April 2015 Article: English Learners Matter: What Superintendents Need to Know

Posted on April 16, 2015


English Learners Matter: What Superintendents Need to Know

Donna Albrecht, Ed.D., Ed.S.

The United States labor market is experiencing a growing need for competent individuals with postsecondary education while the state of Indiana has a low percentage (34.4%) of individuals holding postsecondary 2 or 4 year degrees. It is predicted that by 2020, approximately 60% of the job vacancies in Indiana will require some form of postsecondary education (Indiana Commission for Higher Education). The current emphasis on college and career readiness as promoted in state education standards, and touted by politicians and business leaders clearly reflects this imminent demand for individuals to be prepared for the next step once they graduate from high school. With the recent requirement by the Indiana Department of Education for all schools to incorporate the WIDA English language development and academic language proficiency standards in all classrooms involving English learners, it is clear that our linguistically diverse students are an important part of the equation to move Indiana’s economic future forward.

The number of English Learners (ELs) in schools in the United States is increasing and will continue to do so at exponential rates. Indiana has seen 409.3% growth of English learners (EL) who currently represent five percent of learners (U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, 2010). An achievement gap of 19.7% in Math and 28.4% in English Language Arts exists between ELs and non-EL students tested in Indiana in 2012-13 (Indiana Department of Education Compass, 2012-13). Even with these astounding statistics, it seems that the world of ENL in terms of laws, policies and leadership development is years behind other subgroups of high need students, such as students with disabilities (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2009). If action is not taken until this situation becomes dire with 40% of the school-aged population in United States public schools being English learners (projected by 2030), it will be too late for several generations of students, not to mention the damage that would be done to society and the economy (Thomas & Collier, 2002). The education field needs to be proactive and not wait for law suits and legislators to make decisions that will dictate how decisions are made rather than doing what is best for kids now.   The adoption of the WIDA Standards is a good start, but the field of English as a New (or Second) Language is lagging behind the need for serving these students. One area that superintendents can actively support and take action on is the development of leadership in their corporations to promote the equitable treatment of ELs and their academic success.

Much research has been conducted on leadership in the school setting, pointing to a strong correlation between leadership and student outcomes, teacher efficacy, and teacher performance (Waters, Marzano & NcNulty, 2003; Leithwood, et al., 2004). It is clear that strong leadership of programs serving English learners is vital. Unfortunately, the trend in many states, including Indiana, is to move away from higher levels of qualification and education for teachers and educational leaders (Milner, 2013; Ravitch, 2013; Indiana State Board of Education, 2012). Indiana does not require a Master’s Degree for teacher professionalism. Furthermore, the Indiana Department of Education does not have any requirements for the individual leading the ENL program in Indiana schools (Indiana State Board of Education, 2012). However, an extensive study speaks to the importance of having experience and training when it comes to effective leadership of ENL programs (Albrecht, 2014). Another finding of this study was that ENL leaders were relatively competent on the management side, but less so with instructional leadership. While they can check off all the boxes and fill out the forms properly, schools are still not meeting Annual Measureable Achievement Objective (AMAO) requirements as mandated by the state and federal governments. Findings from the study show that ENL program leaders (formal or informal) in Indiana are frustrated that many mainstream teachers are not equipped to meet the needs of ELs in their classrooms, that they are generally not adequately supported to effectively lead the program, and that ENL programs are not adequately funded from the state and corporations (Albrecht, 2014).

School superintendents can help by being aware that the level of involvement the ENL leader has in the design and development of the ENL program significantly affects the implementation of that program (as determined by self-reported performance on AMAO requirements and other factors) (Albrecht, 2014). Furthermore, this study showed that the ENL leader’s knowledge of second language acquisition and program design, along with efficacy for leadership, all significantly affect program implementation. The study indicates that the person charged with leadership in this area needs to have a level of responsibility, confidence, knowledge in the field, and a place at the leadership table.

