The Illinois board of education is poised to adopt the nation’s first state-wide policies governing how to educate preschoolers who speak a language other than English at home.
The board has pushed back its decision on these new regulations several times because of controversy surrounding the regulations in the education community. On one side of the debate, proponents of the policy changes argue that they represent an important step in recognizing that dual language learners are a sizeable and growing population of students that need attention in the school system.
But critics say that the new rules, which extend a K-12 law down to pre-K, are an inappropriate “one size fits all” approach that don’t consider how young learners grow and process information differently than older children.
The regulations respond to the state’s Public Act 95-0793, which went into effect last year. The law extended the definition of “children of limited English-speaking ability” to include 3- and 4- year olds, as opposed to just children in kindergarten through 12th grade. This means that all state laws governing the public education of dual language learners must also apply to preschoolers who attend state-funded preschools.
Creating and implementing these new regulations is proving difficult. The board has put off adopting these regulations during each of the past two meetings, because of the controversy surrounding the regulations and the large number of public comments
the board received in late 2009.
A Closer Look at the Proposed Regulations
Expanding K-12 law for bilingual education to the pre-K level will have numerous effects, starting the day young children enter their classrooms. Here are three significant new requirements:
- Districts would have to screen incoming 3- and 4- year-old students to determine who has limited English skills.
- In a preschool in which over 20 students with limited English proficiency speak the same home language, the preschool must offer transitional bilingual education whereby students are taught in English as well as their home language then gradually transitioned into standard, English-only instruction. Preschools that have students with limited English proficiency but do not have 20 students speaking the same home language would have to provide English-as-a-second-language instruction.
- Teachers who teach bilingual or English-as-a-second-language classrooms would also need to obtain bilingual and/or ESOL certificates—a requirement that has stirred debate over whether Illinois can train and certify enough teachers before the proposed 2014 deadline.
Concerns from the Education Community
During a comment period at the end of 2009, the school board received around 200 public comments on the regulations, on a range of concerns. The language proficiency screening for 3- and 4- year olds entering pre-K has been a major source of debate. Originally, the regulations specified tests for schools to determine whether a child is categorized as having limited English proficiency. This included measures such as “grammar and syntax” and “verbal expression” that, critics say, are not developmentally appropriate for many young children. The board has since proposed amendments that will make these requirements more flexible, giving school districts the freedom to use screening methods that the district “determines to be appropriate.”
Training enough preschool teachers for bilingual and limited English proficiency classrooms will also be difficult. Luisiana Melendéz, director of the bilingual/ESL Certificate Program at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, ultimately favors the new regulations but admits that the regulations as they currently stand have “a lot of flaws.”
“I do worry in terms of the capacity that higher education institutions have in preparing these teachers,” Melendéz said.
Barbara Bowman, the chief early childhood education officer for Chicago Public Schools, raised a more practical concern: “The other problem, of course,” Bowman said, “is that there’s no money.” Obtaining bilingual/ESL certifications for teachers and new curricula will be expensive, and so will implementing new screening mechanisms.
Though the regulations allow for districts to request reimbursement for the added costs of adopting the regulations, there are no new funding streams. Critics are concerned the regulations will become an unfunded mandate that school districts will have to grapple with during a time of severe economic hardship.
The Bigger Picture
There are a lot of potential problems with the proposed regulations, making it no surprise that they are under fire. However, here at Early Ed Watch, we believe it is important to look at the bigger message coming from these new regulations, as well as to keep in mind that this change in policy—as is the case in most important changes in policy—can’t happen without some growing pains. Hopefully, the board of education can be responsive and flexible enough to minimize them.
Ultimately, the new regulations recognize that new populations who do not speak English as a primary language are already large and growing—and that the public education system must evolve accordingly.
The state’s resources may be scarce, but the very existence of policies and resources directed toward a group of young children who are typically fumbled by public schools is an important step forward. As Bowman noted, school districts need to recognize that populations with varying language skills are attending their schools. The new regulations are already calling attention to that.
The bilingual/ESL teacher certifications and curricula required by rules like this could ultimately benefit many school systems—assuming schools find the money to invest in these resources. “There is not a classroom in the United States without a kid from a diverse cultural background,” Melendéz said. “Schools are going to have to invest in materials they didn’t have before,” she explained, adding that Illinois’s move to build curricula and train teachers for dual language learners “needed to happen.”
Earlier this year, Early Ed Watch looked at policies on young dual language learners
– and the lack thereof -- and we're curious about what policy lessons will be gleaned from Illinois’s pioneering regulations. We will continue to follow the impact of these rules as they are adopted and implemented in Illinois and we hope to see other states begin to address the needs of young dual language learners.