A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

School Reform and Student Diversity - September 1995

E. Executive Summary

In 1990, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the US Department of Education issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to identify and study exemplary school reform efforts involving the education of limited English proficient (LEP) students. The RFP directed the study to focus on language arts in grades 4 through 6 and mathematics and science in grades 6 through 8 and to examine how school reform affected these areas as well as the entire curriculum and program of instruction for LEP students. This volume reports the study’s findings and conclusions.


The linguistic and cultural diversity among students in American schools is greater now than at any time since the early decades of this century. More than one-fifth of school-age children and youth come from language minority families—homes in which languages other than English are spoken. For many of these students, English is not their first language and they enter school with limited English proficiency. During the 1980s, the number of LEP students grew two-and-a-half times faster than regular school enrollment.

Although LEP students represent more than 100 different language backgrounds, Spanish is the native language of 65 to 70 percent of all LEP students, while ten to 15 percent speak one of several Asian languages. Over 40 percent of students with limited English proficiency are immigrants. When they first enter American schools, LEP students vary greatly in age, mastery of English, literacy in their native language, academic preparation, and familiarity with American culture. Some immigrant students have had excellent education in their home country, while the schooling of others has been of poor quality, sporadic, or interrupted by war or other social crises.

Nearly all LEP and other language minority students are members of ethnic and racial minority groups and most are poor. Their neighborhoods are likely to be segregated and beset with multiple problems--inadequate health, social, and cultural services; insufficient employment opportunities; crime, drugs, and gang activity. Their families are likely to suffer the stresses of poverty and to worry about their children’s safety in a dangerous environment and about their future with few positive prospects.

Research studies have suggested that language minority students in general take fewer academic courses, lag significantly behind in writing, science, and mathematics, and have much higher dropout rates than white, native-English-speaking students. At the secondary school level, LEP students are unlikely to be given access to a full academic program taught in their native language or with special language assistance.

Despite these findings, the current education reform movement, which aims to improve the academic achievement of all students, may be ignoring the needs of LEP students. There appears to be a large gap between education reform efforts for native-English-speaking students and the kinds of programs generally available to LEP students. Too often, schools undergoing restructuring fail to include LEP students in their attempts to reform the educational program.

Thus, the challenge for schools with LEP students is to integrate the tenets of education reform with knowledge about learning in a second linguistic and cultural environment. LEP students must first of all have access to challenging curricula in language arts, mathematics, science, and other academic subjects. Simultaneously, schools must deliver a high quality academic program, which requires teachers and administrators to select appropriate instructional methods and redesign the school structure to enhance the achievement of LEP students. This study set out to identify schools that had achieved or were moving towards these goals, and to derive from their successful experiences lessons for local practitioners as well as federal and state officials.

Research Method

The study selected eight exemplary sites for intensive examination, after conducting an extensive nationwide search. State officials, experts and interest groups in the field, and local knowledgeable people from the twenty states with the largest populations of LEP students nominated 156 schools. Information was gathered about all nominations, and at almost half of the schools, principals or bilingual coordinators were interviewed extensively by telephone. Fifteen sites were subsequently selected for one day visits, before the final eight schools were chosen for more extended fieldwork by a team of researchers. Locating exemplary mathematics and science programs was much more difficult than finding outstanding language arts programs. Of the 156 nominated sites, approximately two-thirds were language arts sites and the remaining were mathematics and/or science sites.

Though each study site collected data on student performance, these data could not be used to demonstrate that they had significantly higher student achievement scores compared to other similar schools. This is not surprising. Comparable data on student outcomes across schools in the same or different districts are generally not available, particularly because LEP students are often not given the standardized tests (in English) that districts or states require of most students. Nevertheless, the nomination, screening, and field visits all led to the conclusion that the study schools were highly innovative and followed practices that are considered by the research literature to provide outstanding learning opportunities for LEP--and all--students. At all the study sites, students acquired a mastery of English and were held to high content standards.

This volume, Volume 1, School Reform and Student Diversity: Findings and Conclusions, discusses specific findings that arise from looking across the eight study sites. This Executive Summary reviews broad lessons and general policy implications based on the cross-site analysis as well as on the in-depth material presented in Volume II, School Reform and Student Diversity: Case Studies.

