Learning Needs Teaching

This editorial was written in response to the question, “How does K-16 education need to change to prepare young people to become effective citizens and cultural change agents in the 21st Century?”  It was originally published in the Green Money Journal “Whole Mind Education” issue (Winter 08/09).

Learning Needs Teaching

If we want to prepare our nation’s young to be active, engaged citizens, we must address the failure of the education system to effectively prepare the 13 million children growing up in poverty – nearly one-fifth of our nation’s youth – for full societal participation. And we can reach them, if we are willing to do what it takes to provide our nation’s most needy students with outstanding instruction.

One month after graduating from college in 2007, I flew to San Francisco to join the ranks of Teach for America (TFA) and get trained on the essentials of teaching.   Two months after that I was handed my very own second-grade bilingual classroom in East Oakland and met my 20 darling, enthusiastic, and mostly seriously below-grade-level students. My students came to me with many challenges that I had never faced during my childhood education. Half of them had had a series of substitutes for most of first grade, and as a result didn’t learn to read until the very end of the year when the school finally found a permanent teacher. A few had transferred into the bilingual program from an English-only class, whose teacher (according to veterans at my school) had generally ignored her non-English-speaking students. One student’s parents were illiterate and had no phone. Another’s father was in jail. Another lived in a one-room converted garage with three sisters, a jobless father, and a mother who takes in sewing to support her family. Many were undocumented immigrants and had no health insurance. All were low-income non-native English speakers. They have many factors stacked against them, and statistically speaking the odds of their achieving academically are not good. Of the 13 million children growing up in poverty in the United States (approximately 19% of all US children, White & Chau, 2009), half will not graduate from high school. Those who do will perform, on average, at the level of eighth graders in well-off communities (Teach For America, n.d.).

However, all is NOT lost for my students or those like them. While there is much controversy in the educational community about the effectiveness of TFA, there is no doubt that their foundational principle promotes an important and under-recognized truth: the achievement gap between low- and high-income students can be narrowed or even closed with good teaching. If we want to prepare our nation’s young to be active, engaged citizens, we must address the failure of the education system to reach this huge sub-population, nearly one-fifth of our nation’s youth. Addressing the myriad effects of poverty on education is a complex process that will take a long time, but we can make an immediate and far-reaching impact on achievement by addressing the role that good teaching plays in education. We need better training to create a corps of teachers who have the skills needed to minimize the achievement gap, better pay to attract the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and on-going training and support to retain great teachers in these difficult environments.

First, teacher training, recruitment and evaluation must be based on student performance outcomes. Student achievement is the only worthwhile measure of teacher achievement. How to measure student achievement is a very controversial issue, but the refrain I heard throughout my TFA training holds true: “No one is teaching if no one is learning.” TFA has been observing and analyzing their most successful teachers for years in order to distill the teacher characteristics necessary for maximum student learning, .   This research has led to a document known as the Teaching as Leadership (TAL) Rubric, which is used to recruit, select, train and constantly evaluate corps members. It consists of six broad traits and 27 sub-traits that TFA has found to be present in the classrooms of virtually every classroom where low-income students are achieving: setting ambitious goals for students, investing students and their influencers, planning purposefully, executing effectively, continuously increasing effectiveness, and working relentlessly (Teach For America, 2009). This sort of model (not necessarily the TAL Rubric itself) must be adopted nationwide. Teachers must be prepared and evaluated according to the proven best practices as demonstrated by student achievement, which aren’t just programs or curricula but which are mindsets and approaches to teaching.

In addition to improving teacher effectiveness by focusing on student outcomes, a great deal more must be done to attract the best teachers to the schools that need them most – where the students are furthest behind. They can achieve, but they and their educators must work twice as hard to overcome the extra obstacles they face. These schools need teachers who go above and beyond what is traditionally required of teachers. I, and every other TFA corps member I know, regularly put in 60-70-hour weeks, more than 20 hours beyond what we are paid for, but we cannot build a sustainable education future on self-sacrificing volunteers. We need to support dedicated teachers with salaries comparable to those of business professionals who put in a similar number of hours. It must be worth the while of excellent teachers to stay where the work is most challenging but most necessary.

