The legal environment has a significant impact on education because it establishes requirements and standards for schools and educational programs. When it comes to English language learners’ education, the United States legislation provides many regulatory mechanisms that affect how ELL programs are designed and implemented. The present paper will discuss federal and state laws and court cases affecting ELL instruction or school districts’ activity. Also, the paper will explain how ELL teachers could assist schools or districts in designing ELL instructional programs that meet federal, state, and local guidelines, laws, and policies. Finally, some major ELL programs and their implementation will also be addressed.
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Firstly, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act applies to ELL education since it addresses discrimination in education. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (n.d.), this legislation “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance” (para. 1). Since federal financial assistance applies to public education in the U.S., the law addresses discrimination in education by granting ELLs with equal opportunities. Additionally, the application of Title VI in the educational sector requires implementing effective English instruction, providing education to parents in a language they can understand, and ensuring that students with limited English proficiency have access to special education (Pottinger, 1970).
Secondly, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) of 1974 built on the foundations of the previous legislation by addressing segregation and discrimination in education more specifically. The law established that all public school students are to have equal educational opportunities, including students whose first language is not English (“H.R.40,” 1974). The law also prohibited segregation in education and required schools and school districts to take steps to enhance the opportunities available to minority student groups.
The third major legislation that impacted ELLs in the U.S. was Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994. The Act acknowledged the educational needs of children with limited English proficiency and required schools to implement several practices in assessment and instruction. For example, the Act states that schools should assess the content knowledge students with low English proficiency in their native language, include migrant children or ELL students in special educational assistance programs, and use federal funding to design and implement effective bilingual education programs (“H.R. 6,” 1994).
Finally, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 complemented this legislation by mandating annual statewide assessments of English proficiency of ELL students and establishing clear criteria for identifying children as ELLs (“S.1177,” 2015). The law also requires states to oversee the standards of educational programs for students with limited English proficiency and monitor compliance with these standards (“S.1177,” 2015). Hence, this Act complements other federal laws in improving ELLs’ opportunities in education.
Federal Court Cases
One of the most important federal court cases in the area of ELL instruction was Lau v. Nichols, in which Chinese American students claimed that they had faced discrimination from the San Francisco School District. Based on the facts of the case, the students were placed in regular classrooms despite low English proficiency and received no support from the school to facilitate effective learning (“Lau v. Nichols,” 1974). The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that students were not given opportunities for meaningful education, and thus the school district violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Lau v. Nichols,” 1974). Based on the ruling in this case, schools must find ways of overcoming barriers faced by ELLs in education by providing adequate instruction and resources.
Another similar case considered by the United States Court of Appeals was the case of Gomez v. the Illinois State Board of Education. In this case, Spanish-speaking children with limited English proficiency “have been deprived of an equal education and have suffered economic hardship, undue delays in their educational progress, and in many cases exclusion from any educational opportunities” (“811 F.2d 1030,” 1987, para. 4).
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The problem occurred primarily due to the lack of unified guidelines for identifying ELLs and placing them in language support programs. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, thus requiring educational institutions to establish proper assessment, identification, and placement standards to ensure compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment (“811 F.2d 1030,” 1987).
Lastly, the case of Castañeda v. Pickard was also critical for the development of proper ELL instruction. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case in 1981 and ruled in favor of Mexican American plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the Texas Independent School District (RISD). The case identified that educational programs applied by the school district in compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 were discriminatory and established criteria to determine compliance in future cases.
These criteria involved basing educational programs on proven educational theories, using adequate resources and personnel to implement them effectively, and evaluating such programs regularly (“648 F.2d 989,” 1981). These standards are still used to evaluate compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 in various school districts.
State Court Cases
The two examples of state court cases that impacted ELL instruction were the cases of Arlington Public Schools and ASPIRA v. New York. In the first case, the school district of Virginia was identified as noncompliant with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, and a settlement was reached between the school district and the state. The settlement required schools of the Arlington district to improve identification and placement of ELL students, improve communication with their parents, provide ELL instruction to all students with limited English proficiency, ensure adequate ELL training of content teachers, evaluate ELL programs regularly, and ensure timely special education assessments for ELL students (“Settlement agreement,” 2019).
In the second case, New York City public school students complained about the lack of bilingual education in public schools and inadequate instruction. The Court ruled in their favor, effectively establishing mandatory bilingual education for low English proficiency students in New York State (“394 F.,” 1975). Both cases had a significant impact on state laws regarding ELL education.
