique position to help school districts better serve our 5MM+ English Learners both through policy and the power of your example. 

The Federal government has played an important and helpful role in ensuring that English Learners receive the support necessary for an equitable education. In particular, the changes introduced by No Child Left Behind in 2001, and then modified in 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act, have helped ensure that educators across the country focus on the needs of ELs. But there is much more that can be done. The pandemic only adds to the urgency. 

As you settle into your new office, we would like to suggest 3 bold ideas to accelerate a K-12 equity agenda that includes English Learners: 

  1. Address the interrupted learning created by COVID - and do so by celebrating the strengths of English Learners. The headlines about interrupted and delayed learning are going to be dismal this year, and they are likely going to be even more disheartening for ELs and other vulnerable sub-groups. Safely reopening schools (as you’ve done in Connecticut), ensuring districts have the resources necessary to provide extra support (especially in Math), and advocating for additional learning time are all critical to a focus on interrupted learning. Here’s another: use the bully pulpit to remind students, families, and educators that ELs can be models of resilience and achievement. ELs have always overcome barriers to learning, and have graduated at the top of their class and gone on to have an extraordinary impact in their communities and in our country. Your own story is an inspiring example of what is possible. In this spirit, please consider reinforcing USDOE guidance that reminds districts of the importance of maintaining rigor for all students, in the face of pressures to focus on remediation...our experience working with ELs, many of whom suffer from learning disruptions, is that educators and students can fill in learning gaps even as they strive for grade-level achievement. 
     
  2. Consistent with research on multilingualism, increase federal support to districts to expand bilingual / dual language programming. We know, from your academic accomplishments and work in Connecticut, that you appreciate the many benefits of bilingualism for both ELs and native English speakers. Many State Departments of Education, following a growing base of research, are actively encouraging Dual Language programming through funding and policy mechanisms. We know that these program models deliver better outcomes for ELs, but they also show great benefit for Native English speakers, who demonstrate greater cognitive flexibility and cultural awareness while learning alongside their EL peers. However, this field of Dual Language Learning is relatively nascent, and many districts could benefit from technical assistance, funding, and the imprimatur of the US DOE. One specific idea: whether through rule-making or guidance, encourage States to develop consistent, research-based professional development models that ensure every teacher has the skills necessary to work with English Learners, and as we’ve seen in Texas and elsewhere, consider providing additional funding for PD models that lead to bilingual / dual language certification. 
     
  3. Support new, ongoing ways of measuring language progress of ELs so that their needs are better understood by teachers. We understand and celebrate the importance of summative ELP assessments, and work closely with SEAs and LEAs to make sure that EL proficiency levels are well-understood, transparent for accountability, and applied to instructional planning. However, the centrality of these assessments, and the dearth of effective and easy-to-administer formative assessments that measure language acquisition, means that teachers lack ongoing input about student progress for the purpose of informing instruction. The high-stakes testing disruptions created by the pandemic create an opportunity to support new approaches that provide more timely data - without requiring the same level of instructional disruption. The USDOE has a tradition of funding innovative assessment research, often through competitive processes, and we believe students and educators would benefit from more testing options as the market evolves. 

We are so encouraged by your appointment and excited to help. Even before you officially take the job, your selection helps to reset a rancorous tone and reminds Americans that EL students bring linguistic and cultural assets to our classrooms that enrich our schools and communities. We are happy to offer ourselves up as a resource for you and your colleagues as you consider the role that technology can play in effective execution of policy. We wish you the best possible luck as you take the lead in helping us address some of our most important national challenges. 

Teddy Rice

President & Co-Founder, Ellevation