Which brings me to my third recommendation: teachers, particularly in low-income schools, must get more support in order to reduce teacher turnover. In 2006 the National Education Association reported that 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. According to a study released in 2007 by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, “so many teachers leaving the profession creates a self-perpetuating cycle of failure in some school systems, as a lack of experienced mentors and a sink-or-swim environment lead to trouble in the classroom and demoralization” (Nelson Hernandez, “Teacher Turnover Costs Systems Millions, Study Projects,” Washington Post, 21 June 2007). The first years of teaching are extremely challenging and often demoralizing, particularly when students perform at several years below grade level. Had I not been provided the constant technical and moral support of my TFA advisors and, in particular, a corps of peers going through the same experience, I might not be able to sustain the energy necessary to stay in teaching. To keep teachers in low-income schools, they need regular one-on-one mentoring from master teachers that includes frequent opportunities for both parties to observe each other teaching. Furthermore, they need the opportunity to participate in formal social and professional networks of teachers in similar schools, and not just through required credentialing classes. Both of these things have been invaluable in helping me and my fellow corps members stick with teaching in the face of great challenges.

In sum, if we as a country are willing to invest in what it takes for all children, even the most disadvantaged, to receive outstanding instruction, then we will be well on the path to preparing our children for the challenge and opportunities of 21st Century citizenship.


O’Brien, I.  “Learning Needs Teaching.” Green Money Journal. Whole Mind Education issue (Winter 08/09). Issue 70, Volume 17, No. 2.

Teach For America. (n.d.). Our Mission. Retrieved January 02, 2015, from https://www.teachforamerica.org/our-mission

Teach For America. (2009). Teaching As Leadership: Online Navigator. Retrieved January 02, 2015, from http://www.teachingasleadership.org/

Wight, V. R., & Chau, M. (2009). Basic Facts about Low-income Children, 2008: Children Under Age 18. New York, NY. Retrieved from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_892.pdf


Book Review: “Educating Emergent Bilinguals”

This review was originally published in Linguistics and Education as “Bilingual education for bilingual students.”  It reviews the book Educating Emergent Bilinguals by Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen.

On October 11, 2011, the LA Times reported that the Los Angeles Unified School District had reached a settlement with the federal Office of Civil Rights in which the district agreed to major changes in how it educates English language learners. While the agreement itself is not relevant to this discussion, comments from readers of the article are disturbingly revealing of public perception of the issue of English learner education:

“The kids are dumb because the parents do not care to help with homework, and complain when the school gives it. School and education is not portrayed as important. It is shameful that young parents arenot talking english with their children” – artbrns at 10:37 PM October 30, 2011 

“IF your parents speak no english and do not encourage you to learn english and place value on education the odds are you are going to fail. It all starts at home with the parents not the school. Stupid parents = stupid off spring” – runningman55 at 10:04 PM October 23, 2011

“Why are we focusing all our effort, money and training on teaching the worst performing students academics? Not only do they get very little out of this exercise, but their failure creates such a bad self image at the expense of teaching this student population productive skills they may excel at.” – TheSearcher at 8:31 AM October 13, 2011

As a former teacher of a bilingual classroom, I desperately wanted to respond to the ignorance of these commenters, but lacked sufficient knowledge about English learner education to write a compelling reply. Now, instead, I would like to mail them all copies of Educating Emergent Bilinguals. Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen’s book, Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners, seeks nothing less than a paradigm shift in how educators, researchers, and policymakers view and seek to serve the students traditionally known as “English language learners.” Of course, few working in education would espouse views as blatantly discriminatory as the ones cited above, but the authors use their book to show how this population has been consistently, systematically underserved, and how the educational system can be made more just for language minority students.

Fittingly, García and Kleifgen open their book with a question of language: they argue that students with a home language other than English should no longer be known as Limited English Proficient or English Language Learners, as both terms focus on students’ current linguistic deficiencies. Instead, they advocate for the term emergent bilinguals. This phrase draws attention to the reality that as students acquire English, they are, in fact, adding to and further developing their home language, which itself is a powerful tool for learning. What initially might seem a simple, even unnecessary, change in terminology actually encapsulates the cause that the authors champion throughout the book: the field of education needs to entirely rethink how such students should be taught, focusing on bilingualism as an asset to be nurtured and leveraged.

In the first three chapters, we meet the emergent bilinguals and learn about their problems at school and the programs and policies designed to address their needs. Citing many demographic studies by other researchers, the authors show that in the United States, most emergent bilinguals are Spanish-speaking, urban, and poor, and only a small proportion are enrolled in educational programs that make any use of their home language. Contrary to popular belief, about half of English learners were born in the US. In chapter three, the authors outline the major types of programs designed to serve English learners, which run the gamut from English-only with no support (what they call ‘submersion’ programs) to dual-language maintenance models that extend through all years of schooling. They go on to explain how the policy climate has come to disfavor bilingual education more and more over the last fifty years, with federal funding for home-language programs drastically declining, and some states even outlawing bilingual education.

