Transcription of the episode “Supporting English Learners: pandemic and post-pandemic solutions”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Julie Sugarman. Dr. Sugarman is Senior Policy Analyst for pre-K through 12 Education at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, where she focuses on issues related to immigrant and English Learners (EL) students. Welcome, Julie.

Amy H-L: [00:00:40] Julie, how do schools define English Learners and what are the ways in which they receive instruction?

Julie S: [00:00:47] Yeah, that’s a great question. To start with, the Federal definition of English Learner, which all schools use, it has two parts to it. The first part is that the child comes from a background where a home language other than English is used. And the second part is that their English level when they come into the school district is not as high as it needs to be in order to be successful doing academic content. So that’s how schools identify students, with a two-part procedure, first determining the home language and then determining what their English language proficiency level is.

Amy H-L: [00:01:22] And how did these learners receive instruction?

Julie S: [00:01:26] There’s a few different models. One major difference is between bilingual education models and English models. The bilingual models, many of them, are dual language programs where students are actually building their native language and English, both to high levels. And many of those programs also include native English speakers in them, and those kids are learning in two languages as well. Other bilingual programs use the native language for a little bit at the beginning, just to sort of transition kids to using more English. And then once students are learning mostly in English, you know, often in the upper grades or in programs where they start off with English, there’s a number of different ways to support students.

And some schools use ESL classes where all of the students in the class are learning English and speak another language and are learning English or learning content together. Others use more of a small group method. They pull students out with a teacher or a teacher works with students in the classroom to support them while they’re in general education instruction.

Jon M: [00:02:32] What does the research show about how English Learners acquire language?

Julie S: [00:02:37] The research shows that students who develop their native language to a high level actually develop better English and are able to succeed at higher levels in the long run. The things that we know work well in, in any context, whether a bilingual context or a English only context, are learning meaningful content. So we don’t separate students and make them learn English and only English and then when they hit some magical level, they’re allowed to do other content. We start with the content, right from the beginning, even for middle school or high school, because that really motivates kids. It’s much more interesting to learn a language and it really activates the part of the brain that helps kids learn language when they are learning interesting, grade appropriate, content that they actually are interested in.

Amy H-L: [00:03:31] Do you see English language instruction as an ethical issue?

Julie S: [00:03:37] I think that at this point, English language instruction is really more of a legal issue. There are established legal precedents going back to the early seventies that say that students who speak other languages have to receive accommodations. This goes back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that says that schools have to treat all students equally. You can’t discriminate against a group. And in this case it would be discriminating against the students by national origin, just to not help them learn English and not help them access the same curriculum, the same opportunities, as other students just because they don’t know English. So I think there’s a lot of ethical issues involved in the nitty gritty of decision making around instruction and program design and all of that. But from a standpoint of ELL instruction broadly, it’s a legal requirement in this country to provide instruction and provide equal opportunity.

Amy H-L: [00:04:35] Could you tell us about some of those nitty gritty ethical issues?

Julie S: [00:04:41] Sure. There’s a lot of things that come up in terms of, for example, bilingual education, whether it’s ethical to provide bilingual education for some students, for example, Spanish students, when we can’t provide it for everyone because it’s a model that only works when you have a certain number of students and enough students to make up a class.

But what’s really interesting right now is, I think there are two ethical dilemmas that have come up because of COVID that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently. One is the use of the phrase “kids are falling behind.” I hear a lot of people objecting to that terminology saying, you know, for one thing, it’s absurd to worry about academics when we’re in a pandemic and kids should just be surviving and getting support emotionally. And also the idea of “behind” is sort of a made up construct that doesn’t really have a real meaning and we can redefine it anytime. So that’s sort of on the one hand, but on the other hand, what falling behind means is going to be different in different communities. I’m really worried about English Learners and other students of color and students from poor families, where, for a number of reasons, they’re facing a lot of barriers to remote learning.Their teachers are having a harder time accommodating their needs, and we know that. Students from White families from middle-class families are really getting a lot of enrichment and things like learning pods and extra tutoring and, you know, go to schools that are really well-funded to begin with. So I’m really worried what’s going to happen. Next year, if either we see a lot of Black and Brown and students from poverty being held back and as a result, we have imbalanced classrooms where you see a lot of older students who are students of color from poor backgrounds and a lot of younger students from middle-class backgrounds. Or everyone will just get, all of the kids will just be promoted, but there’ll be a really obvious gap in terms of who is prepared for the next level and who isn’t, and kids really notice these things. I mean, they’re things that teachers are trained to be able to deal with, but you know, if there’s a very visual, obvious difference between one set of kids and another set of kids, they really notice that.