It would be worthwhile to investigate the possible correlations between how a district views the ENL leadership position and the reason certain individuals are chosen to oversee these programs. Questions superintendents can ask themselves are: what is the title of the person charged with directing or managing services for English learners; what specialized knowledge or experience does that individual have with second language acquisition and teaching English learners; and is there a connection between these two questions? While no parallels can be drawn for certain, Albrecht (2014) found that the percentage of participants who have a title that includes EL Coordinator/Director or some variation thereof was very close to the percentage of participants who said the reason they were assigned their role was that they had specific knowledge and experience in the field. On the other hand, the majority of those who had no specific ENL title also had no specific knowledge or experience, and were assigned the responsibility to oversee the ENL program as part of their overall administrative duties. These individuals generally felt less confident in leading the efforts to move English learners forward. On this same line of thought, the percentage of those whose titles were EL Coach or a support role for ELs nearly matched the percentage of those who volunteered because of their interest (Albrecht, 2014). In this study, the question about titles was open-ended and therefore it is not possible to draw exact parallels between title and program effectiveness. Even so, there is enough direction provided to consider that even if the district has a low incidence of ELs, leadership development should be promoted for the individual responsible for supervising services for ELs.

Finally, some key areas supporting ELs that the superintendent can influence are:

  • instructional leaders need appropriate training, support, and encouragement – superintendents can seek professional development in this complex field, provide PD opportunities for ENL leaders/coaches/teachers, principals, and for general education teachers – a body of knowledge exists that is unique to this field in terms of second language acquisition and research on effectiveness of instructional programming that is not gained in a traditional administrative program or without specific studies in this content area;
  • ENL leaders/coaches need a place at the leadership table – superintendents can assess where their ENL leader fits into the overall hierarchy of the school system and ensure that representation is provided for the ENL leader (or a knowledgeable person on staff that can advise about serving ELs appropriately and effectively); and,
  • champion the fact that demographics are changing, that English learners have rights that must be upheld by law, and that supporting them will lead to ultimate gains in society and the economy.

(Albrecht, 2014)

In conclusion, as Leithwood et al. (2004) found, the effects of leadership are seen the most in areas where there is the most need. The changing demographic makeup of this nation indicates that educating English learners is a growing area of high need. Albrecht (2014) has shown that as a whole, ENL program leaders do not feel well enough prepared or supported to lead their schools in the implementation of programs leading to academic success for ELs. These leaders feel that the established system has gaps in its support for them and those for whom they are responsible – the ELs, their teachers, and communities.















Albrecht, D. L. (2014). Attitudes, backgrounds, and leadership efficacy of English as a second language program directors in Indiana Schools: implications for policy, leadership, and professional development (Doctoral dissertation, BALL STATE UNIVERSITY).

Indiana Commission for Higher Education (2012) Reaching higher, achieving more. Retrieved on October 23, 2014 from http://www.in.gov/che/files/2012_RHAM_8_23_12.pdf

Indiana Department of Education Compass (2012-13) State of Indiana ISTEP+ selected year detail. Retrieved on February 25, 2014 from http://compass.doe.in.gov/dashboard/enrollment.aspx?type=state

Indiana State Board of Education (2012) Teacher Training and Licensing. Title 511, Article 10.1. Retrieved from http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/sboe/proposed-teacher-licensing-rule.pdf

Leithwood, K, Louis, K.S., et. al. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York: The Wallace Foundation.

Milner, H.R. (2013). Policy Reforms and De-professionalization of Teaching. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/policy-reforms-deprofessionalization. National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The Condition of Education 2012. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_ell.asp#info.asp

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. USA: Random House LLC.

Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V.P. (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Santa Cruz and Washington, DC: Center on Research, Diversity & Excellence.

Waters, T., Marzano, R., & McNulty, B. (2003). Balanced leadership ™: What 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement. Denver, CO: McREL.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students, National Clearinghouse on English Language Acquisition. (2010). Indiana rate of EL growth 1997/1998-2007/2008. Retrieved July 15, 2010 from http://www.ncela.us/files/uploads/20/Indiana_G_0708.pdf