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

2. Overall Lessons from the Exemplary Sites

This chapter discusses broad lessons derived from a comparative analysis of the eight study sites and set a context and a framework for the chapters which follow. The lessons focus on elements common to the exemplary schools. Because these lessons reflect exemplary practice, they may seem beyond the reach of most schools serving LEP students. However, we believe that they demonstrate real possibilities that are within reach for many other schools. The outstanding practices developed at these schools began as searches for solutions to problems; outcomes of a reflective process oriented toward better meeting the complex challenges of language diversity. No single site had yet realized all of the elements of reform. Indeed, their commitment to examining their progress continually--and to making adjustments over time as they learn and conditions change--may be the cornerstone for long-term success at these schools.

Lesson #1. Schools can develop outstanding education for LEP students.

The exemplary schools demonstrated that LEP students can learn challenging content in language arts, math, 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.

This general conclusion helps to put to rest the unwarranted assumption that schools must wait to provide LEP students with ambitious curriculum until they have mastered English. The exemplary sites instead began with the conviction that mastering high quality curriculum and acquiring English are best done together. To meet this challenge, they developed innovative strategies and approaches that are synthesized into the lessons that follow.

Lesson #2. A comprehensive shared 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.

First, all the schools expected that LEP--and all--students could learn to high standards and could learn the language arts, math, and science curriculum necessary to be successful in life. The attainment of fluency in oral and written English was assumed to be fundamental and achievable. The individual strengths and needs of each student were respected and conscious efforts were made to help every student realize her or his potential.

Second, these schools embraced the culture and language of students, welcoming parents and community members into the school in innovative ways. This cultural validation broke down alienation and helped the schools create a climate of respect and acceptance.

Third, they worked on developing a community of learners in which teachers were treated as professionals, encouraged to learn from each other, and given the time to develop programs. It was understood that teachers of LEP students should be fluent in the native language of their students and/or trained in language acquisition theory and practice, and that continuing professional development was essential to improving the educational programs. The community of learners extended beyond teachers and students, often involving parents and the community. And the community itself became a source of meaningful learning experiences.

Fourth, the exemplary sites were open to outside help. They welcomed and at times actively sought external partners or research information from the outside in order to advance their understanding of how to realize their school vision.

Fifth, they saw the need for schoolwide and comprehensive change; the system of schooling needed to be re-examined if ambitious goals for their students were to be realized. The structure and content of the curriculum, the instructional paradigm and learning environments, language development strategies, the organization of schooling and the use of time, and school decision-making were seen to be interconnected. Though all elements were not necessarily addressed at once in all schools, staff at the exemplary sites believed systemic change was necessary.

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 a climate of caring, optimism, and confidence, despite the great challenges they faced.

Because the case studies focused on innovative attributes of exemplary sites, their innovations may appear beyond the reach of most schools serving LEP students. On the contrary, we believe they demonstrate what can be done. All the exemplary sites followed a self-reflective process of becoming better at meeting the complex challenges of language diversity. No single exemplary site had yet realized all the elements of reform to the outstanding levels for which they all strove. Their commitment to examining their progress continually--and making adjustments over time as they learned and conditions changed--may be the cornerstone for long-term success at these schools.

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 the exemplary schools adopted two goals: that LEP students would achieve English language fluency, and also master the core curriculum content provided for all students. Some schools added a third goal of developing and maintaining fluency in the students’ native language. Whether or not they also sought maintenance in the native language, the exemplary schools varied in their approach to English language acquisition. The demographics of the LEP students at their school, the desires of the community, the vision for the school, the availability of qualified staff, and district and state policies influenced the particulars of their approach. However, some important similarities emerged.

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 instruction. 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 in English.

All the language development programs were flexibly constructed to accommodate students with varying levels of fluency and, where appropriate, students from different language backgrounds. Rather than using a single model for all the LEP students, teachers adjusted curriculum, instruction, and the use of primary language to meet the varying needs of students. Such flexibility is necessary because of the diversity of students, and the key to flexibility was having qualified and trained staff. In most classrooms with LEP students, teachers were trained in language acquisition. 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. To promote interaction between LEP and English-only students, teachers team taught and employed a wide range of grouping strategies.

Finally, transition 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.

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.

Each exemplary site had to develop its own mix of curricular and instructional strategies for meeting the challenge of language diversity in its own setting. However, across the exemplary sites, the strategies tended to be based on similar pedagogic principles and approaches to creating highly effective learning environments.

These innovative principles aimed to engage students actively in their own learning. Teachers created nurturing learning environments that facilitated students working independently and in heterogeneous, cooperative groups. Instruction often consisted of students engaged in self-directed, hands-on experiential learning, including inquiry and active discovery methods. These features, as implemented in the exemplary sites, are living examples of the new reform approaches to teaching language arts, science and math--and they worked for the education of LEP students.

