Getting The Most Out Of ESSA For English Language Learners

A quick guide to how your ELL program benefits from landmark legislation

By Stacy Hurst

Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, governmental support for the education of English language learners (ELLs) has shifted. In order to properly provide for their students, ELL instructors need to understand what these changes mean, what new resources are available, and what accountability measures are in place.

Funding Gets Flexible

First of all, ESSA discontinued two longstanding programs — Striving Readers and Reading First — and introduced a new signature literacy program, Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN). The LEARN program provides grants to states to support literacy instruction in high-need schools. States and districts are required to use the funds to support students from birth through grade 12, with a minimum of 15 percent for children birth through age five, 40 percent for students in grades K–5, and 40 percent for students in grades 6–12. Under ESSA, the Department of Education will continue to value and emphasize evidence-based programs. In reviewing applications for the new LEARN grants, the U.S. Secretary of Education will give higher priority to states that use funds for evidence-based activities.

Another important change under ESSA is the formal authorization of the Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant program, which until now has received funding through appropriations. This signals longevity for this highly competitive grant program.

The Block grant, called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant, is something school leaders have since been buzzing about. It’s a sizeable fund — $1.65 billion in fiscal year 2017 — with few apparent restrictions. Initial language in the law appears to give broad flexibility for these funds, of which 95 percent will be allocated to districts. Districts must conduct a needs assessment that will guide the use of funds and are required to prioritize spending so that the highest-need student populations receive the most support. Block grant funds may be spent on:

  • Activities to help students become well-rounded, such as STEM, arts programs, and Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate test fee reimbursement (at least 20 percent)
  • Activities to support healthy students, such as drug-abuse prevention and anti-bullying programs (at least 20 percent)
  • Technology (up to 60 percent, though not more than 15 percent can be spent on infrastructure)

ESSA’s new rules governing fund transferability have the potential to change how states and districts use several federal funding streams to fund their most pressing needs. Fund transferability is significantly increased under ESSA, allowing a transfer of up to 100 percent of a program’s funding between a number of federally supported programs. As an example, a district with a sudden influx of students with limited English proficiency can choose to transfer funds from another program to its English Language Learner State Grant program.

Increased Funding for ELLs

As the Curriculum Director for Reading Horizons, it’s my job to analyze the education and economic markets to see how one may affect the other in order to anticipate and plan for the changes to come. Under ESSA, programs for ELLs funded under Title III will receive a 20 percent boost (to almost $885 million in funding) by 2020. This makes it possible for resources to be allocated to districts that have large populations of low-income students, ELL students and children with disabilities. Such funding could potentially be used to inform the language development and proficiency of all learners who would benefit from additional support and instruction.

As potential funding sources expand, accountability expectations are rising accordingly; every state’s school accountability system must now include improving English language proficiency as an academic indicator. How does ESSA define success? Literacy funding will include parameters in two areas: evidence and equity.

Shifting Accountability Measures

In terms of accountability for teaching ELLs, ESSA offers new options for reporting. For example, it allows states to exclude students who are learning English from both testing and reporting for one year. When students successfully reach proficiency, and leave the ELL subgroup, states can continue to include them in that subgroup for accountability reporting for up to four years—a win for educators who believe that immediate removal from the subgroup is unfair.

English language proficiency is now one of the four indicators that must be included in the accountability systems of state plans, so all schools will need to demonstrate that they are improving the outcomes for ELLs. It’s difficult to predict for certain how they can demonstrate this improvement, but the accountability in this area will likely focus on the extent to which schools can move ELL students from pull-out/push-in and sheltered instruction models to full English inclusion.

These changes put teachers on the front lines of implementing instructional approaches that integrate language instruction, content and accountability. As with any transformation of teaching and learning, professional development will be key. Informed teachers are better equipped to help identify and influence the distribution of funds that can be allocated to ELL students under the ESSA provisions.

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