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

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


Activity 1.1: “Each of us has a role”


In this activity, you will listen to the beginning of the conversation between Drs. Walqui and Lavadenz. In this segment of the conversation, you will hear introduced a number of themes and issues that we will be unpacking throughout this module.


View the recording of the conversation between Drs. Walqui and Lavadenz (start at 3:00 in the video and stop at 10:00).


As you listen, think about what resonates with you, what questions you have, and what role YOU play (or you want to play) in the education of English Learners.


After listening, reflect with others participating in this module on the following questions:


  1. What resonated with you from the discussion?

  2. What questions do you have?

  3. What role do YOU play (or do you want to play) in the education of English Learners?



Activity 1.2: Who does what in educational policy in the United States?


Before turning to specific policies and laws impacting the education of English Learners, and each of our roles in those policies, it is important to understand what different responsibilities the federal government, states, and districts have in U.S. public education.


Warmup: “Pop quiz” (just for fun!)

BEFORE reading the “answer” box below, write for a few minutes in response to the following questions, speculating based on your current knowledge and understandings. (This is just designed to get a brief baseline for your current understandings. You will have an opportunity to delve more deeply into these areas later in the module):


  1. What roles do the federal (national/U.S.) government play in public education in the United States?

  2. What are the federal requirements for educating English Learners?

  3. What questions do you have about your and your school’s responsibility to educate English Learners? (These could be technical questions or questions that signal your concerns and critiques.)


Read and compare

Read the following text on Who Does What in Educational Policy and compare it with what you wrote in the Pop Quiz.

Who Does What in Education Policy?

The U.S. federal government has two primary ways to influence public education in the United States: (1) the enforcement of civil rights, encoded in federal law, and (2) getting states to do other things the feds want them to do by offering them federal funds to do them and/or threatening to remove those funds if they don’t (i.e., the “carrot and sticks” approach to education policy). Although much attention has been paid to the role of federal funding, in the U.S. such funding represents less than 10 percent of all educational expenses. (Federal funding, of course, is still vital, especially for under-resourced states, schools, and districts, and much of it is targeted to high-needs students, including English Learners.)

Individual states are responsible for the vast majority of educational funding in the U.S., and they have the responsibility to guide almost everything about public education: standards and the tests that measure students’ achievement of them, curriculum guidelines, textbook approvals, teacher preparation and licensing requirements, and more. States also have the responsibility to enact policies that protect students’ civil rights and, of course, to make sure that they are spending federal money according to law.

Local school districts do the actual implementing, using state and federal funds and any local taxes that they have access to. Depending on particular state policies, districts design programs, choose or develop the actual curriculum, buy textbooks, allocate teacher positions, implement testing and accountability measures, and more.

Individual schools hire teachers, assign them to particular classrooms, and evaluate their performance; determine students’ course schedules; and, ideally, offer supports for teachers and students, including students designated as English Learners.

Classroom teachers design lessons; teach, evaluate, and support students; communicate with parents; and much, much more!  

All levels, therefore, have responsibility for serving the needs of English Learners. The federal government is ultimately responsible for interpreting and protecting English Learners’ rights, and it can allocate funding to support their education. States, following federal law and some federal funds, are responsible for guidelines, regulations, and the vast majority of funding. States, following federal laws, develop specific policies for how local districts will identify, instruct, and reclassify English Learners, and districts and schools implement those policies by administering home language surveys, English language proficiency tests, and applying other criteria for reclassification. States usually develop curricular guidelines for English language instruction (and other subjects that English Learners take), and districts, schools, and—most importantly—individual teachers enact the actual curriculum.  

Activity 1.3: “Freedom to talk”


In this activity, you will watch and discuss a short film, Freedom to Talk, focusing on both roles of the federal government that were discussed in Activity 1.1 (i.e., protection of English Learners’ civil rights and providing funding to influence state and district policies regarding their education). Linking civil rights for English learners to rights for Black Americans fought for during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, the video also shows the intersection of federal, state, and local education policy, during different political moments in the United States, with implications for the role of teachers and schools. It outlines the evolution of policy over the decades relevant to the integration of language development and academic content for English Learners.


The 13-minute film was conceived of and narrated by Kenji Hakuta, professor emeritus at Stanford University and one of the nation’s best-known policy advocates for English Learners. The video you are watching was produced by his son, Luis Hakuta.


Before watching the film:

  • Peruse the table below, writing your questions and comments in the appropriate column. If completing this module with others, participants can share with each other some of the questions they have before watching the video.


After watching the film:

  • Fill out the final column. Discuss your questions and comments with others who completed this module.


