Understanding Interactions between Home and Classroom Contributions to ELL Student Success

Understanding Interactions between Home and Classroom Contributions to ELL Student Success 

According to Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) seminal theory, there are various precursors of students’ success. These include societal context, quality of home and community environment, quality of school climate and curriculum, student abilities at birth and student perception of incentives and pressures to engage in school activities. Rossi and Montgomery suggested that the home and school environments not only make independent contributions to student success but also interact with each other as demonstrated in Figure 1., which is the Visual Representation of Rossi and Montgomery (1994, p. 1) Theory of Student Success.

When student performance (as measured through standardized test performance) decreases significantly over a short period of time, Rossi and Montgomery suggested that changes in home quality and school climate are likely to be responsible.

            Performance decline in English in English language learner (ELL) settings is particularly complex, because (a) the links between ELL classrooms and ELL households can be fraught with communication problems, cultural misalignment, and a lack of shared values (DelliCarpini, 2011; Finn & Voelkl, 2009; Gail, 2006; Hansen-Thomas, 2008; Peterson & Heywood, 2007); and (b) ELL classrooms themselves are often volatile, as educators experiment with the use of co-teaching, hybrid models, and other kinds of pedagogical and administrative change (Almeida, 2007; Bauer, 2009; Davison, 2006; Pawan & Ortloff, 2011). Nonetheless, based on an application of Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) seminal theory, performance decline in ELL settings can be understood through a rigorous examination of the respective roles played by home quality, classroom quality, and home-classroom interactions as precursors of student success.

            There are many empirical studies related to the relationship between the independent variables of home quality, classroom quality, and home-classroom interactions and the dependent variable of student success. Scholars have identified the respective contributions of   stable parental involvement, teachers’ warm and demanding orientations, and teacher-parent relationships to student success. Some of the pressing problems identified in the literature include parents’ inability or refusal to provide a cognitively rich and supportive environment to children (Cassidy & Shaver, 2002; Damon, 1990) and parental instability as a source of emotional, economic, and academic stress for students (Chua, 2011; Dempsey & Keen, 2008). Others include teachers not being demanding enough of students (Finn & Voelkl, 2009; Ford & Sutphen, 2009) and teachers not being warm enough with students (Giampapa, 2010; Hansen-Thomas, 2008). Parents and teachers not working together to create a single set of expectations for students  (Huang & Mason, 2008; Kaplan & Owings, 2010) or create a single resource base and infrastructure for students (Huang & Mason, 2008; Kearney, 2009 ) have also been identified as some of the major concerns.

Not all of these problems exist in the same way in different academic settings; additionally, students are adversely impacted in different ways based on their personalities, such that some students are more sensitive to impaired parental support while other students are less affected (Kusterer, K.D., 2009). The Author argues that for this reason, even though scholars agree on the basic list of home, classroom, and home-classroom quality factors that can reduce student performance, the dynamics of these factors vary from school to school, and even from classroom to classroom. Accordingly, based on Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) theory, any attempt to understand rapid performance decline in a specific educational setting should take account of the specific home, school, and home-school quality dynamics in that setting. This kind of specific approach has been repeatedly identified as one of the best ways to diagnose and treat otherwise unexplained declines in student performance, especially when the demographics and basic characteristics of a student body have not changed.    

Background of the Problem

The linguistic landscape of American schools has been changing over the decades. (Walqui, 2006) .According to Walqui (2006), in the decade between 1992 and 2002, “the enrolment of English Language Learners ELLs went up of 84 percent”. ELLs, according to the author, are no longer exclusively first generation immigrants. By 2006, 75 percent of the students in middle and high schools are second or third generation of immigrants. While these students have been raised up in the U.S., and have been educated in U.S. schools, their English skills are still lacking, they are failing in the language, and dropping out of school due to language difficulties (Ruiz de Valesco & Fix, 2000; Fry, 2003).

Two elementary schools in the southern United States have both experienced recent performance decline among 4th-grade English language learner (ELL) students. From 2006 to 2012, this performance decline was measured by an objective decline in reading and mathematics scores as defined by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. After 2012, when the state received exemption from NCLB, it moved to a new, state-specific measurement standard through which it was found that 4th-grade ELL students at the two schools were performing significantly worse than other ELL students across the state. Thus, the local problem is unexplained academic performance decline among a population of 4th-grade ELL students in two elementary schools. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2011, for example, show a substantial increase in growth of the gap between the scores of non-ELL and ELL students in mathematics and reading in the fourth and eighth grade (Center for Public Education, 2012). 

