By Cristyn Filla
Site Leader at DJ Montague Elementary School
Site Leader at DJ Montague Elementary School
Achievement gaps in the United States public school system are not a new phenomenon, they’ve probably been happening since the inception of schools. These “gaps” show a difference in achievement between two or more groups of students. Usually they indicate that one group is falling behind another. These students may fall behind due to learning disabilities, troubles at home, or financial situation. One such group is English as a Second Language students (ESL) now more commonly called English Language Learners (ELLs). These students come from a wide variety of backgrounds but they all have one thing in common they are not native English speakers. These students can vary from highly fluent to illiterate. Many people would assume that the achievement gap seen between ELLs and their native speaking peers is simply a result of poor English language skills. However, this is not always the case, there are many other factors that can come into play in ESL education.
I began to encounter ELLs very early in my tutoring endeavors. My first semester I was hoping to gain experience for a future in the Peace Corps and therefore was assigned to tutor three ESL students in reading and writing. It was then that I noticed that there were more hurdles facing these students than most of their peers. On top of struggling to learn a language that is not spoken at home they had to overcome social stigmas and living in hotels and relating to classmates.
So, when I took an applied anthropology research class this semester I knew right away I wanted to try to tackle the issue of ESL/ELL education in public school systems. I asked the question: what are the main factors creating the ESL achievement gap? Thus far, after a series of interviews and surveys, I have determined that cultural understanding, teacher training, and socioeconomic status are three of the main issues facing these students.
Cultural understanding is a factor that did not necessarily come straight to mind when I began my research but now I have discovered that this is possibly the most important influence over ELL success rates. The problem arises when the teacher does not understand that there is a cultural difference between themselves and the tutor and/or the student is not familiar with the cultural setting and expectations of the classroom. An excellent example of this is eye contact. In the US a teacher expects students to have eye contact when they are listening and understanding. However, in many other cultures a student is only expected to make eye contact when they do not understand what is happening in class. Therefore, when students from those other cultures are in American classrooms teachers often assume that the student is not paying attention. This leads to negative attention from the teacher and a decline in achievement due to a decline in positive reinforcement from the teacher.
This obstacle is followed up by the problems of teacher training in the area of ESL education. The ESL/ELL population in public schools is skyrocketing, but the number of teachers trained in ESL education is not increasing nearly fast enough. Soon, the ration of ESL to native language speakers will reach about 1:4 and without more teachers equipped to meet their needs the achievement gap will continue to heighten. A lack of teacher training often means that the educator did not have a class that focus on ESL education during their pre-career school and/or that they have not been trained to deal with the cultural diversity of the classroom. A teacher can be trained in ESL without fully understanding the effects culture can have on a student’s performance and vice versa. This deficiency in educator preparedness results in an achievement gap because they are unable to provide the students with the teaching techniques/methods and are unable to reach their students on various levels meaning that the student is not equipped to succeed.
Finally, there is the factor of socioeconomics playing into ESL education. Students from low-income families often do poorly across the board, it is yet another achievement gap that we can see in schools. This obstacle, however, also tends to hit ESL/ELL students particularly hard due to immigrant and migrant families. Coming from low-income families might mean that the student has a lot more to deal with at home. More stress at home can then correlate to less concentration in the class room and lower performance.
Looking into finding solutions to these problems I can see some possibilities. The easiest solutions are going to be from the educators’ perspective. These would mainly include having school systems hold training programs for educators both in the school system already and in training to enter the school system. These programs could cover tackling cultural diversity in the classroom to teaching new techniques in ESL/ELL education. The possible solutions to the issue of socio economics will be a lot more complicated. These solutions will most likely include a change in the set-up of the wider school system to allow for more funds to go to the schools in need. Otherwise there will need to be a change in school economic diversity. Either option will insure that the poor are not being punished for being poor and that the school system’s funds go to the education of all, equally.