And the other ethical dilemma that’s come up right now is around testing. One of the things that schools have to do every year is give students an English language proficiency test if they’re identified as English Learners. And again, on the one hand, we have a lot of communities of color saying it’s really immoral to ask communities of color and English learners to go in for in-person testing, but it can really only be done in person for a number of reasons. And, you know, to ask them to lose more instructional time and you know, it’s not going to help. It’s not going to help the kids move forward. It’s just sort of this bureaucratic thing we do. But again, on the other hand, the test is a civil rights protection. It’s given because of past experiences of schools just ignoring English Learners and having those test scores mean that schools have to pay attention to them. Those scores are also used for other things besides accountability. They’re used to count students for funding, right. It’s used for instructional placement. It’s used for exiting students from ELL status. So those tests have a lot of really important purposes and we’re worried what will happen if we don’t have the test. So we don’t have something equivalent this year. 

Jon M: [00:08:04] I want to go back. Still in terms of ethics, I mean, you just mentioned now the fact that it’s a legal requirement and also that the assessments were instituted because a lot of times English Learners were just ignored and I know all these horror stories from friends about students who came to classes, they didn’t speak any English and they were just stuck in the back of the room and nobody paid any attention to them and it was literally sink or swim. And lucky ones swam and the unlucky ones sank.

So my question is:  a law was won through lawsuits because of this kind of thing and because unethical practices were going on. If you’re going to look at ethics in terms of the impact on students and then, of course, since then, since the seventies and the eighties, you’ve had these English only movements in some parts of the country. And now, of course, the soon to be ended administration has been, you know, very hostile to immigrants on a broad scale. So what do you see nationally in terms of sort of willing compliance and understanding of the reasons for the legal and educational protections? Have things substantially changed? Is there now general understanding of why all this is important or is it still something where people have to be constantly on guard?

Julie S: [00:09:37] I think there’s a couple of things. One is that there’s a huge variety of responses across the country. The places that have had immigrants for decades, California, New York, Texas tend to be better prepared and have governments that are more supportive of funding and providing good resources for these programs. And really just having that long history of serving ELs helps create an atmosphere where it’s a priority and where everyone understands what it is that English Learner students need to do well and what the best approaches are. We do see in a lot of new locations where students, ELs, have moved, in the Midwest and the South, especially where  it’s been a struggle for locations that were not used to doing English Learner instruction to understand why it’s important to learn what the best practices are to see success. That’s part of it is you have to sort of push through the discomfort as a school or as a community of doing something new and not knowing what it’s going to look like. Because once you start to see the success, you can really start investing in it personally, as teachers and as a community.

So I think, you know, across the board, there’s just a really wide variety of approaches, and with regard to bilingual and dual language programs specifically, there’s been a huge amount of interest in dual language over the last 20 years. I started working in the dual language field about 20 years ago, and there were maybe only a couple hundred programs. And now I’m sure there’s more than a thousand. I don’t know that we have a count, but it’s really exploded. And interest is coming from both English speaking parents who want their kids to learn another language and parents who understand the value of bilingualism for their own children who are coming in with that asset of another language. And so we’re seeing dual language programs growing and thriving and springing up in new communities. And I think it’s been a really exciting time in the bilingual  education world.

Amy H-L: [00:11:46] What are some of the unique challenges facing English learners during the pandemic, and how are teachers of English as a New Language or ENL trying to meet their needs?