Statement of the Problem

            The problem is that 4th-grade ELL student performance defined historically as NCLB performance on reading and mathematics and more recently as performance on state-specific tests of reading and mathematics, has been steadily declining in some schools (Center for Public Education, 2012), but this paper will only pay attention to two elementary schools. The problem is likely to persist in the absence of institutional knowledge about why this decline exists. As neither school has conducted a formal exploration of the reasons for ELL learners’ academic failure or success, there is insufficient data for an evidence-based approach to addressing the problem. This is evident from lack of information both online and from relevant education departments on the causes of a decline in performance among ELL students.

Purpose of the Study

            The purpose of this qualitative case study is to establish the effects home and school environments have on reading and mathematics performance of 4th-grade ELLs. This will be done by understanding the interaction between the two environments and how the interaction affects performance.  Exploring the perceptions of teachers, administrators, and parents on home quality, classroom quality, and home-classroom interaction quality to the decline of ELL students’ underperformance in reading and mathematics will play an important role in confirming or falsifying the hypothesis that 4th-grade ELL student performance on reading and mathematics has been on the decline. The study will apply Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) seminal theory to the problem of ELL student underperformance using principles identified in Yin’s (2009) case study. More details on the methodology of the study will be provided in chapter three. 

Research Questions

            The following research questions will guide the study.

            RQ1.   What role does the interaction between an English Language Learning students and the home environment play in 4th-grade English Language Learning students’ overall academic performance? Do background aspects such as a student’s abilities at birth influence count as a home environment factor?

RQ2.   What role does the interaction between English Language Learning students and the school environment play in 4th-grade English Language Learning students’ overall academic performance?

RQ3. What is the place of racism and discrimination, teachers and curricula, specific approaches to English Language Learning students, assessment and culturally relevant forms of teaching in the school environment?

RQ3.   How do the school and home environments and their effects on a student relate and what kind of effect do they have on 4th-grade English Language Learning students’ reading, mathematics and other subjects’ performance?

RQ4. Are teachers, parents (guardians) and administrators aware of how school and home environments affect the students’ performance in reading?


            One of the limitations of this qualitative study is that it supports only a speculative linkage between home quality, classroom quality, and home-classroom interaction quality and Ell students’ performance decline. Only a quantitative study can objectively verify whether these variables are linked. However, according to Yin (2009), qualitative case studies are also capable of generating explanatory insights into the links between variables.

            In case study research, researchers benefit from spending extensive time with research subjects (Yin, 2009). One of the limitations of this study is that the researcher will not be able to spend more than two hours each with each of the participants of the study, possibility limiting the richness of data that are obtained. Due to the large number of people to be interviewed, including parents, teachers and administrators and to encourage their participation, the sessions have been limited to two hours.

A final limitation of the study is that the researcher is likely to be familiar with at least some of the study participants, which may result in a biased response to some of the questions. According to Englander (2012), personal familiarity with interview subjects does not discredit or invalidate qualitative research, as long as (a) the focus of the research is on the phenomenon of interest and not on the interviewer-participant relationship and (b) the relationship between interviewer and participant is acknowledged and discussed in the methodology of the study.  However, it can result in passive participation.


            The study will be delimited to two public elementary schools in DeKalb County, Georgia. The study will be theoretically delimited to an exploration of a limited number of content areas (societal context, quality of home and community environment, quality of school climate and curriculum, student abilities at birth, and student perception of incentives and pressures to engage in school activities) identified by Rossi and Montgomery (1994) as being the main predictors of students’ academic failure or success.

Significance of the Study

The primary significance of the study lies primarily in its ability to help answer the question of whether home and school environments have an effect on the academic performance of ELL student performance, using two schools as case studies. According to Haager, Klingner, and Aceves (2010), a decline in performance of ELL students, which has been registered in the last decade, will impact hundreds of ELL students and attempts to generate solutions are significant for the school. The secondary significance of the study lies in the potential that identified problems and solutions might apply to other schools in the state , which may allow the results of the case study to be useful to many other stakeholders within the state. The study is important to education because it is directly correlated to the ongoing debates about student achievement and how to improve it. In terms of theory, the study provides an opportunity to apply Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) seminal theory of student performance. Rossi and Montgomery’s framework of student success is not associated with an instrument, but is compatible with numerous existing measurements of home and classroom quality that have seldom been applied in case studies.


Factors affecting students of academic performance can vary from social to health to family, to geographical belongingness to parent’s education level. For a specific group of people such as ELLs, the same factors can apply. This paper uses Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) seminal theory to research and analyze the relationship between the two environments. The theory argues that when a student’s performance decreases, school and home climate are likely to be responsible, to research and analyze the relationship between the two environments.  For the purposes of achieving a comprehensive study, the paper narrows down the group of students to English language learners. Performance decline for this group of students is particularly complex because the classes are culturally diverse.