Lessons and Policy Implications

The findings from the exemplary sites summarized below describe what is possible, not what is average. Schooling at the exemplary sites was fundamentally unlike most schooling for LEP children. Therefore, the findings -- and particularly the accompanying case material described in detail in Volume II -- should provide practitioners with clues about strategies that they might use to improve the education of their LEP, and perhaps all their, students, and provide policymakers with insight into how they might support these strategies.

Lesson #1. Schools Can Develop Outstanding Education for LEP Students.

The exemplary schools demonstrated that LEP students can learn challenging content in language arts, mathematics, and science, while becoming literate in English, and, further, that they can realize the high expectations for academic achievement and personal development expected of all other students.

Though the study located a pool of truly exemplary schools, the evidence from the study’s nomination and site selection process suggests that most other schools have not effectively met the challenge of educating LEP students. Many schools, even among those nominated as having good programs for LEP students, have not developed a comprehensive approach to the complex set of language acquisition and instructional needs of LEP students. For example, a number of nominated schools only had one outstanding class for LEP students led by an outstanding and trained teacher, but this class tended to be separated and isolated from the rest of school activities.

More fundamentally, most schools tend to treat the education of LEP students as a remedial issue assuming LEP students must learn English before they can be expected to learn the standard curriculum designed for "mainstream" students. The exemplary sites show that this assumption is not warranted. They demonstrate that mastering high quality curriculum and acquiring English are best done together, using strategies described in Volume II and summarized below.

Policy Implications: Schools with LEP students will have to re-examine their assumptions if they are to produce significant gains in the academic achievement of LEP students. This conclusion, which confirms conclusions from the research literature, has profound implications for policy at the federal, state, and local levels. Recent federal policy, as reflected in Goals 2000 and Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA), shifts the federal role from a regulatory function to one of policy guidance and technical assistance. In this new policy environment, it is particularly important for states and schools to look to the examples of the kind of exemplary schools studied here.

Indeed, Goals 2000 and IASA require states to develop consolidated state plans for school reform. LEP students represent one of the target populations to be served by Title I of IASA and must be included in the state plans. The exemplary schools show that such students can learn to high academic content and performance standards and that state plans should embody the new, and more accurate assumption, that acquiring English and mastering high quality curriculum are best done together. The technical assistance afforded in state plans should be directed toward helping teachers and school communities to develop and adapt the types of strategies summarized below.

Lesson #2. A Comprehensive School-wide Vision Provides an Essential Foundation for Developing Outstanding Education for LEP Students.

The exemplary schools all developed, often by means of an extended process, a schoolwide vision of what quality schooling should be like for all their students, including their LEP students. Though the specifics of the vision differed across the sites, they held five clear themes in common: The combination of these five dimensions of a shared vision--high expectations, cultural validation, community of learners, openness to external partners and research, and comprehensiveness--gave the exemplary schools an air of caring, optimism, and confidence, despite the great challenges they faced.

Policy Implications: In Goals 2000 and Improving America’s School Act, the federal government has delineated an approach to education reform that calls for comprehensive and systemic school change. Our findings clearly show that this approach is on the right track and can benefit the education of LEP students.

For example, the new Title VII of IASA provides "Comprehensive School Grants" and "Systemwide Improvement Grants" to promote systemic change in schools and districts, respectively. The experience of the exemplary schools suggests that this approach could produce the breakthrough in dealing with LEP students that is so necessary. Districts and schools submitting applications for these grants should begin with the notion of developing a schoolwide shared vision of the type summarized above. In particular, these plans should include:

More generally, as schools, districts, and states develop their Goals 2000 and IASA plans, they should make sure that they include specific provisions for assuring high content and performance standards for LEP students in reform; integrating the needs of LEP students and innovative curriculum efforts in mathematics, science, and language arts; and providing professional development geared to a comprehensive understanding of the interrelations among language development strategies, assessment techniques, collaborative skills, and curriculum that is meaningful to LEP students. Perhaps the best way to formulate these plans is by including people who are knowledgeable of LEP student issues in the planning process at the federal, state, and local levels.

Lesson #3. Effective Language Development Strategies Exist and Can be Adapted to Different Local Conditions in order to Ensure LEP Students Access to the Core Curriculum While Simultaneously Developing their English Language Skills.

