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Private Foundations, English Language Learners & My Continued Skepticism


Over the past year, I’ve written some fairly visible critiques of both “progressive” private foundations (see Private Foundations Have A Place (And Have To Be Kept In Their Place) ) and “non-progressive” private foundations (see Gates Foundation Minimizing Great Tools For Helping Teachers Improve Their Craft).

I also wrote a very skeptical post about a planned meeting of funders last June to learn about English Language Learner issues (see Grantmakers Meet To Discuss ELL’s — Will Anything Positive Come From It?). My skepticism was especially grounded in the fact that, though they had academics and researchers there to talk about ELL issues, they didn’t invite any K-12 teacher or anyone from a grassroots organization working on immigrant and/or education issues.

Thanks to Mary Ann Zehr at Education Week (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you teach ELL’s, you need to read Mary Ann’s blog), I learned that the funders group just came out with their report about the meeting.

My original skepticism seems well-founded.

The report, though I’m sure well-meaning, seems like an extended laundry list of just about every idea out there related to English Language Learners. Without a focus on a very small handful of ideas, and without some very specific strategies to make them a reality, reports like this just gather dust in the file cabinets (or their “virtual” equivalent nowadays) of foundations throughout the country.

Coming up with practical ideas and practical ways to achieve them…um, I wonder who has experience doing that? Oh, yeah, teachers of English Language Learners and leaders and organizers of grassroots organizations — the same people who didn’t get invited to the meeting…

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I know what you mean. I am a bit concerned because they are, for the most part, lumping preK in with all other grades and preK does need some separate support that may be different than the support provided to school districts. What I like the least is the quotable quote that is cropping up all over the place about 10% of our students are ELLs. I believe it would be more accurate to say that about 10% of our students are identified as ELLs, but we believe the actual occurrence is closer to 25% in preK and K. Great that they are drawing attention to the rapidly growing populations – but a disservice if people are going around thinking 10% when they should really be concerned about a quarter! But – this happens every time I am interviewed for a newspaper. Superficially, I am glad another article has come out to bring attention to issues I care about – but I am always dismayed that the article is not quite perfect. So – maybe in this case – the attention and exposure to a new audience is a good enough benefit that we can accept the flaws in the report?

  2. Pingback: College Campus » Teacher Says Funders’ Report on ELLs Likely to ‘Gather Dust’

  3. Thanks, Larry, for your tireless efforts on the issue of English Language Learners. The meeting was organized by the Grantmakers for Education (GFE), a group that works with a number of small and large foundations around the country to build their capacity around urgent issues. GFE was eager to bring ELLs to the attention of grant makers who fund in the area of education but have not paid very much attention to English learners. That said, I thought the meeting was successful in bringing this important issue to the forefront of philanthropy. Much of the focus of the meeting was not just to talk about the data (which, btw, was gathered from Migration Policy Institute, the Census and previously published reports) but also discuss what strategies are needed to build capacity for foundation staff and board members to encourage them to fund in this area. This was a conversation internal to philanthropy to build the will to do the work, and we look forward to the stage in which the will is built and we can turn attention to those experts on the ground doing the work. One last point (which the paper and article did not mention), there was also a simultaneous meeting with Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrant and Refugees (GCIR) a group that focuses on immigrants and there was lots of interaction between the groups. Thanks again. Always look forward to your posts.

    Andrés Henríquez
    Carnegie Corporation of New York

    • Andres,

      I do appreciate the work that you do, and understand that trying to organize foundations is probably akin to herding cats. I do think, though, that a strategic error that many groups often make (and I don’t exclude organizations of educators) is not bringing in allies at the beginning who can bring a different perspective into the discussion. Their contributions can often have a huge and beneficial impact on future directions and the ultimate results.


  4. It’s great to see so much passion around this issue, Larry. When GFE asked the approximately 260 public and private grantmaking organizations that belong to our network what issues and populations education philanthropy was failing to address, ELL was their top response. So we know there is much work to be done in this area, and we see our report as one piece of that work.

    As to your concern about the report being a mere laundry list of solutions, this guide is directed at a wide range of grantmakers, some of whom are further along than others in addressing ELL needs. Given the audience, we crafted the report to highlight the importance of this issue for those who are new to thinking about it, and also to present some strategies for addressing ELL needs, for those who are ready to deepen their work around ELL. To an outsider, that may seem too broad, but for our immediate audience, it’s the right (range of) fit.

    To make the report as useful as possible, we included two sidebars that go deep on what can be done by one organization. The first sidebar addresses what one grantmaking organization, the S.H. Cowell Foundation, is doing in schools and outside of schools to support ELL success. The second sidebar offers insights into what practitioners/teachers/school leaders are doing, by highlighting the curriculum design and instruction model that has proven successful in the schools established by the Internationals Network for Public Schools. The caveat, of course, is that as with everything in education, there is no simple solution that will work universally for this diverse and growing population, and so funders needs to think comprehensively and make long-term commitments around ELL.

  5. As a conference attendee, I was impressed with the commitment of the funders who participated in the discussion. Andres notes that a focus of the conference was to discuss “strategies that are needed to build capacity for foundation staff and board members to encourage them to fund in this area. This was a conversation internal to philanthropy to build the will to do the work.” The eagerness of attendees to share openly with each other about their approaches to this was outstanding.

    As an ELL practitioner, with almost 30 years of classroom and school-based experience in NYC public schools, and as the founding Executive Director of Internationals Network, I agree deeply with Lois’s point that “…as with everything in education, there is no simple solution that will work universally for this diverse and growing population”. This is why we at Internationals Network believe our proven and successful approach, which is rooted in and has developed through the work of expert ELL practitioners, is one excellent approach, but have never believed that it is or should be the only approach.

    I would further add to Lois’s point that “funders need to think comprehensively and make long-term commitments around ELL” issues, and note that the federal and state education departments as well as districts and schools also need to think comprehensively and make long-term commitments. Finally, I think we agree on the need to include the voices of teachers of English Language Learners and grassroots organizations in these conversations. I hope we can all capitalize on GFE’s thoughtful and timely forum, and expand conversations to include a broad range of solutions.

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