Indigenous Students and Title III English Learner Policy: The Critical Role of States

Indigenous Students and Title III English Learner Policy: The Critical Role of States, Students in class with teacher
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Taiyo Itoh, University of Oregon
Ilana Umansky, University of Oregon

Disclaimer: The NCELA Blog is intended to share information that can be of use to educators, parents, learners, leaders, and other stakeholders in their efforts to ensure that every student, including ELs, is provided with the highest quality education and expanded opportunities to succeed. This blog post represents the view of the authors only and does not constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by NCELA, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), or the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly one in ten American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students in the U.S. is classified as an English learner (EL), the federally protected category that identifies students who need linguistic supports in school in order to fully access content and instruction. Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 defines which students are eligible for EL identification, and while for most students’ eligibility is based on having a non-English dominant language, the definition is differentiated for Indigenous students. ESSA specifies that Indigenous students are only required to “come from an environment” where a heritage language has had a “significant impact” on their English language proficiency. There is currently no guidance related to this differentiated eligibility, however, and as a result, Indigenous students’ place in EL programs remains ambiguous and variable across states.

For non-Indigenous students, a fairly uniform two-step procedure exists for EL identification across states. This involves, first, identifying whether a given student has a non-English dominant language (typically determined through a home language survey), and second, for those students with a non-English language, administering an English proficiency assessment. Students who score below a pre-determined English proficiency threshold are then classified as ELs. In relying on the identification of a non-English dominant language, however, this process may not align with the differentiated EL definition for Indigenous students. 

In order to understand how Indigenous EL identification policies are interpreted and implemented, our research team at the University of Oregon collected and analyzed state EL policy documents from all 50 states and interviewed EL education leaders in state departments of education. Specifically, our goals were to identify how Indigenous students are identified as ELs in state policy across all 50 states and explore the role of state department of education EL leaders in the identification of Indigenous students. Below, we summarize our findings. 

Few states differentiate EL identification policy for Indigenous students. Despite the federally differentiated definition, we found that only 11 of the 50 states had differentiated EL identification policies for Indigenous students. For the other 39 states, EL identification policy followed the non-Indigenous definition, making no mention of Indigenous students in EL identification procedures. We separated these 39 states into two groups (see Figure 1). The no differentiation states included 29 states that simply followed the standard protocol described above, requiring the documentation of a non-English dominant language on the home language survey. The other 10 states also followed this standard procedure but incorporated the option of a second method for EL identification (for example teacher recommendation), generally in place as a backup method. We called these states possible differentiation states because, in theory, there was the possibility of identifying Indigenous students as ELs in a differentiated manner, although there was no indication in policy that the alternative pathway was intended for Indigenous students.  

The other 11 states did include specific language about EL identification for Indigenous students, but we found that, in seven of these 11 states, the guidance was so vague as to make differentiation highly unlikely in practice (ambiguous differentiation states). For example, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania incorporated questions about Indigenous identity and exposure to a heritage language in a family interview protocol, but the interview was not designed to be universally administered and, further, there was no guidance on how answers to those questions were to be used to make EL eligibility determinations. 

In the end, just four states – Montana, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin – had clear differentiation of EL identification policies for Indigenous students in place. In three of these states, differentiated policies relied on the state home language survey or a family interview to identify possibly eligible Indigenous students as ELs. Following the federally differentiated definition, these questions typically asked about Indigenous identity and exposure to a non-English heritage language. The states differed, however, in the degree of heritage language exposure required to prompt English proficiency screening. Washington, by contrast, had a unique Indigenous EL identification process that was entirely different from the process used for non-Indigenous students. In Washington, all Indigenous students considered academically at-risk were eligible for English proficiency screening regardless of heritage language exposure. 