All schools used students’ primary language--either as a means of developing literacy skills, as a tool for delivering content, or both. In many cases, teachers also relied on high quality sheltered English. Sheltered English and primary language-based programs were typically complemented by ESL instruction. In addition, content area instruction--including language arts, mathematics, and science--was integrated into bilingual and sheltered programs for LEP students and used as a means of providing a context for oral and written language production. All the language development programs were constructed to accommodate students with varying levels of English fluency and, where appropriate, students from different language backgrounds. In all cases where instruction occurred in the students’ primary language, and in many cases where instruction was delivered using sheltered English, teachers were fluent in the home language of their students. The transition of students from classes where instruction was delivered in students’ primary language (or through sheltered English) to mainstream classes was gradual, carefully planned, and supported with activities such as after-school tutoring to ensure students’ success at mastering complex content in English.

Policy Implications: This lesson implies a powerful policy message to practitioners and state officials alike: Teachers of LEP students should have the training and experience in language acquisition to assure that they can create and deliver the educational programs appropriate to the different developmental levels of their LEP students.

The exemplary sites saw language development as a core goal and the foundation for all learning. Much is now known about underlying principles of using primary language for both content instruction and more general language development. The use of sheltered English and content-based ESL in multiple-language situations or during periods of transition to content instruction in English are also better understood.

The federal government and the states should focus on disseminating this empirically grounded information. In addition, pre-service training should be required to include knowledge of language development and the active ways of promoting it in the classroom. Further, credentials for teachers who serve LEP students should also include fluency in a second language. The states should shift toward renewable credentials and require teachers to update their knowledge as new information about language development and second language acquisition is gained.

Given the importance of the use of native language for learning content and meeting high standards, it is critical for states and schools to provide instructional materials in students’ native languages that are on a par with those in the English language curriculum.

Lesson # 4. High Quality Learning Environments for LEP Students Involved Curricular and Instructional Strategies that Engaged Students in Meaningful, In-depth Learning Across Content Areas Led by Trained and Qualified Staff.

The exemplary schools aimed to engage students actively in their own learning. Teachers created nurturing learning environments which facilitated students working independently and in heterogeneous, cooperative groups. Instruction often consisted of students engaged in self-directed, hands-on experiential and project-based learning, including inquiry and active discovery methods. Overall, such curricular and instructional strategies emphasized in-depth learning across subject areas and disciplines. These approaches were effective for LEP students at different levels of development of English oral, reading, and writing skills, provided they were taught by trained and qualified teachers.

Policy Implications: The approaches cited above not only can work in practice, but also offer added value for LEP students. The active and contextualized learning techniques used by these sites allow limited-English-speaking students to become engaged in schooling in ways that the more traditional lecture or question-answer formats do not allow. In such settings, LEP students produce language (in particular, English when students are at an appropriate transition stage) in order to interact with other students. Moreover, the use of cooperative learning groups coupled with experiential learning is natural in some cultures and thus accelerates LEP students’ progress. Other instructional strategies such as hands-on science lessons are effective in engaging students in the curriculum.

Pre-service teacher education should provide training in these practices, particularly so that new teachers can learn to create and work with heterogeneous groupings. The country’s higher education institutions that provide education for teachers have a special responsibility to seek information about effective practices and make such empirical information part of their curriculum.

However, the skills required for teachers to learn the techniques of engaged learning for LEP students are beyond what most teachers receive in pre-service training. Teacher instructional leaders may be best able to provide staff development for fellow teachers in settings having linguistic and cultural diversity. The policy challenge at local and state levels is to identify such teacher leaders and employ them as part of a deliberate and long-run strategy for the training of other teachers. Districts with high proportions of LEP students might consider this strategy and make due allowances for incorporating it as a central element in their plans for professional development in response to the planning requirements of Goals 2000 and IASA. In any event, professional development should be seen as a continuing effort that should be largely teacher-driven, should be linked directly to the needs of students. It should contain all the essential components of effective staff development—acquisition of new knowledge and skills; demonstrations of effective strategies; coaching; and training in becoming inquirers and evaluators.

