Education Commissioner Wentzell: ‘Our English learners need more support’

Dianna Wentzell, Connecticut’s education commissioner, speaks four languages – English, French, Russian and Spanish – and oversaw English learner programs in a number of Connecticut school districts before coming to the state Department of Education.

She was never in an English-learning program herself, but her decades of experience as an administrator, curriculum director and teacher have helped shape her feelings about what needs to be done to close Connecticut’s yawning achievement gap between English learners and their peers.

The Mirror sat down recently with Wentzell to speak about the state’s approach.

How do you think the state is doing right now with English learners?

“The efforts around English learners are one of our most important priorities. Besides in our [state] board’s comprehensive five-year plan, where we put a significant emphasis on our English-language learners, it is also one of our key areas that we chose in our [federal] plan. And the reason for that is that our English learners need more support than they are currently getting, and we know that because of our data.

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Dianna Wentzell

“This is an area that is a particular passion for me. In a couple of roles that I have had in some districts, I have been responsible for English learners and really got to know the work close up. While there is a lot of variance in the English learner population, one thing that is common is that the more support they get in the earliest phases of language acquisition, the more likely they are going to be able to acquire English while also keeping up with the demands of all the other things kids have to learn at school.”

“… It is our English learners who have lagged in all of our achievement over the last six years in education in Connecticut. And that is not acceptable to us, and we have a lot of urgency around that, and that is an area that we want to make sure is prioritized. We recognize that resources are limited, but we need to make sure that we are making smart decisions for the kids who need us the most.

“The number of high school diplomas acquired has increased, but even when you look at that, the advance for English Learners has been the smallest of all the groups that we study. And that’s life-changing whether you can get that diploma or not.”

(*Background on achievement of English learners: The state has set an expectation that English learners should improve their scores on standardized English and math tests by about 3 percent each year, growth targets that are aimed at having students proficient in the subjects in five years. However, between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year, just one-third met that target for English and 37 percent for math.)

Could you elaborate on how the state plans to support this population?

“Our role is to provide guidance to local districts for how they can spend federal money to support our kids. [In the state plan* to implement federal law], there is more accountability to demonstrate that what is being done at the local level is having a positive effect and is helping English learners learn English and keep up or catch up academically. So districts receiving money from us will have to have more robust plans than they have had in the past, and also we will be looking at whether the plans are effective… We will be putting our energies and efforts with our districts that need the most support. That also happens to be the districts that have the highest number and percentage of English learners.”

(*Background on the state’s plan: The education department promises to monitor English learners’ progress in speaking, reading and understanding English starting in 2019-20. If schools in the state’s bottom 10 districts make insufficient progress, the plan promises an “in-depth program review” by the state that will recommend changes beginning with the 2020-21 school year. Districts then will have six school years to improve, or the state can force the school to close or change management.)

Research shows that a promising practice is the dual-language model where students – both English- and primarily foreign-speaking students – split the day or school year attending classes taught in two different languages. Will the state be guiding districts to use that approach?

“We will not be directing people toward specific models, but what we will be doing is requiring evidence-based models… So we do have dual-language schools, and we do endorse that model – if it’s the model that is selected by the [school or district’s] turnaround committee and there is buy-in at the local level, and they are ready to do it well.

“One of the things that we have really learned with our turnaround efforts it that, while there is more evidence behind some models than others for turnaround, what matters more is the plan that people really will buy into and commit their energy and resources and belief in. Because if the community isn’t behind the plan – even if it has great data from somewhere else, and we’ve seen that going back decades, there can be all this incredible evidence behind an approach – but if the people that have to implement it don’t believe in it, then it is not likely to work.”

… One of the issues is that something might have a terrific track record somewhere else, but it’s not embraced locally, and the people who have to implement it don’t believe in it or don’t understand it or aren’t supported appropriately, then it might not work. So dual language is definitely a great approach if the community chooses it and can support it. If you are going to be able through either using existing resources in the school or district or by using the additional resources from the state or federal government, if you are going to be able to implement with fidelity a dual-language model, and your community supports it and wants it, then it is very likely to be successful.”

“If people are going to commit to a new way, they have to believe that it is better, because it’s going to require learning new skills and doing things differently than they may be comfortable with. That’s a lot of why turnaround is a contextual issue. You know, you really have to develop a plan that is going to work for the school community.

“But there are certain “non-negotiable” things. It is non-negotiable that English learners need to be served well. You need to have data to see if they are served well.