 Chapter Two: Literature Review


            The purpose of the literature review is to present and analyze theoretical and empirical research relating to the core components of the Rossi and Montgomery (1994) model of student achievement, which include the societal context, quality of home and community environment, quality of school climate and curriculum, student abilities at birth and student perception of incentives and pressures to engage in school activities.

Each of these core components of the model will be explored through an analysis of applicable scholarly work. The conclusion of the literature review will include a brief synthesis of findings from each content area, thus providing support for the Rossi and Montgomery (1994) model as an appropriate methodological foundation for the study.

            One of the common themes in the literature review is that of privilege. ELL students do not differ from speakers of English as a first language solely in terms of linguistic competence (Heilig & Holme, 2013). Oftentimes, ELL students in the United States also tend to be non-white, poor, and structurally disadvantaged in numerous ways, including limited access to healthcare, mental health resources, social support, and other factors (Heilig & Holme, 2013). Therefore, in attempting to understand the factors associated with ELL student success and failure, it is necessary to highlight the multiple roles played by privilege in the formation of educational achievement. In many ways, the specific experience of ELL students in the United States parallels the general experiences of African-American students (Heilig & Holme, 2013), who have also been systematically underprivileged. For this reason, ample space is dedicated in the literature review to highlighting the roles of privilege—especially racial and economic privilege—in academic success.

Student Abilities at Birth

            The discussion of student abilities at birth has been a controversial one, although the past half-century has seen the emergence of more scientific attitudes to the topic. Given that the majority of ELL students in the United States are not white (U.S. Department of Education, 2012), it is important to offer a historical overview of race-related explanations of students’ cognitive abilities. While race remains a theme in contemporary explanations of student abilities, what has changed over time is the once-prevalent belief in differing abilities at birth.

The 19th century saw the emergence of scientific racism, which construed non-white people as inferior to white people on the basis of inborn biological factors. Support for scientific racism lessened given scientific proof that innate intelligence, or g, was no different between non-white and white people (Davies, 2004; Ewen, 1992; Tilley, 2011). In addition, scientific racism was weakened by scientific discoveries that the concept of race is weaker than once thought; for example, there are many people with stereotypically African-American features who are actually of European descent (Sroufe, 1996; Tilley, 2011). These two developments—psychometric proof that innate intelligence does not vary across races and the discrediting of racial typology—reduced most of the support for scientific racism. One of the last affirmations of scientific racism came in Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) The Bell Curve, which argued on behalf of inborn racial differences in intelligence. Even though scientific racism has no genuine support in recent scientific literature (Teo, 2011), scientific racism should be acknowledged as the first theory that attempted to explain the achievement gap between non-white and white students. Scientific racism is tangentially important to the discussion of ELL student achievement, especially given that so many ELL students in the United States are not white (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). The consensus is that, while race is an important determinant in explaining differences in academic behavior, it plays no detectable role in inborn differences in intelligence at birth (Teo, 2011).

Later-Life Differences Pertaining to Linguistic Ability

            There is extensive debate on the cognitive abilities of second-language speakers and what these abilities have to do with academic performance. Two key theories in this regard are the linguistic threshold hypothesis and the linguistic interdependence hypothesis. The difference between these two linguistic theories has been concisely expressed by Bernhardt and Kamil (1995), who wrote that the meaning of these theories can be captured in the question of whether “second-language reading is a language problem (linguistic threshold) or a reading problem (linguistic interdependence)” (p. 15).  Ng and Renshaw (2008) explained that the linguistic interdependence theory “postulates that L1 [native language] and L2

[acquired language]

skills are interdependent…Experience with one language can promote the development of cognitive/academic proficiency across languages…provided that there is adequate exposure to L2” (p. 207). Vygotsky (1962) stated that, if this hypothesis is true, students “can transfer to the new language the system of meaning he already possesses in his own. The reverse is also true—a foreign language facilitates mastering the higher forms of the native language” (p. 110). Meanwhile, the linguistic threshold hypothesis postulates that bilingual students “must achieve threshold levels of bilingual proficiency to avoid detrimental effects on cognition and potentially to allow positive effects” (Appel & Muysken, 2006, p. 112). As such, in this hypothesis, introducing a student to L2 before s/he has achieved a level of threshold mastery in L1 is a recipe for negative cognitive effects. 

