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People over Policies

David Cassels Johnson argues that, even in the wake of the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, educators have some room to interpret the legislation and implement sound language pedagogy for English language learners. See Debbie Zacarian's The Road Taken column, "Testing, Testing," Essential Teacher, June 2006, pp. 10-11.

How can U.S. schools best educate English language learners while appeasing the requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act? This challenge drew me to the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) in Pennsylvania, where, as part of my doctoral research, I attended administrative meetings, teacher meetings, and policy meetings, and visited bilingual classrooms.

Like many U.S. school districts, the SDP is attempting to implement sound language pedagogy for its growing English language learner population (approximately 13,000 students and counting) while working within the confines of NCLB. Unlike other school districts, the SDP continues to offer bilingual education. From my observations, interviews, and policy analyses, I've learned something about how educational language policy works and what this might mean for language educators and students.

Standardized Testing Bombards Learners and Teachers

One of the most controversial and difficult-to-implement pieces of NCLB has been the accountability requirements. In Pennsylvania, English language learners are bombarded with standardized tests, which means that class time that might otherwise be devoted to art, music, physical education, or recess is filled with test-oriented instruction. Bilingual teachers, especially, are forced to contend with the multitude of tests because English language learners must take not only the standardized tests taken by all other Pennsylvania students (e.g., TerraNova, Pennsylvania System of School Assessment), but also the Stanford English Language Proficiency Test.

These testing practices, however, remain controversial. Even in the initial stages of crafting the NCLB legislation, there was a bipartisan lack of support for the testing measures. Both Republicans and Democrats criticized such testing policies for granting too much power to the federal government and taking away local agency in educational policy making (see O'Beirne 2004, Despite these criticisms, however, there was broad bipartisan support for the tests, and NCLB passed fairly easily.

Still, NCLB continues to attract criticism. In a response to the act, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips (2004) question the validity of the tests: "The requirement that ELL students demonstrate proficiency in content areas by means of an English test may run counter to the goals of improving their learning and to best educational practice" (

Language Policies Have Discrepancies--and Leave Space for Improvisation

Educational language policies are not monolithic, ideologically consistent, and static documents that show up on some educators' doorsteps uncontested. The confluence of many different voices, influenced by vastly different ideological orientations, creates policies with discrepancies and space for improvisation. NCLB is no different. This means that interpretation of the policy matters a great deal.

In the SDP, different interpretations have led to different implementational strategies for the same policy. When NCLB was first passed, many educators were encouraged about the amount of money allocated for English language learners and remarked that it was about time the federal government started paying attention to the needs of English language learners. Title III demands that pedagogical programs be based on "scientifically-based research," and since the research supports bilingual education, there was a general push in the SDP to develop more bilingual programs.

One Saturday morning in a Chinese Christian Church, in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, a large group of ESL teachers, bilingual teachers, principals, district administrators, an outside consultant, and an interested graduate student gathered. They constructed their own language policy, which encouraged bilingual education native English speakers and English language learners alike (School District of Philadelphia, Office of Language Culture and the Arts n.d.,

Interpretation Matters

Like many U.S. school districts, the SDP is a constantly changing ideological landscape, motivated by changing personnel. What seemed like a big momentum shift toward more developmental bilingual education has subsided in the wake of shifting personnel and changing interpretations of NCLB. There is still support, but fear of standardized testing, and fear that bilingual education will not prepare the students for these tests, has ended some of this momentum.

Still, the SDP's story is one of hope because interpretation of federal education policy matters. While many U.S. administrators are afraid that bilingual education will result in lower student test scores on tests in English, empirical research suggests otherwise (Thomas and Collier 2001). Educators are agents in the interpretation and implementation of educational policy, and as long there is at least a little bit of implementational space, there will always be educators committed to sound language pedagogy for all English language learners.


O’Beirne, K. 2004. Leaving Republicans behind. National Review, March 8.

Rendell, E., and V. L. Phillips. 2004. Pennsylvania and No Child Left Behind: What we have learned and what needs to change.

School District of Philadelphia, Office of Language Culture and the Arts. n.d. The School District of Philadelphia operations manual: English language learners.

Thomas, W., and V. Collier. 2001. A national study of school effectiveness for language Minority students’ long term academic achievement. Santa Cruz: University of California, Center for Research, Education, Diversity and Excellence.

David Cassels Johnson ( is a doctoral candidate in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States.