The primary language of one in six students in our public schools is a foreign language, which is about 80,000 students each year. Half of these students struggle with our language and are considered English learners. Given that the number of English learner students continues to rise year after year, and there is no indication that will slow anytime soon, how are our teacher-preparation colleges doing in preparing the pipeline of future teachers to work with these students?

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A teacher in a classroom at Diloretto Elementary and Middle School in New Britain, a school with a large number of English learners

“Every single teacher in Connecticut needs to be a competent teacher of English learners. I am really proud that our education preparation institutions are doing a much better job with this. They are adjusting quickly to the changing demographics in Connecticut, and I am impressed with what goes on in teacher prep now. I wish I had that in my teacher preparation, because that was not the case when I was there. The teacher preps are doing much more than they used to. There is this understanding that teachers will have English learners in their classrooms; and so they have to be good at helping them, and just the understanding of the laws and the rights of kids.”

On bilingual education – teaching students in their native language for part of the school day – one thing that I have heard is that it is extremely difficult to become certified to teach in those programs and it can be more expensive than other programs because of all the additional courses someone must complete. Some districts have prioritized getting bilingual educators and have helped pay for them to take the courses so they can offer bilingual instruction, but others say they don’t have the money. What’s your take?

“Well, some of that is a choice not to. We encourage districts to analyze their shortage areas – and bilingual is a very persistent shortage area throughout the state – and encourage them to use [state] money provided through the Alliance District Grants to build the talent in your district.

Districts have struggled for years to find enough teachers able to teach in bilingual classrooms, even as state law requires districts to offer bilingual programs in schools that have at least 20 students who speak the same language. Are we ever going to get to a place where that’s not the case in Connecticut?

“That’s a great question. Bilingual has been a persistent shortage area… More than twice as many people are bilingual certified in Connecticut than are choosing to work under their bilingual certification. So we also have to accept that teachers sometimes make individual personal choices not to use certain certificates that they have. I have four certificates. Obviously I can’t use four certificates at once. You make a choice about what you are serving under.”

“Each district needs to think about their talent and do a talent audit. You know, I have been in districts that do this where with your computer system you run your staff lists. So if a person has been an English teacher at the high school for the entire time you have been an administrator, you may not know that they also hold X, Y, and Z certificates.”

“I would continue to encourage them to analyze their talent pools. If you have a bilingual-certified teacher who is not working in that capacity, sometimes that could just be a conversation, and they don’t know that there is that opportunity and they may need some support to change what they are doing.

“I do think individual districts should explore ways to fill their hard-to-fill positions through providing incentives, obviously within the bounds of their individual collective-bargaining agreements, because sometimes you can’t do that and sometimes you can. It’s unusual to have any kind of provision [in a union contract] to do that, but that’s individual to each collective-bargaining agreement.”

Some members of the legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus have expressed frustration with what they feel is the state’s lack of attention to improving the education for English learners. Especially, that the state hasn’t put its energy behind the law that requires native-language instruction be used in schools with more than 20 students who speak the same language. What are your feelings on how bilingual education is being carried out in Connecticut’s school districts?

“I think what matters the most about whether it’s a bilingual program or English as a Second Language program is the quality of program. So, there are really good quality bilingual programs, and then there are programs that are not as good. The same is true with English as a Second Language. So the quality of the program is going to make the biggest difference for the kids.

“There are some language groups where there won’t be 20 students with the same language in a school. So even though there might be a bilingual program offered, the bilingual program is not in several of the students’ language.

… And there are some schools with 20 Karen-speaking children, and there are no Karen-bilingual teachers – so it’s sort of a false choice right now because there are zero teachers for that in the state. So those kids are going to end up with ESL.

The native language of nearly 80 percent of the state’s English learners is Spanish, and in many of the state’s 10 lowest-performing districts it’s an even higher rate. Many of schools have far surpassed the 20-student threshold. How is bilingual instruction going for them?

“We don’t have enough teachers, even if they were all working under their bilingual certificate, to staff all the bilingual classrooms. Then a school district is by law — and I support this — able to staff that bilingual program with someone who is a teacher of a second language but who might not necessarily be bilingual and might not also have the content area for the class. So, I do worry… To have someone who is not bilingual and who is not a content area specialist is not an ideal learning situation. They might actually be better off in a [mainstream] class with support.”

How often is this happening?

“It’s not the norm, but it happens because we can’t staff all our bilingual classrooms. It requires a signoff from me, so it doesn’t happen all that often. It’s more of an outlier.”