            The problem is that, in experiments, both the linguistic threshold and the linguistic interdependence hypotheses have been found to apply (Gail, 2006). Because teachers have considerable leeway, within both curricular and pedagogical constraints, to teach reading strategies in secondary school, teachers’ applications of reading strategies could be impacted by interpretations of the two linguistic hypotheses discussed above. For example, if a teacher holds to the linguistic threshold hypothesis, then s/he may assume that a struggling L2 English reader might be someone who is caught on the threshold of the L1 language and needs more of an immersive experience in L2. On the other hand, if the linguistic threshold hypothesis is correct, then the struggling L2 reader might benefit from an intervention in L1 (Appel & Muysken, 2006). For example, if that student and her teacher and both speakers of Spanish, it would be a valid pedagogical approach for the teacher to use Spanish to press the student further about comprehension and/or analysis of a text (Appel & Muysken, 2006). Doing so would help such a teacher understand whether the student was what is known as a double semilingual, meaning that the student had an impediment in both L1 and L2 and could therefore benefit from becoming a more proficient reader in L1. (Gail, 2006) In such a case, the teacher might recommend that the student’s Spanish-speaking parents build the student’s reading literacy in Spanish as well.

            The work conducted by Ammar and Spada (2006) implied that, in validation of the interdependence theory, it is more effective to prompt students who are stumbling on a particular aspect of L2 reading than asking them for a recast. Prompts allow the teacher to embed a particular syntactic feature of English into the learner’s cognitive strategy whereas recasts create more cognitive load and noise for the learner. Ammar and Spada’s work is interestingly not only for its practical implications for the English teacher but also because it suggests that linguistic threshold and linguistic interdependence are separate pathways; different students populations will act as if one or the other hypothesis is true, depending on their circumstances. One will not find the characteristics of linguistic thresholds and linguistic interdependence in the same individual. This insight can help administrators to sort students into L2 reading groups based not only on their demonstrated L2 competence but also on their L1 skill; doing so can separate threshold from interdependent learners and allow them to make more progress, as reading strategies can be targeted to the very different needs of each group.  

            The fact that there is evidence for both the linguistic threshold and the linguistic interdependence hypothesis suggests that both of these hypotheses are at work, in different ways, for ELL students. Some students’ reading performance can be explained by means of the linguistic threshold hypothesis, while other cases of reading performance can be explained by the linguistic interdependence model. While high school English teachers need not be aware of the subtleties of each theory, it would certainly help their pedagogy to be aware of the hypotheses as potential explanations of reading performance and as predictors of the success of particular teaching strategies (Appel & Muysken, 2006). Students with a high level of proficiency in their L1 but not in English L2 reading will likely be sorted into the interdependence model; with these students, it may be the case that they have not sufficiently immersed in L2 to allow their L1 skills to transfer, and they should not be confused with students who lack knowledge of proper reading strategies per se (since they have competence in L1) (Gail, 2006). On the other hand, there may also be students who are below expected proficiency in both English L2 and their L1, in which case there is a case to be made for an intervention by a professional to assess potential cognitive deficits, or for the student to deal with the problem by committing more intensely to L2 before returning to L1 (Gail, 2006).

            Interestingly, as a policy matter, both hypotheses suggest the value of L2 immersion. Inter-dependents will benefit by transferring their L1 skills over while those with threshold problems will be goaded into greater competence in one language (Gail, 2006). As such, knowledge of these linguistic theories is helpful not only to the teacher in search of pedagogic improvement but also to policy-makers. 

Quality of Home and Community Environment: Parental Involvement

According to Amy Chua (2011), all parents possess a certain degree of nervousness when it comes to their children’s performance in school. To quote his words,

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. (p. 110).

The extreme reactions elicited by Chua’s (2011 book indicate that—whatever their views on parenting—American parents are anxious about the academic destinies of their children (Chua, 2011). At other key moments in recent American history, such as the Russian launch of Sputnik, Americans have felt defensive about their role in their children’s academics, wondering if they have been doing enough to prepare their children for a happy and successful future (Tillman, 2009). At this particularly difficult moment in American life, when the legacy of the Great Recession of 2008 continues to unfold, a great deal is at stake. In a world in which education remains one of the last reliable means for children to achieve upwards social and economic mobility, involved parents are more anxious than ever about what ought to be done (Chua, 2011). In this context, parents represent an untapped treasure; if they could be encouraged to become m re active, they could become a second teaching corps and inject millions of American children with renewed academic success (Chua, 2011).   

A lack of parental involvement is one of the greatest problems facing children in their early development (Peterson & Heywood, 2007). American school children spend 70% of the day hours during the week at school and away from their parents in after-school programs (Stouffer, 1992). Schools tend to believe that when parents are involved, that children have better grades, attitudes, and behavior, as well as more respect for authority (Peterson & Heywood, 2007). ELL students whose parents are not involved with their education tend to achieve less, have poor attitudes and exhibit negative behaviors (Peterson & Heywood, 2007).

