Each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.
Mary Ann Zehr is an assistant editor at Education Week covering, among other topics, English Language Learner issues. She writes a must-read blog for Ed Week titled Learning The Language.
What led you to covering the English Language Learner “beat” for EdWeek?
At age 25, when I came back to the United States after teaching English in China for two years, I was torn between going to graduate school to get a master’s in journalism or a master’s in TESOL. I chose the journalism degree. But then when I started working for Education Week in 1997, it was natural for me to take an interest in English-language learners. For two years, I specialized in writing about technology in schools. I expressed an interest to my editor that if the ELL beat was ever free, I’d love to have it. The beat did become free and I got what I had asked for.
What are the stories you’ve liked writing the most and why did you like them so much?
I really enjoy writing a story that enables me to get to know students and parents from a culture that is new to me. It expands my horizons, and I hope it also expands the knowledge of EdWeek’s readers. I enjoy immersing myself in a culture other than my own. For example, a number of years ago, I wrote a story about how parents from several groups of immigrants—Hispanic Pentecostals, Russian Pentecostals, and Muslim Kurds—were concerned about the clash between their conservative values and what they viewed as more liberal values of their children’s peers and some educators in the public schools of Harrisonburg, Va. For that story, I attended a quinceanera, the traditional party for a Mexican 15-year-old. I also ate a meal seated on the living room floor of a Kurdish family. And I attended a Russian Pentecostal church service. So I got a glimpse into several cultures at the same time I learned about the school-related concerns of some immigrant parents.
I also really get excited when I have a chance to write about a school or school district that seems to truly be giving access to English-language learners to the regular curricula in schools, which is unfortunately, not always the case. I get excited when I visit a school and see that ELLs have the chance to study science and social studies, not just math and English, from the start. I found that to be true when I wrote about the Brooklyn International High School in New York City. It also was the case for a newcomer program in Columbus, Ohio, schools that I wrote about when featuring Somali refugees. It seemed that Salt Lake City schools also came a long way in giving access to the core curricula to ELLs after receiving pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights. I noticed when I visited an elementary school in that district that the teachers were very aware of the needs of the ELLs in their classes.
Are there any things you can characterize as “trends” nationally in teaching ELLs?
More and more school districts are seriously trying to figure out how to teach academic content and English to ELLs at the same time. How to do so is a big trend in professional development. How to apply “response to intervention” to ELLs is a very hot topic in the field. Response to intervention, or RTI, is an approach in which educators give struggling students extra help with the aim of preventing referrals to special education. I’m noticing that how best to teach second-language learners at the preschool level is also becoming a very hot topic in education circles.
How might you characterize the positions that the Obama Administration might be taking on specific policies related to teaching English-language learners?
The Obama blueprint for ELL provisions that should be in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called No Child Left Behind) doesn’t have a lot of details.The key components for ELLs are that states should establish an evaluation system on the effectiveness of programs for ELLs and that states should standardize their criteria for identification of ELLs and for their readiness to leave special programs.
I haven’t heard any word from the Obama administration, for instance, on whether it would support making the category for ELLs stable for federal accountability purposes, so that school districts and states get credit for ELLs’ performance on tests after they no longer are getting special help to learn the language. Now, students’ test scores can be counted in the ELL category for two years after they are deemed fluent in English. Researchers from the Working Group on ELL Policy are pushing for this change in the law. At the same time, I’ve talked with at least one state education official that doesn’t like the idea.
During the presidential campaign, the Obama platform said it endorsed “transitional bilingual education.” But I haven’t heard the president mention these words since he was elected. I don’t know of any instance in which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan mentioned bilingual education. In general, I haven’t heard much from this new administration about instruction of ELLs. The U.S. Department of Education has hosted a forum on how best to assess ELLs. Mr. Duncan has also talked publicly about the need for better assessments for ELLs.
Are you working on any particularly interesting future stories?
I’m always looking for school districts, rather than just individual schools, that have been successful with ELLs. I also would like to be able to feature high schools that are implementing promising practices for ELLs. It’s not easy to find them. I haven’t yet had a chance to visit a school district to write about Burmese refugees, the 2nd-largest group of refugees now being settled in the United States. I’m not sure if our news priorities will permit that in the next school year. Right now, Iraqis are the largest group of refugees coming to the United States. Bhutanese rank third. I’ve had an opportunity to write about both of those groups.
Is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?
I meet many English-language learners whom I find to be inspiring. I’m particularly impressed by students who have missed years of schooling and come to this country and take advantage of whatever opportunity they have to learn. I’ve met students who have learned to read for the first time IN ANY LANGUAGE when they were teenagers. That can’t be easy. I think their stories should be told.
Thanks, Mary Ann!