Teacher Bias and Isolated Instructional Routines in English Learner Education

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Teacher Bias and Isolated Instructional Routines in English Learner Education


Teacher bias and isolated instructional routines can negatively impact English Language Learners, particularly Long Term English Learners (LTEL), which, according to research by NWEA author Jim Soland, affects both the social-emotional well-being and student achievement (Soland, n.d.).

The article “Innovations in Educational Equity for English Language Learners” stated that “districts…mostly underfund ELL education and adopt primarily subtractive ELL approaches, in which students lose their first language and identify and are immersed in English-only environments.” (Tung, 2013). She goes on to state that as a result of poor funding, language isolation, and a lack of capacity building, many EL students languish. Other research suggests that although identifying EL learners is an attempt to prevent educational inequity, the classification itself may be the cause of teacher bias (Mitchell, 2020). Mitchell went on to suggest that, based on studies conducted, that while teachers had “lower perceptions of the academic skills and knowledge of those students who were classified as English-learners”, that same negative bias was virtually nonexistent for English-learners who were placed in bilingual settings. (Mitchell, 2020). Another article by Mitchell, published in EdWeek,

Research by Jim Soland of NWEA points out that “research also increasingly demonstrates the importance of the social-emotional well-being of students to their achievement. In particular, academic self-efficacy is strongly associated with achievement and growth in read… (Soland, n.d.). Self-efficacy is defined in the book Rebound, by Fisher, Frey, Smith, and Hattie, as “the belief that one can achieve goals [which is] fundamental to student agency (Fisher et al, 2021).

Targeted Interventions

Considering that the quantitative and qualitative data of the target school reveals an equity gap affecting the EL sub-group, two focused strategies can be implemented school-wide to help alleviate this gap for future students.

Improved teaching practices

Several improvements in school-wide teaching practices should be implemented, including collaborative conversations, focused note-taking, and systematic checking for understanding, These research-based practices, based in large part upon curriculum used with English learners, when implemented school-wide will increase the ability of English learners to improve upon their own student agency as well as reduce the need for code-switching as EL students move from subject to subject throughout the school day/year.

Collaborative Conversations - Routines such as A/B partners, peer review of student’s work and comprehension of course material, and the targeted use of collaborative group roles will help to increase standards mastery and ELD goals. Students have a greater role in their own learning when they collaborate.

Focused Note-Taking – Note-taking that focuses on reflection, essential questions, and a summary of learning (previously called Cornell Notes). Systematic Checking for Understanding – The use of common formative assessments (both formal and informal) across all disciplines are excellent methods of determining student learning “on-the-fly.”

Professional Development to reduce teacher bias in relationship to English learner classification Targeted professional development to reduce or eliminate teacher bias is essential not only to reduce the perceived stigma of the EL program, but also to raise teacher’s knowledge of this hidden bias. Schools can make use of any on-site academic coaching staff (curriculum dean/administrators, Language Arts coaches, on-site Professional Development Specialists, etc.). Additionally, resources such as staff development books like Finding Your Blind Spots by Hedreich Nichols can be used.

Key Stakeholders

Other considerations that need to be reflected upon and included in any plan for school improvement would by necessity involve the stakeholders who either would be tasked with implementing any changes, or those who would be affected by the said change.

Teachers - as much of the equity gap is fostered, knowingly or unknowingly, by the teaching staff, they are a key stakeholder group as it is this group that will need to implement the interventions identified to help reduce or eliminate the equity gap. Based on my long experience in K12 schools, I expect that the greatest push-back on the interventions will come from this group. Discussing teacher bias is a sensitive topic and many educators may feel as if they do not possess lowered expectations or bias. To get their assent, difficult conversations will need to be had. Previous experience with these types of difficult questions has shown that beginning in small PLC sized or department sized groups will be an effective first-step in achieving their buy-in. It will take time and consideration, but I believe it is possible.

Parents (ELAC, etc.) - Parents of our EL students, and in particular the advisory group that assists the school in meeting its stated mission, vision, values, and goals, should be a key part of the outreach. Their unique perspective as parents of EL students can help drive the conversation forward as well as provide valuable insight into how best to integrate some of the cultural concerns that may arise in the identified interventions. I don't expect much of a challenge in getting parents on board with the planned interventions, except it may require detailed explanation so parents understand that many of the contributing factors are unintentional side-effects of good intentioned previous interventions.

Site Administration - By necessity, any implementation of interventions to address the equity gap must by definition include the site administration. Scheduling of professional development, oversight of instructional practices, and support for the teaching staff, parents, and students, comes from the administration. One expected challenge with site administration is the issue of planning to have the difficult conversations and scheduling of time to address the issues and implement the instructional routines. Their participation is based on other considerations outside of the teaching staff, and their buy-in will necessitate a well-planned strategy for implementation. District Administration - As several interventions are planned, it is wise to keep district administration "in the loop" as it is likely the same or a similar equity gap exists in other schools. Success of the interventions can be replicated district-wide, and conversely, support for the interventions where their implementation is difficult or unlikely to succeed can be brought to the site with the expanded resources of the school district itself. The current district administration focuses heavily on closing the achievement and equity gaps, so no challenges are expected beyond the usual fiscal considerations.

Students - As the interventions planned directly affect the students (both EL and non-EL) , students must be one of the key stakeholders. Their input helped identify the equity gap, and their input can help the outcome of said interventions by providing real-time feedback. Additionally, their rising scores and lowering equity gap will be the key metric that proves success of the scheme. As the recipients of the planned interventions, I don't expect challenges from this stakeholder group, except perhaps the push-back students tend to give to any increased rigor in the classroom. Their buy-in is critical, however, so a large part of the intervention plan will hinge upon their understanding (and effective teacher/admin explanations) as to why the changes are being made. They will, however, benefit the most.


In conclusion, while structural and institutional factors contribute to the equity gap of English Learner students, by working together, the effect can be mitigated and hopefully eliminated with targeted interventions, stakeholder support, and a determination to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education.

Works Cited

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Smith, D., & Hattie, J. (2021). Rebound: A playbook for rebuilding agency, accelerating learning recovery and rethinking schools: Grades K-12. Corwin.

Mitchell, C. (2020, November 19). Do English-language learners get stigmatized by teachers? A study says yes. Education Week. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/do-english-language-learners-get-stigmatized-by-teachers-a-study-says-yes/2019/07

Mitchell, C. (2020, November 19). Does English-language-learner classification help or hinder students? Education Week. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/does-english-language-learner-classification-help-or-hinder-students/2017/11

Soland, J. (n.d.). English language learners, self- efficacy, and the ... - NWEA. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/03/researchbrief-collaborative-for-student-growth-english-language-learners-self-efficacy-and-the-achievement-gap-2019.pdf

Tung, R. (n.d.). Innovations in educational equity for English language ... Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1046319.pdf