Two examples of state laws that influence current approaches to ELL instruction are Illinois Administrative Code Part 228 and the New York Commissioner’s Regulations Part 154. The first law establishes compliance with Every Student Succeeds Act by providing rules for identification, placement, and transition of ELLs. In particular, the law mandates annual proficiency assessments for ELLs and determines program options based on attendance center enrollment (Illinois State Board of Education, 2017). When the enrollment reaches 20 or more English learners of the same language classification, the school district is required to implement a transitional bilingual education program (ISBE, 2017). In other cases, the school district may provide either a TBP or a transitional program of instruction (ISBE, 2017).
In New York, Part 154 of the Commissioner’s Regulations sets the requirements with regards to special education assessment, language proficiency evaluation, and placement in ELL programs. Based on this law, ELLs in the state are eligible for language support in the form of bilingual education or an English as a New Language (ENL) program (“Guidance,” 2018). The regulation also requires educational institutions to submit comprehensive plans for meeting the needs of ELL students annually (“Guidance,” 2018). Both state laws assist school districts in ensuring compliance with federal laws and improving ELL instruction.
Meeting Legal Requirements
ELL teachers have an important role in promoting compliance with federal, state, and local guidelines, laws, and policies in schools. Based on the overview of the legal environment provided above, there are several areas of concern with regards to designing instructional programs. These include assessment, teachers’ qualifications, knowledge of ELLs and their needs, instructional methods used, communication with parents, and resources. Hence, to understand the needs of the school or district in meeting specific federal and state ELL requirements, ELL teachers should ask the following questions:
- What are the federal and state legislative requirements that the school has to comply with?
- How are ELL students’ proficiency levels assessed?
- How many ELL students are enrolled in the school or district, and what are their linguistic backgrounds?
- Is bilingual, transitional, and English learning instruction available to all ELLs?
- How does the school communicate with parents who do not speak English?
- What evidence-based ELL instructional methods are already applied or could be applied?
- Does the school have enough resources to establish comprehensive, supportive programs for ELLs?
- Do all teachers have the necessary qualifications for teaching ELLs and is continuing education available?
- How does ELL instruction fit with content instruction?
- How do content teachers plan for meaningful education of ELLs?
- How can the effectiveness of ELL programs be tracked?
- What are the procedures for referring ELLs for special education services?
Obtaining answers to these questions will help to establish the current state of adherence to legal requirements, as well as to plan for increasing compliance. By evaluating current assessment approaches, instructional methods, and teachers’ qualification, ELL teachers will be able to identify any gaps in ELL programs implemented in the school. Additionally, understanding how ELL instruction is integrated with content teaching may aid in evaluating whether or not the current ELL programs provide opportunities for meaningful learning. Finally, addressing communication with parents, students’ characteristics, and legislative requirements would be useful for determining the changes that need to be applied to meet students’ needs and state or federal requirements.
In order to develop or modify the existing ELL program under state or federal requirements, teachers will also have to collect other data. First of all, it would be helpful to survey school teachers to find out gaps in instruction or identify other concerns. For example, the survey could cover how information is delivered in class, what types of assignments are used, whether or not there are individual assignments for students with low English proficiency, and other areas related to teaching ELLs. This information would help to evaluate which needs of ELLs are currently being met and which are to be addressed in the new ELL program.
It would also be useful to collect examples of curricula for certain subjects to see how ELL programs could fit into content instruction. This would help in planning a comprehensive ELL program that has an influence beyond the ELL classroom and could help content teachers to overcome barriers to providing meaningful education to all students.
Secondly, it would be crucial to collect information from ELLs’ parents using surveys or interviews in their native language. In particular, ELL teachers should focus on the parents’ involvement in education and their specific concerns. For instance, it would be helpful to find out if parents receive information from the school in their native language and whether or not they think that the current ELL instruction provides their children with equal opportunities.
ELL teachers could also collect more information about students from their parents or other family members. Information on previous educational experience, family background, and issues affecting learning could help to establish the needs of individual ELL students and ensure that instruction will address them. While surveying parents provides important data that could be used to design an effective ELL program, it also improves parents’ awareness of services provided by the school and supports communication between schools and families.
Thirdly, ELL teachers should also collect data concerning the qualifications of teachers. This information can be obtained from the principal or other administrative staff members. ELL teachers should focus specifically on whether or not content teachers have proper training to teach ELL students or require any continuing education to understand these students’ needs better. Collecting data on this subject will assist in designing a plan for training teachers and integrating ELL programs into mainstream classrooms. For example, if a content teacher had no education concerning ELL instruction, it would be useful to offer training and schedule planning sessions where the ELL teacher could help to plan for accessible learning.
Finally, since the focus of all ELL programs is on students and their needs, collecting data from ELLs would also be necessary. Teachers could use interviews or surveys to find out more about students and their views on instruction. Questions could address students’ satisfaction with current instruction, motivation to learn English, socialization and support needs, scheduling concerns, and other factors influencing ELL program success.