State department of education EL leaders play critical roles with regard to Indigenous EL identification. Interviews with state department of education EL leaders revealed multiple important roles that these leaders have with regard to Indigenous EL identification. Three key roles include writing non-regulatory guidance documents, providing monitoring and oversight to districts, and providing education and training to local personnel. Yet the work of Indigenous EL identification is only being proactively addressed in a handful of states. In most states, EL leaders influence Indigenous EL identification through the absence of proactive engagement. In other words, when state EL leaders do not articulate and support a differentiated EL definition for Indigenous students, this too impacts potentially eligible Indigenous students. 

While state EL leaders are typically not involved in the development of major state EL policies in administrative code, they write non-regulatory statewide guidance documents on EL education to communicate policies with districts and schools. While few EL leaders had created guidance about Indigenous EL identification, several expressed openness and interest in doing so. For example, one EL leader described how they were considering adding a question about Indigenous identity to the state’s home language survey and detailed how they wanted to put the proposal forward for statewide stakeholder feedback. 
In addition, state EL leaders provide monitoring and oversight of districts’ implementation of state and federal EL policy. A few state leaders spoke about how their monitoring work related to Indigenous EL education for example by reviewing how individual districts and schools were identifying and serving Indigenous EL-classified students. Finally, state EL leaders often offer consultation, training, and professional development to districts. Here too a few state leaders described how they had worked with districts and schools to understand Indigenous EL education policies and implement them effectively. One state leader described, for example, reviewing their state Indigenous EL definition with district and school level leaders, especially in cases where local leaders had questions or compliance challenges. 

Through these actions, state EL leaders have the potential to be highly influential with regard to the identification of Indigenous students as EL-classified students.  

Specific barriers hinder state EL leaders from more proactively engaging in Indigenous EL identification. We identified three primary barriers hindering state EL leaders from actively engaging with the identification of Indigenous students as ELs. First, there is a lack of federal guidance on the meaning and intent of ESSA’s differentiated EL eligibility for Indigenous students. Many state EL leaders expressed confusion or lack of understanding of Indigenous EL eligibility intent and/or rules, which led to inaction regarding Indigenous EL identification. Second, states’ collaboration with Tribal governments and Indigenous communities was limited in the area of EL education. This made it difficult for state EL leaders to understand Indigenous communities’ and families’ educational interests beyond a general knowledge of damage done by colonial education practices. Lastly, many state EL leaders felt that resources and guidance to promote EL services that are relevant and beneficial for Indigenous students are lacking. Leaders had concerns over the types of EL services that Indigenous students in their states could receive after EL identification, and discussed whether typical EL services designed to support immigrant-origin students were appropriate for Indigenous EL-classified students. Taken together, these findings have important implications:

  • Engage government-to-government collaboration to develop and issue federal guidance. The federal Department of Education should issue guidance on the meaning and intent of the differentiated EL eligibility for Indigenous students and provide promising practices for articulating and implementing the differentiated eligibility at the state level. Critically, this guidance needs to be developed through government-to-government processes, centering the perspectives and interests of diverse Indigenous constituents. 
  • At the state and local levels, center Indigenous interests in EL policy and planning. State EL leaders should incorporate Indigenous students’ and families’ interests in EL policy and planning through Tribal consultation and other means such as:
    • Flexible state-level policies that allow for local and Tribal adaptations; 
    • Expanded staffing of Indigenous educators within state and local EL divisions;
    • Greater collaboration between state department of education EL divisions and Indian Education/Title VI divisions; and 
    • Improved data collection around Indigenous students. 

These efforts are critical in upholding Indigenous educational sovereignty. 

  • Broaden core EL services to include Indigenous heritage language programs and culturally sustaining services. There is a need to reconsider and broaden the types of supports available to Indigenous students classified as ELs. If these students’ skillsets, interests, and needs lie not in developing English as a new language but rather in developing their native languages; deepening their connection to family, history, and community; and advancing skills in English, then EL services need to pivot away from traditional English language development instruction. Expanding the focus on heritage language development and culturally sustaining practices to all schools serving Indigenous EL students is an important step in aligning EL services with students’ linguistic and educational interests.

Figure 1: 

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