top of page


Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners

Module 6 – Equitable Policy and Practice for English Learners: What Should Teachers and School Leaders Know and Do?

By George C. Bunch

OVERVIEW    |    INTRODUCTION    |    PART 1    |     PART 2    |    PART 3    |    REFERENCES



What are teachers and schools required by law to do to educate students who have been classified by their schools as English Learners?    To what extent do policies and laws help create equitable opportunities for this student population? In what ways have existing policies and laws perpetuated inequities? What more can and should be done? And what role can individual teachers and school leaders play in supporting a high-quality education for English Learners?


This module invites participants to explore these questions, both historically and presently, at different levels: federal, state, district, school, classroom—and in the communities outside of schools as well. The module challenges deficit orientations toward the education of English Learners and proposes alternative viewpoints for explaining challenges facing this population, recognizing the strengths that speakers of languages other than English bring to the classroom, and envisioning challenging and well-supported learning opportunities.


Furthermore, this module encourages participants to consider our collective responsibility to provide a meaningful, accessible, and high-quality education for English Learners—and suggests that doing so not only advances equity and social justice, but also serves the interests of local, state, national, and global communities.


In the module, participants will explore national policies governing the education of English Learners in the United States, considering why it is important that teachers, administrators, and other educators gain a critical understanding of these policies. We will consider two aspects of protecting the rights of English Learners that sometimes seem to come into tension with one another: removing discriminatory practices by ensuring that English Learners receive similar treatment as other students, and providing special treatment for English Learners in order to provide equitable opportunities for them to succeed.


Participants will learn that the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have made it clear that schools must take “affirmative steps” in order to ensure that English Learners are provided with equitable educational opportunity—but that the courts have provided only very general guidance for what these steps should be. At the same time, we will grapple with the fact that, sometimes in the name of “support,” English Learners have too often been subjected to low expectations, inferior curriculum and pedagogy, limited access to subject-area learning, and unproductive language drills rather than using their developing English language proficiency to engage in meaningful discourse and challenging disciplinary practices (Valdés, 2001). We connect these misguided practices to broader “deficit orientations” toward minoritized students. We explore how educators can shift their orientations and teaching practices to support English Learners in ways that amplify, rather than simplify, the kinds of language, disciplinary content, and intellectual expectations that they have access to (Walqui & Bunch, 2019). Finally, we offer specific examples of ways that teachers and school leaders can advocate for English Learners in the classroom, school, and community.


The module revolves around Aída Walqui’s conversation with Magaly Lavadenz on August 11, 2020, Policy and Equity in the Education of English Learners: The Struggle Continues. A former bilingual and English as a second language teacher, Dr. Lavadenz is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Loyola Marymount University and a founding director of the Center for Equity for English Learners. Aída Walqui is Director of the National Research and Development Center for Improving the Education of English Learners in Secondary Schools at WestEd, and the founder of the Quality Teaching for English Learners initiative. In their discussion, Drs. Lavadenz and Walqui discuss the efforts of educators over time working for greater civil rights for English Learners in U.S. educational systems, counter-movements that continue to threaten these rights, and the essential role of individual teachers as agents of equitable policy and practice for English Learners, and for all students.


These are three parts to the Module:


Part 1: What responsibilities do teachers and schools have regarding the education of English learners?


Part 2: Countering deficit thinking


Part 3: What can teachers and schools DO?


Collectively, the module addresses the following topics:


  • The rights of English Learners to an equitable education, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court

  • The creation and enactment of policies to protect those rights as the collective responsibility of multiple parties: the federal government, states, and local education agencies, and also school leaders and individual classroom teachers

  • The policies themselves, as well as how they are enacted, as the product of political and ideological debates and struggle

  • The importance of viewing equity for English Learners as access to equal opportunities for this population (compared with other students) for special treatment (given their needs as language learners), the combination of which will depend on the particular contexts at hand

  • The ways in which local actors, especially classroom teachers and school leaders, play a crucial role in policy, even if that policy was originally produced at higher levels

  • Deficit orientations toward English Learners as the source of pervasive barriers in equitable educational opportunities for English Learners, but also as orientations that can be countered by teachers, schools, and policies

  • Specific actions that teachers and school leaders can take to protect the rights of, and advocate for, English learners and their families—in classrooms, schools, districts, and the community



Author note: Thank you to Heather Schlaman for reviewing an earlier draft of this module and making invaluable suggestions.

    The term English Learners carries the danger of viewing students as learners only of English, ignoring the many other things they are learning and their use of languages other than English to engage in school. We use the term here, however, because it is the term used in federal legislation that mandates identification and service for students determined to be in need of support to engage in mainstream academic instruction in English. Further, for students, there are real and impactful implications of being labelled an English Learner. At the same time, many of the topics in this module also apply to speakers of languages other than English who may no longer be classified as English Learners.

bottom of page