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Students could also be asked for suggestions on what could be improved in language and content learning, as this could indicate opportunities for improvement that are not addressed in legislative documents. Using a small sample of students and conducting interviews or surveys in their native language ELL teachers can learn more about students’ unmet needs and get valuable ideas.
ELL Instruction Models
There is a great variety of instructional models that can be used to help ELLs to improve academic outcomes and develop fluency in English. However, public schools in Illinois usually use one of the two state-funded programs: transitional bilingual education or transitional program of instruction. One alternative model that could be applied by a school is push-in/pull-out tutoring.
Transitional bilingual education refers to the ELL model where content instruction is provided in English as well as the native language and is complemented by English as a second language lessons (ISBE, 2013). Once students increase their proficiency in English, instruction in their native language is reduced gradually. To implement this model, schools need to hire bilingual content teachers and create separate classrooms with students who speak the same native language.
It is also necessary to design an effective ESL program that would help students to develop their English proficiency. In order for the program to comply with state regulations, TBE teachers have to obtain certification from the ISBE, show evidence of bilingual or ESL qualifications, and demonstrate proficiency in both languages of instruction (ISBE, 2013).
The transitional program of instruction is the second state-funded model used in public schools in Illinois. In this program, academic instruction is provided in English, but students also receive additional instruction or assistance in their home language based on their English proficiency level (ISBE, 2013). For example, students with low English proficiency will likely receive more academic instruction in English than intermediate or advanced English-speakers. Additionally, the ISBE (2013) states that “TPI services may include, but are not limited to, instruction in ESL, language arts in the student’s home language, and history of the student’s native land and the United States” (p. 1).
This means that the TPI is also tailored to the cultural context of ELLs, which may assist them in acculturation. TO implement this model, schools require to have bilingual content teachers and ESL teachers, as well as separate classrooms for ESL classes and a well-designed ESL curriculum. The legal requirements for the TPI are similar to the ones set for TBE since teachers have to obtain certification from the ISBE and provide evidence of fluency in the students’ native language. Both programs are also influenced by state funding regulations because only those districts that provide five or more periods of TBE or TPI services weekly may receive funding to cover the costs of these services (ISBE, 2013).
Schools that do not require state funding for ELL programs may choose other models of ELL instruction depending on their needs. One example of an ELL model that may be helpful to schools is push-in/pull-out tutoring. This model involves providing all content instruction in English while also offering language instruction in English as a second language (Truong, 2017). This form of instruction is widely used in educational institutions that teach international students, but can also apply for other linguistic minority groups. The main limitation of this model is that it does not meet the needs of students with low levels of English proficiency.
These students are likely to struggle academically if they do not receive content instruction in their native language. Applying this model to students with limited English skills could influence compliance with federal and state laws, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. Hence, it is best used in conjunction with more accessible ELL models that would be applied to support low-proficiency ELLs. Implementing push-in/pull-out tutoring requires hiring ESL teachers who possess the qualifications and certification required by state laws and designing an effective ESL curriculum.
Overall, the federal and state laws that concern ELL instruction focus on providing equal educational opportunities, reducing discrimination, and implementing adequate assessment, placement, and instruction models. The legislative landscape of ELL instruction has changed dramatically since the 1960s, and now schools are required to design programs carefully to satisfy all of the applicable requirements. ELL teachers can help schools and school districts to ensure compliance by collecting information about ELL students, teachers, and instructional methods and using it to create and implement effective ELL programs. Some examples of the models used in ELL instruction are transitional bilingual education, the transitional program of instruction, and push-in/pull-out tutoring.
811 F. 2d 1030 – Gomez v. Illinois State Board of Education. (1987). Web.
H.R.40 – Equal Educational Opportunities Act. (1974). Web.
H.R.6 – Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994. (1994). Web.
Illinois State Board of Education. (2013). Bilingual education programs and English language learners in Illinois. Web.
Illinois State Board of Education. (2017). 23 Illinois administrative code 228. Web.
Lau v. Nichols. (1974). Web.
Pottinger, J. S. (1970). Developing programs for English language learners: HEW memorandum. Web.
S.1177 – Every Student Succeeds Act. (2015). Web.
648 F.2d 989 – Castañeda v. Pickard. (1981). Web.
Truong, N. (2017). Next generation learning models for English language learners. Web.
The United States Department of Justice. (n.d.). Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Web.
394 F. Supp. 1161 – ASPIRA of New York, INC., et al., plaintiffs, v. Board of Education of the City of New York et al., defendants. (1975). Web.