First Person

Opinion: ELL students and changing minds

Alexander Ooms, a senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

Additional attention to English Language Learner (ELL) students is unquestionably a good thing. Particularly given the large percentages of ELL students both in Denver and across Colorado, there can be no doubt that this is a critical issue.  There is simply not enough concerted attention on how schools support ELL students — and especially on specific strategies at both the district and school level to see what is most effective.

What there should not be, however, is opinion substituting for fact.

A Denver Public Schools student does class work in this EdNews file photo

A recent discussion on these page does exactly that. The claim is that any attempt at quantitative assessment — through state and district tools such as School Performance Frameworks, or representation of this data on sites like  — unjustly punish schools with high percentages of ELL students.

These kids, so the theory goes, don’t learn as fast as their non-ELL peers, and schools who have more of them will always do worse on academic growth.  And growth percentiles are the primary driver in most assessments.  By holding all schools equally accountable for the academic growth of their students, as a member of the Denver school board put it, these systems are shamefully guilty of:

“accountability blinders that punish schools and kids for their English-proficiency differences by trying to lump them all into the same bucket as native and fluent English speakers”

Well, there is a blindness here, but it’s not the assessments.  It’s us. Conventional wisdom dictates that including scores from ELL students will depress academic growth — and I’ll admit that I believed it as well (although to a lesser extent than some).  I doubt I’m the only one.  But we are all mistaken, as this perspective could be Exhibit A for the blind acceptance of opinion and conjecture at the expense of data.

For what the data shows is that, over the past five years across Colorado, ELL students do better on median growth percentiles than non-ELL students — on aggregate, on every subject, and at virtually every grade level. Let’s start with a view across Colorado (red signifies where ELL students did worse than non-ELL students):

In aggregate, there is one subject score in the past five years where ELL students performed worse than non-ELL students. One.  So perhaps the claim “While we all want students to grow and succeed, [ELL] student growth must be reviewed under a different lens” takes on a different meaning.

Think you should have lower expectations for ELL students on academic growth, and for the schools and teachers that educate them?  Well, think again. Here is the 2011 Colorado growth data by grade level:

ELL students performed worse than their non-ELL peers on just three subject scores — two of them in 4th grade — out of 21 scores total. One of these three is much lower (4th grade reading).  But in six subject scores, ELL students were 5 points or more better than their non- ELL peers. Not, perhaps, what the many commentators on the original piece had in mind.

When questioned about a view contrary to what he had advocated previously, the economist John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have said: “When the circumstances change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” So, I’ll admit it: I found the above surprising.  This data presents an entirely different set of circumstances than I previously envisioned.

But the mind resists.  Perhaps the ELL student growth is only higher when aggregated at the state level, and the results are different in urban centers like Denver?   Well, no – in Denver, the gap between ELL students and their non-ELL peers actually increases.  Over the past five years, ELL students in DPS have outperformed non-ELL students on growth, every year and in every subject, by an average of between 2 and 5 percentage points:

This data, which one can compile for oneself using CDE’s DataLab, turns the argument inside out.  Schools with large proportions of ELL students have higher growth percentiles — and thus better rankings — then if they had no ELL students at all. In fact, if there are any schools at a structural disadvantage on this issue, it is those who are without ELL students, not those with them.

How does this impact policy?  Let’s look at the four schools that were cited as specific examples — where a high proportion of ELL students were assumed to be damaging their median growth percentile scores, and thus their ColoradoSchoolGrade rankings:

Not once do ELL students score lower than non-ELL students.  Not in any school.  Not in any subject.  All of these schools have higher growth in their ELL students than their non-ELL students. And it’s not a small advantage, there is an overall average of 10 points higher. All four of these schools have growth in their ELL populations well above the state median (50).  All four have growth in their non-ELL students well below the state median. What is being penalized again?

Complain about their low rankings on assessments all one wants — but don’t blame the ELL students and their teachers. Without their scores, the schools would have all ranked lower, not higher, on assessment data. It is the ELL scores that are holding these schools up, not pushing them down.

When conditions change, I change my mind.  If there is a lesson in the past few years, it is that many conditions previously assumed simply don’t hold up under the sunlight of data and assessment. There are schools with mostly high-poverty students with remarkable academic growth.  There are schools with affluent school populations performing below the state averages.  There are specific demographic groups where students are experiencing growth far beyond assumptions.  There are schools where the achievement gap persists, masked by aggregated averages.  Conditions are not what many people thought they were.

And this is the fundamental point of a site like It is to present data to eliminate the misconceptions of schools and students that have no bearing in fact.  It is to try to reduce subjective opinion and unwarranted bias. It is to provide data as an entry point to further inquiry and a more complete understanding.

So when a sitting school board member criticizes this effort by writing:

As I retrospectively consider last year’s board decision to phase out Montbello High School, for example, imagine how differently the school’s performance would have seemed had we considered the 25 percent of students who are not ready to take the CSAP in English.  Not being a statistician, I will defer to those who can calculate the probability of a 25 percent bump in overall achievement if those scores are even just disaggregated from the whole.  I wonder if the board’s decision would have been different if we knew then what I know now.

Well, we don’t have to speculate here, and we don’t need a complicated statistical analysis.  We need to have transparency and access to data — which, thanks in large part to the organizations maligned elsewhere in that post, are increasingly common. It’s now remarkably easy to find out exactly what the growth percentile would have been in Montbello had it not included ELL students (and it’s in the chart above). Note first that while there are 25 percent ELL students in the school overall, the cohort used to measure academic growth had an even higher proportion — a full 40 percent of students were ELL.  That, under the initial assumptions, was the injustice that unfairly sealed their doom.

So what would the schools median growth percentile been with a “bump in overall achievement” from eliminating the scores of the ELL students?  A full five points, um,  lower.  Yup, pull out the ELL students, and the academic growth scores at Montbello would have been even worse.  The decision to close Montbello might not have been different, but the conversation probably should have been more informed.

And that’s the point of data and assessments, isn’t it?  To rid us collectively of false assumptions and the dogma of our preconceived notions.  The erroneous and misshapen critique that evaluation systems punish schools with high ELL populations proves the fundamental point of why these systems are so critically important.  Don’t rely on speculation. Don’t assume that you know how good or bad a school is based on conjecture. Don’t conjure up some false reasoning for why some schools are penalized by the results. Start with the basic data, ask questions, and dig deeper.

And the growth data for ELL students surfaces some really interesting further questions: Why do ELL students have higher growth?  Which ELL students (based on the CELA test) are progressing the most, and how quickly?  Do school with a specific ELA programs see faster growth than those that don’t?  Are there schools whose ELL students — particularly ones with initial low CELA scores — who seem to be able to move these students along even faster?

CDE apparently has started to analyze CELA cohort growth scores, and hopefully they will quickly make these available.  There is a lot more to do here, and this subject deserves increased attention, not less.  But it also needs the right kind of inquiry.

We should try to answer a lot more questions regarding ELL students, but we should do so with an attention to data and to fact – not based on the assumptions, accusations, and preconceived notions that have far too often held all of us in thrall. Circumstances are often not what they first seem.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.