Political Context


Implications for Teachers
& Schools

My Questions & Comments: Before Watching the Film

My Questions & Comments: After Watching the Film

Lau vs. Nichols (1974): Supreme Court rules that schools must protect civil rights of English Learners by providing support for meaningfully accessing public education

Civil rights movement

Lau vs. Nichols is still the law of the land today; many debates over the years regarding whether bilingual education (use of students’ home languages in the early grades) should be provided as one means of addressing their needs  

No requirement for what schools or teachers needed to do to support English Learners; just that they needed to do so. Districts made  decisions based on state laws and policies

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA):

Congress provides federal funding for schools 

“War on Poverty”

Feds included strict accountability for how money could be spent by states, districts, and schools: “supplement, don’t supplant”

Standards-based movement begins (1980s and 1990s): States get more flexibility from the feds in return for developing their own state standards and testing

Reagan Revolution (“Washington doesn’t know best”);

A Nation at Risk report 1983; standards baton passed from Bush I to Clinton in the 1990s

Teachers and schools begin to focus on state standards and testing

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB): Federal government requires states to show all students are making “adequate yearly progress” (including English Learners)

Bipartisan agreement under Bush II

Reauthorization of ESEA; states still control standards and testing

NCLB added teeth to the standards;

school districts and individual schools punished for failing to meet the state’s metrics; pressure put on teachers to increase students’ test scores; more focus on education of English Learners because their scores were included in schools’ progress reports

Title III of NCLB (2001):

State English language proficiency standards and testing required as part of states’ accountability systems

Bipartisan agreement under Bush II (part of NCLB)

Schools and teachers focus on English Learners’ reclassification rates and English proficiency levels;

language instruction often separated from content instruction

College and Career Readiness (CCR) Standards (e.g., Common Core) [beginning in 2010]

Common Core sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers; Congress and Obama pressured states to adopt by offering federal funds to states who did, but states still could make their own decisions about what standards to use

Officially still part of NCLB (the CCR standards were what was tested as part of the continuing accountability system) 

Teachers and schools asked to rapidly prepare for new standards and tests; called to shift from thinking about English language development as a separate curriculum to considering the role of language in disciplinary practices, especially for English Learners 

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015

Concern by liberals and progressives over role of testing in schools under NCLB; concern by conservatives over federal influence in education under NCLB

Reauthorization of ESEA (replaced NCLB)

Continued testing and accountability, but states have greater control over their own testing and accountability systems, easing pressure in some cases on teachers’ need to “teach to the test”; English language proficiency and English Learners’ progress in content-area curriculum still required areas of focus

Activity 1.4: The current law of the land: What federal courts have said about protecting the rights of English Learners


In Activity 1.1, you heard Magaly Lavadenz argue that each of us has a role in protecting the rights of English Learners. In this activity (1.4), you will learn about several key court cases relevant to the education of English Learners and reflect on the implications of these legal decisions for teachers and schools. (Several of these cases were also mentioned in the video, Freedom to Talk, that you watched as part of Activity 1.3.)


  1. Divide into “Expert” groups of four to five participants. Each group will be assigned one of the following four cases: Mendez v. Westminster (1947), Lau v. Nichols (1974), Castañeda v. Pickard (1981), or Plyler s. Doe (1982).

  2. Members of each group discuss one or more key sources of information (listed beneath the graphic organizer) about the case assigned to their group and take notes on their case in the graphic organizer below.

  3. A representative from each Expert group joins with a representative from each of the other Expert groups (these new groups of four are called Home groups). Each member of the Home group reports what they learned about their case to the rest of the Home group. Other members of the Home group fill out the matrix as each person presents, so that all participants come away from the activity with key information about of all four cases.

  4. Finally, discuss the following questions in small groups and/or with a larger group:

  • How does all of the information related to these cases matter to you as educators?

  • Why is it important for educators to know about these cases and how does it inform your work?

What was the question(s) facing the court?

How did the court rule?

What are some interesting or important details?

What are the implications for teachers and schools?

What are your questions and comments?


Mendez v. Westminster

Lau v. Nichols (1974)

Castañeda v. Pickard

Plyler v. Doe

Browse the sources below related to the case you have been assigned to, and complete the related part of the matrix above.

Mendez v. Westminster (1947): Segregation is not permissible

Lau v. Nichols (1974): Requirement without direction

Castañeda vs. Pickard (1981): Direction without specification


Plyler vs. Doe (1982): The right to public schooling regardless of immigration status


Additional information on these and other cases relevant to English Learners:

Activity 1.5: From court mandates to state policy to classroom practice


In this activity, you will examine how federal court decisions mandating equitable education for English Learners have been translated into one state’s policies, and what classrooms that attempt to provide meaningful and supportive access to quality learning opportunities for this population might look like.


In Activities 1.3. and 1.4, we considered the ways in which U.S. courts have clarified the rights of English Learners to an equitable education, as well as the ways that federal policy has attempted to get states to include English Learners in their standards and accountability plans.