In some instances there are barriers that may prevent the parent or family in becoming involved in their children’s education. There are a variety of reasons why non-native-English speaking parents resist involvement in school activities, but certainly cultural challenges and communication differences between teachers and families lie at the heart of the problem (Keen, 2007). As noted by Keen, a sense of parental partnership is all the more important when students are affected by disabilities or other learning challenges, as well as language or cultural barriers. As Keen wrote, in looking at creating learning plans for children with disabilities, it is key that “the formation of relationships between professionals and parents that are underpinned by respect, trust, and open communication, with professionals becoming skilled in a variety of communication techniques or strategies that enable them to work effectively with families” (Keen, 2007, p. 330). This insight means that schools need to recognize that the family itself is deeply affected by a child’s social, mental or physical challenges, which needs to result in the consideration of the family in all aspects of the child’s life.

The effects of family literacy are often highly affected by the culture of the participating families (Neuman, Caparelli, & Kee, 1998; Peterson & Heywood, 2007). From a strictly operational point of view, Peterson and Heywood (2007) demonstrated that literacy itself might be a challenge for parents who have come from another culture, in that

…there comes an onus or accountability or responsibility on the part of the parents to learn the language. And, of course, many of them are not even schooled in their own country. So they come from Colombia, they come from Portugal, they come from Hungary and they can’t even read in their first language. (Peterson & Heywood, 2007, p. 530). 

As Cummins (2001) pointed out, as an example, it might be important to provide assistance for parents in first-language literacy at the same time as English literacy: “strong and uncompromising promotion of L1 [native language] literacy is a crucial component, but we should adopt both/and rather than and either/or orientation to L1 and L2 [second language]. When promoted together, the two languages enrich each other rather than subtracting from each other” (p. 121). In other words, sometimes the parents and their children need to be engaged in learning at the same time.

To address these issues, Au and Mason (1981) found that when teachers’ conversation styles match that of the community, children are more able and eager to participate in classroom activities. Heath (1983) also discovered that children will achieve more when their home language patterns and values for literacy resemble that of the school. Cazden (1988) showed that teachers, who are familiar with children’s conversational styles, including the uses of silence, are more successful in their instruction than teachers who are not. McDermott and Rothenberg (2000) raised an important but under-appreciated point, which is that the contributions of teachers can be negated by the resistance that parents have to involvement in their children’s education. In their work, McDermott and Rothenberg (2000) focused on urban parents and found a trust gap between teachers and (mostly non-native-English-speaking) urban parents. Urban parents only work with teachers who are known to be supportive of their children, while teachers deride parents for not participating more frequently. McDermott and Rothenberg’s (2000) work raises the important question of socio-economic variables as part of the underlying reason for parental involvement and non-involvement.

 Parental involvement can be said to be one of the most overlooked aspects of American education today, which is why it is a problem for all communities and educational leaders on a nation-wide basis (Stouffer, 1992).  Many parents do not realize how important it is to get involved in their children’s learning (Chua, 2011). As the child grows older, for example, there is a tendency for parents not to be involved as much as they were in the elementary grade level (Chua, 2011).  A misconception in getting parents to remain involved is that they often perceive their involvement in school to have to be a physical presence (LaBahn, 1995). Parents do not grasp the fact that assisting students with homework and reading to students are ways of maintaining involvement in their education (Stouffer, 1992). Children who have little to no parental or family support often drop out of school, become unemployed, or possibly get involved in some type of criminal and illegal activities (Heath, 1983).

If parental involvement in a child’s education is so beneficial, it is not clear why it is not being stressed as a fundamental need at schools to a greater extent at the present time. There are many reasons for this lack of involvement that are linked to the parents themselves and also to the schools. One of the reasons concerns the lack of understanding of non-native-English-speaking families on the part of the school system, as detailed above. The typical non-native-English-speaking family is struggling to deal with many factors that affect every member of the family. These can definitely affect the way that the family is able to be involved in the student’s education. As LaBahn (1995) put it:

Many secondary schools simply do not know how to deal with the nontraditional family and the areas of concern that it represents. Parents feel unwelcomed at school, lack knowledge and education, and may not feel that education is important. The number of solutions that can be used to improve parental involvement are substantial. The most important of these, however, is for the principal of the school to be totally committed. (no page number). The most importance consequence of LaBahn’s comments is the suggestion for the principal to take the lead.

It is evident that the needs of children are very complex (Heath, 1983). Accommodating children with different learning needs sometimes involves accommodating different parents from an organizational perspective, or a cultural one (McDermott & Rothenberg, 2000). This can consist of communicating with that child’s parent on a daily basis, depending on what the child has completed that day or what needs improvement (Dempsey & Keen, 2008). It can also require specific learning plans for each child. Teachers must recognize the need of the parent to partner with school learning teams in order to ensure that they are aware of how they can support their child’s development at home, and what challenges the child may be facing (Dempsey & Keen, 2008).