The federal and state governments should disseminate information about the successful uses--;and benefits--of in-depth and cross-discipline instruction in which students engage in self-directed and experiential learning. This dissemination should be done in new ways, perhaps drawing on effective practices in marketing and political campaigns. For example, the federal and state governments might target schools with high LEP populations and provide them with specific information relevant to their LEP student demographic profile about innovative curriculum in math, science, and language arts and about how school reform can support the implementation of more powerful curriculum for LEP students.

Lesson #5. A Schoolwide Approach to Restructuring Schools’ Units of Teaching, Use of Time, Decision-making, and External Relations Can Enhance the Teaching/Learning Environment and Foster the Academic Achievement of LEP Students.

The exemplary schools restructured their school organization to implement their shared vision of effective schooling. This restructuring enabled them to create innovative learning environments and implement language development strategies that were effective for LEP students. The exemplary sites:

Policy Implications. School restructuring enabled the exemplary schools to design and adapt programs that best suited the needs of LEP--and all--students. The implications of this finding are significant because LEP students are often left on the margins of school restructuring efforts. To promote the inclusion of LEP students into school reform efforts, Goals 2000 and IASA plans from schools with significant LEP students should include specific steps to:

Lesson #6. External Partners Can Have a Direct Influence on Improving the Educational Program for LEP Students.

Though some of the exemplary schools did not have major assistance from external organizations or projects, all the exemplary schools drew on outside research and/or resources as they developed curriculum, implemented new instructional strategies, and designed meaningful assessment systems. For those sites that had external partners, these partners helped schools apply knowledge from education research, and they brought new ideas into the schools and reduced isolation by connecting schools with larger, often national, reform efforts. The presence of external partners was instrumental in the development and implementation of all of the exemplary science programs.

Policy Implications. For a relatively small expenditure, direct federal support for such external partners can make a real difference and leverage change in schools with LEP students. For example, federal support for partnership organizations developing science curriculum has had a powerful and direct impact; these and similar efforts should be expanded.

External partners can also provide on-going staff development, assistance with curriculum and instruction, and coaching as teachers implement new ideas and encounter barriers. Effective external partners can also bring teachers into the larger school reform dialogue, thereby enriching school reform and enhancing the professional roles of teachers. The federal government might consider providing specific guidance for state grants under IASA that would encourage the types of external partnerships that work well for schools with LEP students, as detailed in Volume II. Similarly, the "Systemwide Improvement Grants" under Title VII might be an appropriate vehicle for districts to work with external partners in ways that enabled schools to receive assistance according to their needs and their stage of reform. The exemplary schools all began with a need to develop a vision and then they slowly implemented that vision. Some schools will need technical assistance for a "visioning" process that helps them relate their LEP student needs to changes in curriculum, instruction, and school organization; whereas other schools will need coaching as they implement new instructional approaches or new ways to share decision-making. The federal government might consider developing a "resource bank" of qualified technical assistance providers for schools and districts with high proportions of LEP students that would facilitate their connection with qualified providers. (Such a "resource bank" has been initiated in the School-to-Work area.)

Lesson #7. Districts Can Play a Critical Role in Supporting Quality Education for LEP Students.

Districts varied in their support for the exemplary schools, and in many of these schools the direct influence of districts was limited. However, those districts that actively supported the development and implementation of high quality programs for LEP students made direct and, in some cases, crucial contributions.

Policy Implications: Under Title I of IASA, districts are required to develop reform plans that include all students. Given the shift of the federal role away from a regulatory posture, districts will necessarily have to play an active role in assuring a full and appropriate education for LEP students. The LEA plan under Title I--which shall be congruent with their goals 2000 plan--can become an important policy instrument to strengthen the district role. Perhaps the single most important message that plan can give is a commitment on the part of the district to assure access to a high quality curriculum for all LEP students. In particular, these plans should address the recruitment, professional development, and deployment of teachers and aides to provide effective instruction for LEP students; provisions for high quality instructional materials in native languages; the setting of high content and performance standards; development of assessments in native languages where appropriate to measure progress and give feedback to students, parents, and teachers; the incorporation of new immigrants into school programs; the meaningful participation of language minority parents and community members in school and district decision-making; the linkage between schools (from pre-school to high school) in the same district so that the educational programs and language support from one level of schooling to another can be aligned for LEP and former-LEP students; and the alignment of the K-12 system to career pathways to further education and/or work.

[Acknowledgments] [Table of Contents] [Summary Review of Literature]