Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

The Pitfalls of Focusing on Instructional Strategies in Professional Development for Teachers of English Learners

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

The Pitfalls of Focusing on Instructional Strategies in Professional Development for Teachers of English Learners

Article excerpt

Introduction

For more than a decade, the professional development literature has shown that most teachers are not adequately prepared to teach English learners (ELs)--that holds true for both specialist and mainstream teachers (see, for example, August & Hakuta, 1997; Beykont, 2002). Research that focuses on professional development for teachers of ELs, however, is rare (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006). Indeed, the dearth of such research is one of the principal findings of a review of the literature on this topic (Knight & Wiseman, 2006). As Knight and Wiseman point out, "clearly, professional development for teachers of culturally and linguistically diverse students is a neglected area of research" (p. 89).

The need for such research has, however, never been more urgent. Federal mandates for disaggregated data by native language have helped show that the education that linguistically and culturally diverse students receive is far from equitable. Indeed, the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that fourth-grade ELs are more than twice as likely as non-ELs to score below basic in reading and mathematics (Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007), a gap that widens in eighth grade. ELs also have higher dropout rates and more frequent placement in lower academic tracks than non-ELs (Genesee et al., 2006). These findings suggest that many schools are unable to fulfill their obligation to provide an equitable education for all their students, and their EL students in particular.

In addition, the population of ELs is the fastest growing in the country and many regions of the United States are coming into contact with non-native English speaking immigrants for the first time. According to data from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, in the 2008-2009 year there were over five million ELs enrolled in U.S. schools in grades pre-K through 12. This represents a 51% increase in the EL population in ten years, compared to a 7% rise in the total school-age population. The growth is not equally distributed and while some areas in the U.S. have seen an expansion in the EL population of less than 50%, others have witnessed an increase of more than 200% (NCELA, 2011). The increase of the EL population, coupled with a growing awareness that inclusion in mainstream classrooms is preferable to, and in many cases cheaper than, the provision of pull-out services has brought a much larger number of teachers in contact with linguistic minority students. As the research cited in the previous paragraph indicates, many of these teachers find themselves ill equipped to meet the particular needs of this highly heterogeneous population.

The present article responds to the urgent need for research on professional learning opportunities specifically designed for teachers of ELs. Existing educational research that offers in-depth discussion of the learning processes in which educators engage during such professional development is still rather limited (though see, for example, Gebhard, Demers, & Castillo-Rosenthal, 2008; Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Musanti & Pence, 2010). In the analysis included here, I apply a type of discourse analysis (microethnography) to examine the opportunities for learning that group interactional norms foster and foreclose. Discourse analysis has been shown to be particularly powerful in investigations of professional discourse and its connection to teacher learning (e.g., Borko, 2004; Horn & Little, 2010; Little, 2002). I use excerpts of social interaction during a professional development initiative to illustrate how the deficit views of students perpetuated by dominant discourses (Popkewitz, 2007; Swartz, 2009) become reaffirmed when educators are not provided with opportunities to analyze whether and how their instructional practices take into account the specific characteristics that set apart ELs, heterogeneous as they are, from other students. …

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