Teachers in the classroom must also develop routines for ELL children with behavioral issues so that they are supported and remain on track with their educational goals. Both schools and parents need to be flexible in moving towards these goals, as noted by Dempsey and Keen (2008). School teachers need to focus on the achievements of the family at large, rather than on the development of the child in different subject areas. This will allow the focus to remain on the process of furthering learning goals on a social, psychological, and cognitive level.

In order to develop good relationships with non-native-English-speaking families, a school and its community have to be committed to communication on an ongoing basis (Dempsey & Keen, 2008). The school needs to develop methods of ongoing communication that suit the ways in which parents work, as noted by Dempsey and Keen (2008). By committing to family-centered practice, a school needs to be able to work towards listening to parents as much as teaching, as well (Hughes-Hassell & Harada, 2007). Both schools and parents need to be focused and flexible in moving towards a partnership that will benefit students.

No matter what their developmental level, there is a growing need for engaging ELL students’ families in the process of educational development, and family partnerships can provide a backbone for engagement that helps provide the student with balance and support. This is even more important at the school level, however, according to the literature (Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Hughes-Hassell & Harada, 2007). Engaging families in learning is also aligned with creating a shared sense of meaning between parent and child, something that can add to psychological development which in turn can help the student acquire knowledge in the long term (Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Hughes-Hassell & Harada, 2007). In this way, developing a family-centered practice means pushing learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom, so that non-native-English-speaking parents and children create bonds connected with educational experiences Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Hughes-Hassell & Harada, 2007).

Researchers have observed that families of children who speak English as a primary language are more likely to have two parents who function as stable presences in the life of the child (Cassidy & Shaver, 2002; Damon, 1999). In particular, research has demonstrated that, when both parents interact with their children in a consistent fashion, children learn vocabulary more quickly. In addition, two parents are typically able to provide longer periods of attention, and provide pre-school preparation by reading to their children, co-playing, and imparting knowledge. Thus, according to sociocultural theorists, one of the roots of the achievement gap between native English speakers and ELL students could lie in family differences (Khajehpour, 2011; Khajehpour & Ghazvini, 2011), particularly in the realm of parental involvement.

Parental involvement can take the following forms: (a) Working within school systems, for example in parent-teacher associations and school boards, to create an educational culture that is more mindful of non-native-English-speaking students’ needs (Ladson-Billings, 1994; Tillman, 2009); (b) exposing young children to educational and intellectual opportunities (Lowery & Wout, 2010); (c) serving as emotional pillars for non-native-English-speaking students who are unsure about the value of education (Ladson-Billings, 1994); and (d) working within the community to try to spread pro-education values (Milner & Howard, 2004). The literature thus suggests that non-native-English-speaking parents have many domains for involvement, from trying to initiate social change in schools and communities to being full partners in their children’s educations. This section of the literature review contains a more detailed discussion of important theories of parental involvement and also examines empirical studies of how and why non-native-English-speaking parents have been involved in their children’s academic lives.

According to Abdul-Adil and Farmer (2006), non-native-English-speaking parent involvement in elementary schools has historically been low because of three reasons: (a) non-native-English-speaking parents are not empowered by schools, (b) schools do not conduct consistent outreach that is catered to capture the interest and attention of non-native-English-speaking parents, and (c) poor and failing schools do not generally prioritize parent outreach. Abdul-Adil and Farmer argued against what they called “urban legends of apathy” (p. 1) about non-native-English-speaking parents of elementary school children, and laid the blame instead on schools. This study represented support for the position that non-native-English-speaking parents’ efforts are not optimally sought out by schools, and that some schools are in such bad shape that there is little parents can do to redress the situation. However, Abdul-Adil and Farmer did not discuss the question of what non-native-English-speaking families are doing at home. As Milner and Howard (2004) have argued, bad schools do not excuse non-native-English-speaking parents’ neglects of home-bound involvement, such as reading to children, helping them with their homework, and providing the other kinds of intellectual and emotional support necessary for their academic advancement.

Some scholars have argued that the key independent variable is not race but poverty—which is an important insight, given that non-native-English-speaking families are more likely to be poor (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Statistically, poor people in America are more likely to be single parents, and numerous studies have found that the parent (or parent-partner dyad) in single-parent households has less time, energy, and willpower to devote to spending constructive time with children (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Poor parents are more likely to watch television with their child than to read together (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Poor parents are more likely to have had a substandard education, as a result of which they might struggle with tutoring or academically mentoring their children (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).  Poor women are more likely to drink alcohol or abuse drugs while pregnant, behaviors that result in a lowering of the newborn baby’s intelligence (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Poor parents lack the money to buy their children books and educational toys (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Poor parents are more depressed than wealthier parents, sometimes resulting in violence or neglect of their children (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). The conclusion to be drawn from these data is that poverty, rather than native language, is what is most predictive of parental involvement in a child’s academic life. Thus, because non-native-English-speaking families represent a disproportionately large proportion of the poor, it might poverty rather than linguistic competence that results in a lack of parental involvement, and therefore in academic underperformance by ELL students.