Julie S: [00:11:57] Yeah, I think there’s been pretty universal understanding that the pandemic hasn’t so much created new problems as exacerbated old ones. So the things that we’re seeing are, you know, basically lack of resources, lack of training, lack of systems, that already existed. And in this new setting, those problems just get magnified. So for example, the digital divide, the fact that some kids have computers and internet access at home and some kids don’t and the fact that it’s disproportionately poor students and students of color and English Learners who don’t have those materials. That’s been a huge problem, especially in the spring, trying to roll out remote learning in a very basic way and not having the materials to do it. That was really a tough haul for schools and for families. But even still now, when the kids are more used to remote learning, but maybe the school wants to introduce a new technology and kids don’t necessarily have parents who understand if there’s instructions provided in English, they don’t understand the instructions,, or they don’t have good computer skills and are able to help their kids. So those things are still issues.

I think the other big issue that we’ve seen in remote learning is the fact that general education teachers, for the most part, have very poor training to deal with English Learners and to teach them well. And it’s gotten even worse because what few strategies they had, they didn’t necessarily know how to translate that into the remote environment. And they also really struggle. I think schools would have struggled with trying to figure out how to get English Learner teachers and general education teachers together in the remote environment because normally there’s a sort of a, a personal interplay. They can talkin the halls and share notes. An English Learner teacher can come into a classroom and help the kids spontaneously or in a planned way, of course. So all of those supports that used to exist had to get rethought and reimagined for the new context.

Jon M: [00:14:05] Following up on Amy’s question, what are some of the things you’ve seen with ENL teachers and general ed teachers doing to try to overcome some of these obstacles?

Julie S: [00:14:17] I think it’s been really interesting how schools have, one of the first things that teachers were really concerned about is how are we going to get kids to interact with each other. Because we know that’s important for all kids, but it’s critical for English Learners, because the way we learn languages by speaking and by experimenting and by being misunderstood and then having to rephrase something.

So there’s been a number of platforms that teachers have started using that allow students to go into breakout rooms and teachers are getting more comfortable with this and students are getting more comfortable with the idea that they’re going to be in a breakout room with another student, and then they’ll all come back together. So that kind of innovation has been really exciting.

Amy H-L: [00:15:00] We often speak about the school community as involving faculty, students and their families as well, sometimes even the community surrounding the school. So how are teachers of English as a New Language or ENL involving parents and family members during the pandemic? 

Julie S: [00:15:23] Yeah. ESL teachers have been critical to the effort to communicate with non-English speaking parents and parents of English Learners, because they are in the best place to understand what the needs are and where the interpreters are and how to communicate  in ways that the community can really appreciate it and participate in.

ESL teachers have always sort of been called on to some extent to do that community work in ways that other teachers may not because it’s, um, that the ESL teacher becomes sort of the focal point of the family’s interaction with the school. They know that that teacher really understands what it means to be an English Learner. And very often they come from immigrant backgrounds themselves. And so, you know, it’s something that creates a bond between teachers and students. So the ESL teachers in this time during the pandemic have really been critical to making sure that schools are translating information, that they’re reaching out to families that may be difficult to contact. Very often ESL teachers have relationships with community-based organizations. And they can ask folks in, you know, mutual aid organizations or other refugee service organizations or groups like that to help reach out to families that are particularly struggling. And EL teachers also generally are the ones who make connections for families to resources like food pantries and housing assistance and all of those. In regular times, the EL teachers are an important node of the family communication, and now I think it’s even more so, when everyone’s stretched thin and it’s been even more of a challenge to communicate.

Jon M: [00:17:05] And just for clarity for our listeners, ESL or English as a Second lLanguage and ENL as English students for whom English is a New Language are basically the same term. Is that correct? 

Julie S: [00:17:18] Yeah, there’s a lot of terms running around in this field. ESL is, and it’s an older one English as a Second Language. We also say ESOL, English to Speakers of Other Languages. Um, the certification is generally referred to as ESOL. In New York State, it’s English as a New Language, we have also a term, emergent bilingual, that is used. So in some places that folks want to focus on the multi-lingual nature of these students, um, English for Multilingual Learners. I mean, there’s a whole lot of terms that are used and they all basically mean similar things. 

Jon M: [00:17:50] Thanks. Could you tell us about any districts that are really centering English Learners in their planning, and what does this look like? 

Julie S: [00:18:01] We  did a webinar back in September and one of the districts we profiled was Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. And we were very impressed by the way that they had worked internally over the summer to rethink their structure and make sure that English Learners were being considered in all aspects. They had a planning form that schools had to use, and for every aspect of planning, for remote instruction or for the kind of instruction they were thinking would happen this fall, they have to consider what are the strategies for English Learners along those lines. 

