A Personal View and Experience
Graduating from grade school and high school, I felt like I was running a race that I could never finish. Sure, I was done with those levels of education, but I felt like I was leaving behind more than just the school. I never felt fulfilled by my experiences in the classroom. Even now, I feel inadequate as a student. Looking back on my education, somehow I fooled the teachers, for whatever reason I was promoted to higher grades. Maybe this is what the achievement gap is all about for English Language Learners (ELLs). Sure, I could cram just as well as anyone else. I passed tests got an average grade point average and continued pursuing higher education. But no matter how far I get, I never feel on level with my peers. I’m always a step behind, fighting to better myself, yet feeling like too many pieces have gone missing along the way. Can I reconcile my past experiences with what I am trying to achieve in higher education now?
As it stands today, closing the achievement gap is still a prevalent issue in education today. The achievement gap was first documented in 1966. It describes a discrepancy in academic achievement between white students and African American and Hispanic. Studies show that the average black or Hispanic secondary school students’ achievement equals that of average white students’ in the lowest level of white achievement. Furthermore, Black and Hispanic students have greater high school drop out rates, do not acquire college or advanced degrees, or earn a middle-class living in comparison to white students (Chubb & Loveless, 2002).
I remember being pulled out of classes. When that process began exactly, I do not know. I just remember enjoying the adventure of getting on a bus and going somewhere outside of school to meet a new teacher; one who did not know me and did not treat me badly. I remember being in a small group and receiving instruction in various subjects. I could not participate in what was going on. I remember struggling to understand what was being taught. Most of the time the experience was overwhelming because I did not know what was going on. Often times the teacher seemed to be teaching too fast. Back then I did not realize that I was actually going to ESL classes. It was not until I got into the upper grades that the acronym ESL sunk into my brain, and while I did not know what it was I felt it was something special because only a select few of us got to go. So, it had to be something special.
ESL services today are not what they used to be when I was in grade school; even the label describing the type of learner I was has been changed. Through graduate classes I have learned that I was actually an English Language Learner (ELL). “The terms limited English proficient (LEP) and English language learner (ELL) are often used interchangeably to refer to students whose English proficiency has not yet developed to a point where they can profit fully from English instruction” (Garcia, Jensen & Scribner, 2009, p.8). Apparently, to profit fully from the English instruction I needed special services. Little did I know that my something special was actually an approach to help me with my learning deficiency.
The Communication Gap
My grade school started from Pre- Kindergarten and went up to 8th grade. Some of the few good experiences I remember having was in my Kindergarten class. The teacher of this class was one of the few who really believed that I was intelligent, she made me feel smart. Although I was considered such a wonderful student in Kindergarten, by the time I made it to first grade I would often have my hair pulled, my teacher would drag my seat out of the neatly lined row and push me (while still seated) to the front of the board. What had happened to me in just a year? Suddenly, I could not learn. My teacher showed great frustration with me. She was even audacious enough to write in my report card that the only subject I was good at was Lunch.
I remember consistently telling my teacher defensively that I did not finish my work because I could not see the board. Even though I had received an eye examination in school that year, it was reported that my eyes were fine. My mother tired of disciplining me and talking to me about my failures, finally took another chance with me and had my eyes examined again by another doctor. It turned out that all I needed was glasses. As soon as I could see I worked as hard as I could to perform in class for my mom and my teacher. Surprisingly, I began to excel in my school work. The events leading up to the final solution to my first grade struggles will never leave me. This situation is one that I stamp in my heart and in my head to remind me that despite the fact that children have an internal world, they do have ways of communicating with teachers. It is the teacher’s job to be the analyst and more specifically the one who listens to students despite their struggles, deficiencies, or even language barriers.
I do not know what or how my teacher thought of me, but, I remember reaching out to her. Another reason why I find this situation relevant in shaping my teaching approach is that it underlines a communication gap that still exists between teachers and students today. For example, in a New York Daily News article posted on May 8, 2009, the following was documented:’ "We've dealt with several cases of English Language Learners who … couldn't get the proper services," said Arlen Benjamin-Gomez of Advocates for Children. In some cases, those children were wrongly classified by … administrators” (Gonzalez). If teachers do not understand their students how can they help, support, and confirm them as learners?
Teachers Make the Difference
While educators, scholars, and politicians are attempting to bridge the achievement gap, fingers are being pointed at “public schools,” but are the teachers, administration, or everyone in school staffs accountable? Perhaps the problem is too outspread and significant to place the blame on just one group of people, but I would like to take this argument to the teachers. In the words of one of my Fordham professors, “there is no substitute for all around good instruction.” There is extensive documentation about how teachers can impact and better the education of ELLs through various teaching approaches. I would like to go a step further and even suggest that coupled with great teaching techniques should be a welcoming, loving, and supporting teacher.
This year after completing my first semester of student teaching I met an ESL teacher who was pushed into an ELL self contained class. While she may have used valuable teaching techniques, her attitude toward the children often caused them to behave rebelliously and uninterested in her instruction. There are many teachers who are currently teaching who display inappropriate behaviors toward students; teachers who are somewhat like my first grade teacher. If I could reform education I would start with the teachers. My feeling about this issue is well captured in this statement: “In addition, all students, including ELLs, will benefit from reforms that improve teachers’ domain-specific expertise, pedagogical skills, and abilities to encourage student participation and engage family and community members” (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, as cited in Garcia et al., 2009).
Chubb, J.E., & Loveless, T. (2002). Bridging the achievement gap. NW,Washington: Brookings Institution Press.
Gonzalez, J. (2009, May 8). Test numbers too good to be true, hide achievement gap of poor students, some veteran educators say. New York Daily News. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/education/2009/05/08/2009-05-08_city_test_numbers_too_good_to_be_true_hide_achievement_gap_of_poor_students_some.html
Garcia, E. E., Jensen, B. T., & Scribner, K. P., (2009) The Demographic Imperative. Supporting English Language Learners,66(7), 8-13. Retrieved July 13,2009, from