The authors use the rest of the book to argue from various angles their central point: emergent bilinguals need a rigorous education that meets their cognitive and linguistic needs, and this means programs must make significant, consistent, and deliberate use of the home language. García and Kleifgen’s firmly ground their position in the extensive literature on this topic, both empirical and theoretical, citing dozens of other authors who concur that the most effective instruction for English learners makes use of all the cognitive resources students have, the most central of which is their home language. The theoretical constructs they employ, drawing heavily on the work of seminal researchers like Jim Cummins, are themselves interesting and compelling, but García and Kleifgen go beyond theory to additionally discuss practical implications for the classroom.

García and Kleifgen use chapters 4-8 to demonstrate the unjust and inequitable practices English learners face in school. For example, language often becomes the primary focus of emergent bilinguals’ education, so they may miss out on content instruction to attend English classes. Additionally, due to the exclusion of the home language from so many classrooms, emergent bilinguals often cannot understand content instruction even when they are present for it. But unjust treatment of emergent bilinguals extends beyond issues of language. English learners are often exposed to simplified curricula that do not engage them in cognitively demanding tasks and do not address issues relevant to their lives as cultural and linguistic minority students. They are overidentified as needing remedial and special education services, and are drastically underrepresented in advanced placement and gifted and talented programs. Some of these disparities are due to standardized testing that fails to reflect the capabilities of emergent bilingual students. Many tests are not valid for this population because they conflate language and content mastery. Finally, schools rarely recognize the valuable contributions that families of emergent bilinguals can and do make to their education, and thereby exclude yet more resources that could be drawn on to improve the learning of emergent bilinguals.

At the end of each chapter and in the last section of the book, García and Kleifgen lay out specific alternative practices which, if implemented, could significantly improve the education of emergent bilingual students. They never shy away from their fundamental recommendation, that effective education of emergent bilinguals must be bilingual. They encourage educators to take full advantage of the linguistic and cultural resources students bring to the classroom, even when it is not possible to have an entirely bilingual program (e.g. in schools where emergent bilinguals speak many different languages). For example, they describe classrooms in which students are encouraged to write using multiple languages, or to discuss content with peers using whatever linguistic resources can help the group make meaning.

García and Kleifgen repeatedly emphasize that education for emergent bilinguals should never sacrifice content instruction to language instruction, and argue that, in fact, content and language objectives should mutually support each other and be present in every lesson. They make the case that rigorous content instruction should include an explicit social justice focus with an emphasis on issues relevant to the marginalized communities from which students come, and that schools should look to parents as sources of knowledge and partners in instruction that relates to community context. Finally, García and Kleifgen point out that in the No-Child-Left-Behind era of high-stakes testing, it is vital that assessments of English learners be valid, and not inadvertently test English when they mean to test content knowledge. As a result, they feel that assessment of emergent bilinguals should be flexible: there should be more options to use the home language in assessment, or to assess students using performance-based measures.

Educating Emergent Bilinguals is truly a call to action for all adults who care about the future of emergent bilinguals in the United States. García and Kleifgen make a strong case that current policy and practice does not in any way align with what research says about what is best for these students, beginning with the fundamental question of what to call them. They clearly organize the existing research on best practices for emergent bilinguals and they solidly ground the work in established theories of academic language development. Significantly, they follow up every criticism of the current system with a specific recommendation for change, all the while staying true to their argument that the best instruction embraces bilingualism both as an end in itself and as a means to academic achievement. This book is an excellent resource for policymakers, researchers, and educators who are interested in taking specific action to improve the education of English learners. It is also a book that could address a general lack of awareness in US society about language, and that might help Americans appreciate that bilingualism is not a threat, but something that can enhance the learning of all students.


Blue, Howard. “LAUSD agrees to revise how English learners, blacks are taught.” Los Angeles Times. October 11, 2011. Accessed November 4, 2011. <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/education/la-me-1012-lausd-feds-20111011,0,542585.story?track&gt;

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. Teachers College Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=dRxhAgAAQBAJ

O’Brien, I. (2012). Bilingual education for bilingual students. Linguistics and Education, 23(2), 211–212. doi:10.1016/j.linged.2012.02.002


Hey teachers!  Thanks for stopping by.  I plan to fill this blog with a ton of book reviews, downloadable resources, and (above all!) practical advice that you can actually use in your literacy classroom.

Feel free to send me questions or comments, and check back often for updates!

Educationally yours,