I think they’ve also invested a lot in translation and interpretation and making sure that communications go out in a timely way and that parents have a lot of access to multi-lingual speakers who can help them with technology and with other things. So it’s really part of thinking  about ELs from the beginning is really one of the things that helps schools be successful. And this is something we see, not just now, but this is always an issue that schools that do, that plan part of their program or their curriculum and then expect it to work for ELs or expect to add some special ELL accommodation on top that, that doesn’t work as well as when you consider ELs from the beginning.

Jon M: [00:19:22] So going back, you mentioned this issue of the fact that ELs were supposed to take tests to assess their English acquisition in the spring, I think. And some of the problems of what happens if these are in-person tests. So what do you think is likely to happen and what will happen if in fact they can’t be fully administered during the pandemic? What do you anticipate as coming after that?

Julie S: [00:19:52] This is a really interesting time as we are having this conversation right before Christmas, there’s been a number of petitions that have gone around asking states to cancel or delay the English language proficiency test. And as I said, this is a dilemma and I’m sympathetic to that idea, but what really concerns me is that there’s no thinking about what an alternative might be. And it also concerns me that even if they do consider what an alternative might be, that would be a very, very difficult thing to put in place in such a short amount of time.

So I am a little bit pessimistic about whether we’re going to have assessments that we can really count on. And I use the term assessment broadly to mean any kind of gathering of information that we can really count on. I think we are going to probably get some information. I think states are all going to do things differently from each other. And I fear that we will rely on that information. We will assume that that information was collected in a way that’s valid and reliable. And maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but I fear that we won’t have enough information to even be able to judge that. So I am, I guess, a little bit pessimistic overall whether we’ll have the information that we need.

I do suspect that they probably will delay in person testing, that the incoming Biden administration may waive testing altogether, but it really remains to be seen. It’s such a contentious issue right now, and, and it really could go either way, I think.

Jon M: [00:21:30] Speaking of the tests, is your sense, leaving aside the issue of very specifically what happens during the pandemic, but is your sense that the tests that are administered, such as in New York State, for example, you know, it’s called the NYSESLAT [New York State ESL Achievement Test], but it’s called other things in other parts of the country,  is it your feeling that these are generally pretty good assessments? Do you you like them as assessments? Because you mentioned, you know, coming up with alternatives in a perfect world. Can you envision better alternatives or are you pretty good with what we have?

Julie S: [00:22:04] Yeah. I actually worked at the Center for Applied Linguistics while the biggest, the test administered to the most kids, which is called the Access for ELs while it was being developed. So I really had sort of a closeup view of all of the thinking that went into these tests. And, you know, there’s always going to be positives and negatives and drawbacks to every single kind  of test. But I really feel that the English language proficiency tests that we have now are well aligned to what we know about language learning. Yeah. For the most part, I can’t speak to each of the tests. There’s about six different tests that are used throughout the country, but I really do think that it does a good job of measuring progress in English. The various tests that we have seem to be fairly well aligned with each other because they’re all sort of built on the same basic foundational ideas about language. So I think that the,  I think it’s certainly safe to say that the English language proficiency tests do a better job of telling us about progress, where there is progress and where there  isn’t progress, than the tests that kids take in language arts and math, which are really not intended to measure the progress of English Learners.

Amy H-L: [00:23:20] You have been pleasantly surprised at how programs for English Learners have fared under Betsy DeVos of all people. Could you elaborate?

Julie S: [00:23:29] Sure. Yeah, of course we were concerned when the Trump administration began obviously, with a lot of negative attitudes towards immigrants. And that was really what Trump’s entire campaign was about. But Betsy DeVos has been really supportive of English Learners throughout the four years. I’m part of a national English Learner round table that are a number of organizations that meet to discuss English Learner issues. And as part of that, we often meet with Department of Education officials. And we actually met with Betsy DeVos at one point and, um, she was very interested in what we had to say about English Learners. There really haven’t been any initiatives that have come out of the Department of Education over the last four years that have been particularly harmful to English Learners. They have maintained all of the civil rights protections. I don’t know that they’ve defended them as vigorously. The Office of Civil Rights has maybe been not quite as strong under this administration as in the past, but all of the guidance still stands. You know, the idea that English Learners are here and are to be educated and should be treated in a fair and equitable manner, um, those are things that Betsy DeVos has said. She has supported multilingual education, foreign language education. So, yeah, there there’s been a lot of controversial things coming from the administration, but for English Learners, I think it’s been pretty good.