You might have noticed that there are two different approaches taken when considering how to ensure educational equity for English Learners.


  • On one hand, educators, advocates, and federal courts have worked to ensure that English Learners and other minorized populations are not denied fundamental rights and opportunities provided to other students in the U.S. This approach is exemplified in desegregation and access cases such as Mendez v. Westminster and Plyler v. Doe.

  • Another line of work has emphasized the particular needs of English Learners that require affirmative steps that may be different from those required for educating other students. An example of this line of reasoning is the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lau v. Nichols that merely providing equal access to classrooms and textbooks is not enough to adequately educate English Learners, who may not be able to comprehend mainstream instruction in English.

The two angles are discussed in detail in a 2013 essay by Professor Karen Thompson, titled Is Separate Always Unequal? Thompson argues that the removal of discriminatory practices is foundational, and that the inclusion of special treatment to meet the needs of students in the process of learning English may be necessary in particular, limited contexts, for specific lengths of time. 


It is also important to remember that, while states are obviously required to comply with federal laws and court cases such as those explored in Activity 1.4, each state has wide latitude in how they meet the needs of English Learners. In this activity (1.5), you will reflect on how California, the state with the largest number (1.2 million) and percentage (20 percent) of English Learners, has moved to meet its responsibilities for educating English Learners, with specific examples relevant to teachers and schools inside and outside of this state. As you consider the case of California, you will have the opportunity to identify and discuss examples of how policies and practices can simultaneously work to eliminate discriminatory barriers and provide proactive supports, in California or other states, including the one in which you live and work.


California’s official state policy, called the English Learner Roadmap, was adopted in 2017. We will be using the Roadmap as a case study of one state trying to protect English Learners’ rights and fulfill education systems’ responsibility for educating them. This state policy calls for “welcoming, understanding, and educating the diverse population of students who are English learners attending California public schools.” You will have the opportunity to reflect on and discuss what might be useful or relevant from the Roadmap for your own teaching and your own students’ learning, regardless of the state you work in.

In order to explore California’s vision and policies for the education of English Learners, we will use English Learner Roadmap Teacher Toolkits developed by Californians Together, an organization that advocates for equitable education for English Learners.


Please follow the directions below, pausing to discuss your answers with partners or small groups.


  1. Choose which Toolkit you would like to focus on (high school, middle school, or elementary).

  2. Read the Introduction and the “Four Interrelated Principles” (pp. 1–7).

  3. Complete the “Meaning-Making Activity” for Principle #1: “Assets Oriented and Needs Responsive” (p. 9).

  4. Complete the “Making it Real” prompts for Principle #1 (p. 10).

  5. Quickly respond to the “Self-Assessment Reflection Tool,” which begins on page 11. If you are not currently working in the classroom, choose a classroom that you have observed recently to complete the activity.

  6. Return to the “Self-Assessment Reflection Tool” and circle two or three indicators or examples that you would like to discuss further. You might circle practices that you currently engage in that you feel are particularly helpful for English Learners, those that are new to you that you would like to incorporate, or perhaps even items that you believe may be counter to the interests of English Learners.

  7. Discuss your circled items in small groups of other participants of this module.

  8. Discuss the extent to which the California Roadmap (pp. 1–7 of the Teacher Toolkit) responds to the legal decisions we explored in Activity 1.4.

Activity 1.6 (Optional): Case study of one school


This activity provides an opportunity for you to investigate the language background of students at one particular school that you work in or have access to.


Ideally, you will speak with at least one teacher and one other person involved in the education of English Learners at the school you are focusing on. Ask your informants questions that will help you take notes on and synthesize the following: 


  • What is the linguistic background of the students in school? What percentage of the school’s population is made up of English Learners? How are students identified as English Learners? How are they reclassified as Fluent English Proficient (or whatever term is used in your state)?


  • What kinds of courses do English Learners take? Are they enrolled in an English Language Development (ELD) course? Do they take mainstream, bilingual, or sheltered content area courses?

  • How many teachers, staff members, or administrators at the school share cultural or linguistic backgrounds with their students? How many speak the primary languages of at the school? In what ways are teachers at the school prepared to meet the needs of (e.g., through professional development, training, support)?


In addition, consider the following questions and discuss them with others completing this module:


  • What other information seems to be relevant, either to you or those you spoke with, regarding the language backgrounds and experiences of the students in your placement?


  • How did your work in the module activities up to this point help you better understand what you have heard and learned about these topics at your placement? What stands out as potentially effective practices for this population at your site? What questions and/or concerns arise for you about this schools’ practices?


  • What role can individual teachers play in how this school (and other schools) work toward educational equity for English Learners? What role do envision playing?

bottom of page