The Bilingual Education Act, the law that had supported the education of English language learners (ELLs) for 34 years, was repealed in 2002 and replaced with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). What was once a competitive grant program that provided funding directly to school districts is now a formula grant program, with federal subsidies based on the number of limited-English-proficient and immigrant students.
Perhaps to emphasize a clean break with the past, the Bush Administration even insisted that the law's provisions be renumbered. The section dealing with English learners, long known as Title VII, the Bilingual Education Act, has become Title III (officially called the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act).
NCLB neither prohibits nor encourages bilingual instruction. It does, however, strike all references to bilingual education, bilingualism, and biliteracy from federal education law. Developing students' native-language proficiency, an important priority of Title VII, is not among the goals of Title III.
These are among the numerous changes in this legislation that are exerting a significant influence on how ELLs are taught. And not necessarily for the better.
For example, the competitive grant system under Title VII included a measure of quality control. Only the best projects, as judged by a panel of experts, received federal funding. Now Title III funding is distributed on a simple per capita basis. This also has the effect of spreading resources far more thinly. Although overall spending on ELLs has increased under NCLB, grants are no longer concentrated for maximum impact in particular schools. The $676 million appropriated for FY2005 works out to just $109 per eligible student, on average, according to a recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools.
This is far less that what schools need to design quality programs, train teachers, purchase appropriate materials, and assess children's English proficiency. Yet the Bush administration budget for FY 2006 is seeking no increase in Title III funding for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, enrollments of English language learners have nearly doubled over the past decade.
Proponents of NCLB, including some well intentioned advocates for minority students, argued that by including ELLs in the law's new accountability system – based on high-stakes testing and annual achievement targets in language arts and math – would force schools to pay attention to these students. No doubt that is true. The question remains, however, whether this attention will be beneficial.
A growing number of educators believe that there are major problems with the NCLB's "test and punish" approach, beginning with its reliance on a single test score to label schools as failing or succeeding. For ELLs the law is especially problematic, owing to the general absence of valid and reliable assessment tools. In addition, it requires that the ELL "subgroup" – which is defined by its lack of proficiency in English – must become fully proficient or schools will face punitive sanctions.
The bottom line: virtually all schools with significant ELL enrollments will soon be in the "failing" category. It is hard to see how such an indiscriminate "accountability" system, which lumps together excellent programs for ELLs with those that are not really trying, has anything to do with improving schools.
NABE has detailed these concerns in a recent paper: No Child Left Behind: Misguided Accountability System for ELLs. It has also joined together with a group of more than 35 education and civil rights organizations, the Alliance for Fair and Effective Accountability to advocate a thorough overhaul of NCLB.