And we’ve also had really, really good directors of the Office of English Language Acquisition. We had two directors of that office in this administration and they’re both, they were both just fantastic. So I think we’ve been lucky.

Jon M: [00:25:04] Great. What recommendations would you, or are you, making to the incoming Biden administration for strengthening education for ELs?

Julie S: [00:25:14] One of the things that we’re recommending to the Biden administration has to do with the Office of English [Language] Acquisition within the Department of Education. Over time, it has ceded some of the work that it has done to other offices, and we really want that work to come back so that the Office of English [Language] Acquisition is a strong voice, is providing technical assistance, are the ones who monitor the provision of English Learner services in the states, which is the federal government’s responsibility. So, you know, providing that support, having a strong office, that can be a strong voice for English Learners and for multi-lingual education, I think is one thing. 

Another thing of course, is funding. We’re really going to need a lot of funding to support students, and the kind of funding that comes from the federal government is meant to supplement, but not supplant, what local schools and states provide. So what is actually really needed right now is exactly what the federal government is supposed to provide– funding for tutoring, for summer school, for additional supports, for, you know, ways to improve programs, ways to improve curricula. So the kind of money that students, that schools, get for English Learners. The main fund from the federal government is called Title III. The things that Title III funds just could not be more important at this time. And so we think it’s really critical, not just that the Biden administration, you know, budget for more money for education in general, but that they really press Congress to allocate money for Title III specifically. 

Amy H-L: [00:26:56] Julie, what are your concerns about use of technology post-pandemic and teaching English Learners?

Julie S: [00:27:04] I think we’ve learned a lot about technology and the positives and negatives. Over this time,  we’ve heard a lot of teachers say, you know, I was skeptical before and now I’m twice as skeptical that this can work. Um, because language learning is a social endeavor, and the idea of learning language, especially for children through working on a computer is really just no match for what we can do with good instruction that’s face-to-face. Now that said, we absolutely know a lot more now about how to incorporate strategies for English Learners into the use of technology. So I’m more optimistic now than I was maybe a year ago about sort of mainstream programs, technology, and software, and how that can be used for English Learners, because I think it became very evident to teachers pretty early that just using that technology as it was designed, does not work for ELs and that they really need to use other kinds of strategies. So that awareness I think, has been helpful. 

But what I’ve been hearing from teachers is that this experience of teaching online has just proven to them how critical the face-to-face experiences and the, you know, not just from an instructional point of view, but having those sort of one-off conversations, being able to walk around and talk to students and put a hand on a student’s shoulder and say, “how are you doing?” And, you know, and even using technology in an in-school environment, that’s it’s really the benefit of face-to-face instruction is how teachers can use everything that they know about a child to teach, which is just not necessarily something that technology can replicate.

Jon M: Have you thought, you mentioned, you know, some of the positive ways that people could creatively use the technology. Have you seen examples or do you have any thoughts of ways in which in ENL teachers could use the technology so it becomes a positive force?

Julie S: [00:29:07] One of the things that I’ve seen throughout the country, and maybe more in my time with bilingual programs than with English programs, is using technology to connect kids to each other so that kids can, you know, especially if you are a speaker of a language that is less common, find a friend in another part of the country or another part of the world to speak to in that language and be able to continue to develop your native language because we know that’s that’s something that really helps with every part of education in the long run by developing your native language. So those sorts of connectivity issues, I think, have been really a great opportunity. I think also just the sheer number of new lessons and new materials that have come out of this and have been shared, has been really exciting.

I’ve seen a lot of teachers on Facebook saying, oh, I created this PowerPoint and it worked really well and here you go, you can all use this or, you know, just sharing ideas about how to better use technology. All of that has just been really exciting to see. I’m sure it happened to some extent previously, but it does seem to be accelerated it now.

Amy H-L: [00:30:20] Thank you so much, Dr. Julie Sugarman of the Migration Policy Institute. And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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