According to Trotman (2001), some of the differences in parental involvement between non-native-English-speaking parents and native-English-speaking parents are rooted in deficits: “some… parents may lack the knowledge and resources to assist their child with academic success” (p. 275). Thus, before non-native-English-speaking parents can become more involved in the academic lives of their children, they need to be taught certain skills by schools themselves. The problem is that many schools that serve a predominantly non-native-English-speaking student base are under budgetary pressures that preclude them from funding special parent outreach programs of the kind recommended by both Trotman (2001) and Abdul-Adil and Farmer (2006). One opportunity is for so-called early start or fresh start schools to conduct parental outreach and training; thus, at the same time that non-native-English-speaking children are being given a head start in school, non-native-English-speaking parents can be trained in how to offer academic support to their children (Abdul-Adil & Farmer, 2006).     

In their study on non-native-English-speaking parents of elementary school children, Huang and Mason (2008) reached the conclusion that “Parents’ motivations to be involved in their children’s learning evolved in three themes: (a) parents need to develop relationships; (b) parents need to influence their children’s learning; and (c) education is the key for children to achieve success” (p. 56). Some non-native-English-speaking parents seem to struggle with developing constructive relationships with schools and teachers, who are seen as hostile or indifferent representatives of an oppressive majority culture (McKay, Atkins, Hawkins, Brown, & Lynn, 2003). Other non-native-English-speaking parents struggle to become positive influences on their children’s learning, because they themselves lack the training to deliver tutoring and other forms of academic support to their children (Trotman, 2001). Finally, Model (2008) argued that some non-native-English-speaking cultures have become highly suspicious of all institutions perceived to be white, including schools, and that the community suffers from cynicism and indifference toward education.

Quality of School Climate and Curriculum

Definitions of School Climate and its Relevance to Student Achievement

            Table 2 presents the National School Climate Center’s first two dimensions of school climate (see Appendix). The remaining three dimensions follow in Table 3 (see Appendix).

Based on this definition, the National School Climate Center (2011b) proposed that, in order to improve school climate, it is necessary to (a) measure each of the dimensions of school climate, (b) defined a desired end state, and (c) adopt a five-stage continuous improvement cycle based on the following guidelines in Table 4 (see Appendix).

The guidelines presented in the tables are in order to illustrate the complexity of altering the school environment. If it is accepted that school environments can be structurally biased against ELL students, as Heilig and Holme (2013) argued, then one of the implications of this position is that it can be extremely difficult to restructure school climate so as to be more welcoming of ELL students and dedicated to their success. However, the existence of frameworks such as those of the National School Climate Center is important, because these frameworks can be used to generate recommendations for bringing about structural change.

The discussion to come will show how these aspects of school climate can alter student performance, particularly ELL student performance.

Racism and Discrimination in the American School Climate

From its inception, the American public school climate was designed to serve an audience of white children who spoke English as a native language (Heilig & Holme, 2013). Children who did not fit this template were systematically discriminated against in American schools (Heilig & Holme, 2013). The first recipients of this discrimination were African-American students (Heilig & Holme, 2013). Many of the same structures of discrimination applied to African-American students have also been applied to ELL students, regardless of color (Heilig & Holme, 2013). For this reason, it is important to offer a general overview of the American school climate’s hostility to African-American students before preceded to an analysis of how school climates have tended to underserve ELL students.

Between the first arrival of black people on the American continent, as slaves in the 16th century, and between 1863, African-Americans had no legal right to education in the United States (Green, 2011). Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the United States Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau, which for the first time created a formal system of education for African-Americans (Farmer-Kaiser, 2010). During Reconstruction, there was a brief period of time during which several states had a single educational system (Butchart, 2010). However, starting in 1876, the so-called Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation in the American school system, and in 1896 the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson created a nationwide basis for school segregation (Thomas, 1996). It was not until 1954, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which the era of formal school segregation came to an end (Hyneman, 2007).  During the 1950s and 1960s, scholars argued that, when schools were integrated and reformed, black students would no longer have an achievement gap with white students (Kaplan & Owings, 2010). This hypothesis was, at least in the minds of some researchers, disconfirmed when the achievement gap continued to persist into the 2000s (Kaplan & Owings, 2010). In response to statistical data about the achievement gap, some researchers abandoned the school failure explanation, whereas other researchers argued that schools, although integrated, were still failing African-American children (Slaughter-Defoe, Stevenson, & Arrington, 2011).