The goal was to deliver a rich and varied curriculum to LEP students that paralleled the curriculum delivered to other students at the same grade level, that made connections across content areas and built in real-life applications relevant to the students’ experiences. Middle schools linked science and mathematics curricula, as well as social studies and language arts, allowing students to explore more complex relationships between the traditional disciplines. Similarly, the elementary schools created opportunities for students to use their language arts skills across the curriculum. Language arts curriculum was often based on literature-based approaches in which LEP students read, wrote and spoke about topics relevant to their culture and experience. In science, the schools created curricula that drew on the students’ environment to maximize possibilities for hands-on exploration. Mathematics was often taught within the framework of thematic units or project-based activities to build students’ conceptual understanding and computational skills in an applied context that related to real-life situations. Finally, by focusing on concepts over an extended period of time, teachers emphasized depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge.

Overall, such curricular and instructional strategies 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.

Lesson #5. A systemic approach to school restructuring focusing on organizing schooling into smaller units, using time to promote more concentrated learning opportunities and more teacher collaboration, establishing broadly inclusive decisionmaking, and integrating social and health services into school operations--can enhance the teaching/learning environment and foster the academic achievement of LEP students.

Each exemplary school restructured its school organization to create an appropriate framework for its shared vision of effective schooling. Such restructuring enabled them to create the language development strategies and innovative learning environments that were effective for LEP students. More generally, they increased the effectiveness of their human, educational, community, and financial resources.

Both the elementary and middle schools reconfigured their schools into smaller school organizations such as "families" that heightened the connections among students, between teachers and students, and among teachers. Smaller organizational units also made it easier for newcomer LEP students to be brought into the flow of instruction. In some cases, the schools had a small group of students stay with the same teacher over four or five years. This continuity enabled LEP students to become skilled at cooperative learning, become highly responsible in their learning tasks, and build self-esteem. It also enabled teachers to build their understanding of each student, and developed their capacity to apply new instructional approaches.

The use of time was also reconfigured at the exemplary schools, sometimes in inventive ways. Adjusting lesson plans and curriculum protected students’ time for learning and allowed LEP students to engage in self-directed learning activities within cooperative groups, with opportunities for hearing and producing language. Some exemplary schools allocated blocks of class time appropriate to the pedagogic requirements of different subject matters or themes. (Science projects, for example, could occupy a double period in middle schools.) Several schools structured or extended the school day and year to accommodate teacher planning, collaboration, and professional development, and to provide extra support for LEP students’ transition to English as well as for the incorporation of newcomers into the LEP program. In short, such creative uses of time enabled the schools to tailor the educational program to the students’ strengths and needs.

In addition, the exemplary schools developed governance structures, often involving teachers, parents, and community members, that supported consensus building through broad-based decisionmaking. Such shared decision-making had the direct pedagogical benefit of empowering teachers to become involved in curriculum planning and development, to set a schedule that facilitated high quality curriculum, to seek professional development that enhanced their teaching of LEP students, and to allocate resources for the benefit of LEP students. It further helped to provide a context for a deep level of parent and community involvement.

Finally, several sites integrated health and social services as school-based services. In doing so, they addressed the needs of their LEP students--many of whom were from poor families and often had difficult experiences as immigrants--and provided a service to the community.

Lesson #6. External partners can improve the educational program for LEP students.

Though some of the exemplary schools did not use major assistance from external organizations or projects, all the exemplary schools drew on outside resources as they developed curriculum and implemented new instructional strategies. In cases where schools had external partners, they helped schools apply knowledge from educational research; they brought new ideas into the schools and reduced isolation by connecting schools with larger--often national--reform efforts.

The role of external partners was especially critical as schools reconceptualized their programs and undertook the challenge of extensive reforms in science and mathematics instruction, as well as in the integrated use of technology. In addition, schools collaborated with external partners to work through complex issues surrounding organizational change, such as the development of a system for site-level decisionmaking. Finally, school staff worked with external partners to organize and provide for integrated health and social services.

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 a direct and, in some cases, a crucial contribution. They did so through a series of strategies.

First, district personnel believed that LEP students could learn to high standards.

Second, districts recruited and offered stipends to bilingual teachers, provided staff development in bilingual teaching and second-language acquisition, and made provisions to allow for reduced class sizes for LEP students.

Third, districts supported the implementation of more powerful curriculum and instruction by providing staff development in response to the needs and interests of the teachers.

Finally, districts supported school restructuring by shifting some decisionmaking responsibilities to the site level and participating in, or establishing, networks of schools undergoing restructuring, particularly schools implementing the middle-school model.

[1. Lessons Learned from Site Selection] [Table of Contents] [3. Approaches to Language Development]