“I think what’s probably more likely to happen when a school district can’t find a bilingual teacher is that the family and the student don’t have a choice. They are offered only English as a second language – which is fine as long as it is high-quality. I think that’s the most important thing. We need to focus on high quality in all of our programs.”

Do you have a preferred approach to teaching English learners that you think is the best?

“Well it depends if we are talking about the real world or the world of infinite resources. In a world of infinite resources I think family choice is the most important thing, because all of these different models can work very effectively and what the family wants for their child is going to be the best option. So in a world where we could provide everything, that would be my response.

“In the world we are in, I like the sheltered instruction model. Sheltered instruction is something that can be done in any school, and it really requires understanding English learners well, understanding how to present content to English learners in a sheltered manner that might include some bilingual instruction if that is possible. But usually these are multiple-language learner classrooms… But the idea of the sheltered piece is that information is presented in research-based ways that have been designed to meet English learner needs.

“It is a model particularly targeted at English learners. So the goal is not for anyone else to learn another language or for things to be consistently in another language –- its not like dual language where everyone is consistently learning another language –-  which is great because we are a multi-lingual state with two dominant languages. So it would be great if we could all do that, but the sustainability is not there right now in terms of our capacity in our talent pool in our state to do that.”

“A district just needs to study its context, its population, its data and then its talent pool and think which model is likely to be the most successful in our context and how do we help make parents make the right choices or the best choices for their kids.

“… The decision about the best placement should be made with data on that language assessment, because sometimes if students have already acquired quite a bit of English already, ESL might be best. So what’s best really depends a lot on the kids.”

What is your response to those who feel that foreign languages are looked at as a deficit in school and that the approach is to get students to learn English quickly so they can leave their native language behind. Would you like to see dual-language programs expand?

“I don’t think that is a fair characterization. I think that makes a reference to a very early 20th Century movement, and we are not in that place at all; and, you know, I think that now, very much, educators encourage children and families to embrace their first language and to continue with it.

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A dual-language program at Silvermine Elementary School in Norwalk

As a practical matter, dual language is very difficult and resource-intensive and hard to implement. So I think the concern has to always be with making sure kids can get as much out of their public education as quickly as possible. So it’s more important to have an effective program than a particular philosophy. But definitely we support, encourage, and all of our educational partners embrace that being bilingual and bi-literate is a huge asset for any child.”

Do you speak any foreign languages?

“I majored in a world language and I happen to choose to spend summers in an immersion program. And my family spoke a lot of French in my house when I was young; but I also took French, Spanish and took Russian in college. I still speak those languages, but not as well as I used to.

“I really feel like the more linguistically diverse and linguistically rich a child’s life is, the more likely they are going to be able to tap into that as adults as well .. Seeing it as a positive is important for a lot of children’s lives.”

Are there any solutions for getting the pipeline of teachers to teach bilingual courses?

“One thing we started doing last year, and we think might help and think it is important, we recognize credentials from Puerto Rico and other territories now. That was an important step for us because previously we did not recognize credentials from Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico is having some economic difficulties now and there are some teachers there that want to find work elsewhere, and we want to be on the receiving end. … I don’t know if that has really netted us any additional teachers yet, but we are hopeful that it will.”

“Also, you know we really need to work on our existing teacher population to cross-endorse in English as a Second Language.

Currently, to become a bilingual teacher, someone has to not only take enough classes to become certified in their content area, but also has to take about 30 extra college credits, and pay tuition for them, to be qualified for bilingual instruction. Is that something that could change? What about scaling back some of the other courses someone must take in college so they don’t need to take so many more courses than other teachers?

“Frequently it is not higher ed’s position that we should reduce the requirements, since the requirements are all classes they take at their places… That is something that we are working on collaboratively with our higher ed partners.

“We are taking a really close look at our higher education certification regulations. Currently our certification regulation book is like 140 pages. You know we are taking a look at where the most impactful changes could occur and trying to get all the different stakeholders on board for that.”

Anything else readers should know about this subject?

I am going to put another plug in for the proposal we have made – the Seal of Bi-literacy. (Affixing a note to a diploma or transcript that a student is bilingual.) The seal of bi-literacy is important not in just a symbolic way. It is important that it underscores that we value the language assets that students have.

“They see that we value it as a state, and it will be an asset for them in their adult lives. We think it goes a long way to an asset-based approach for looking at language.

“In the United States, we are very behind. In many other parts of the world students are taught other languages from the young ages. In other parts of the world it’s normal to be multi-lingual. And we haven’t really kept up in that area.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity. The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. View more of the projects they have funded here. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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