According to Heilig and Holme (2013), the systematized racism that characterized American schooling for so long has shifted the focus of its animus towards ELL students. As discussed in the next section of the literature review, there is evidence of ongoing structural disadvantages faced by ELL students in the American public school climate.

Teachers and Curricula

Today, although schools are integrated, curricula remain dominated by textbooks, teaching methods, tests, and assumptions that are aligned with white, English-speaking majority culture (Riley & Ettlinger, 2011). Second, there is a national disparity between the number of native-English-speaking teachers and the number of non- native-English-speaking (Mong & Roscigno, 2010). Researchers have emphasized that non-native-English-speaking students tend to enter school in need of mentors and role models who might have been absent from their homes and communities, and that teachers from a similar background can play an important role in inspiring and supporting native-English-speaking students (Achinstein, Ogawa, Sexton, & Freitas, 2010). Thus, by not hiring teachers who are themselves second-language speakers of English, schools might be depriving ELL students of much-needed mentorship and guidance (Wilkins & Lall, 2011). Third, the quality of schools is associated with funding, and poorer schools are often in urban neighborhoods of color in which non-native-English-speaking families predominate (Woldoff, 2011). Given the various obstacles to bussing students out of their districts, there is a high statistical likelihood that ELL students, who are demographically poorer than students who speak English as a native language, will attend a budget-challenged school that cannot provide as high a quality of education (Orr & Rogers, 2010). 

Another factor often cited by school failure theorists is that white teachers are not as invested in their non-native-English-speaking students (Ready & Wright, 2010). This claim ought to be considered distinctly from school failure theorists’ points about cultural bias, school funding, and teaching hiring issues, for all three of which there is sound evidence. The claim that white, native-English-speaking teachers do not care as much about their non-white students, including non-white ELL students, is a more controversial one (Tillman, 2002, 2009), and has been advanced in various formats. Some theorists suggest that there is an active racial animus between white teachers and non-white ELL students; this animus need not be overt, but can manifest itself in subtle, sometimes unconscious assumptions about the intelligence of non-white ELL students (Francis, 2011). Other researchers have argued that, if such an animus is widespread among white teachers, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy (Harris, 2011). Research has demonstrated that teachers’ opinions of their students shape student performance (Babad, Inbar, & Rosenthal, 1982); non-white ELL students are thus capable of internalizing their teachers’ judgments and either living up or living down to these judgments. There is also a widespread argument in the literature that, even if white teachers are devoid of any overt or subtle racism in their dealings with non-white students, non-white teachers are still better motivators and teachers of non-white children (Bonner, 2009; Martinez, 2000; Tillman, 2002). 

Specific Approaches to ELL

There are numerous perspectives on why the problem of ELL academic underperformance exists.  First, the number of ELLs in American schools is increasing rapidly without a scholarly or professional consensus on the best way of educating these students (Giampapa, 2010). Second, professional learning communities (PLCs) and co-teaching structures have only recently focused on enabling cooperation and coordination between TESOLs and regular teachers, such that there is still no consensus on how to pool resources in order to optimize the teaching of ELLs (Papamihiel, 2001). These two problems exist within the framework of a larger systemic challenge, which is that schools are still under significant pressure, both local and federal, to improve the academic performance of ELLs, and to do so with limited resources (Tan, 2011).

The Push-In Model

The push-in model is an approach to ELL teaching that is administrative attractive, because it allows ELLs to be taught by existing mainstream teachers and fewer TESOLs (May, 2011). However, not all ELLs benefit from the push-in model, because some ELLs morale and ability to learn subject matter is impeded by all-English instruction (Pappamihiel & Walser, 2009). Other ELLs thrive in the push-in environment (DelliCarpini, 2009). It is not clear why this variability exists, and scholars have suggested the importance of studying ELL responses at the local level in order to determine what can be learned about the factors that either promote or prevent their success in a mainstream classroom (Hansen-Thomas, 2008; Siefert, 2010).

The push-in model of teaching ELLs imposes significant pedagogical strains on schools. Regular classroom teachers and teachers of English as a second language are required to become co-teachers, in fact if not in name, and to engage the challenge of integrating their pedagogy and curricula (DelliCarpini, 2011). Students who do normally mix have to coexist in the same classroom space (Bauer, 2009). These facts of the push-in model create a significant challenge for schools, making it more difficult to teach ELLs well, raise academic performance, and integrate the school’s pedagogical and administrative resources into a single, well-functioning unit (Bauer, 2009).

Culturally Relevant Forms of Teaching

Experts have defined culturally relevant teaching as the use of culturally relevant materials and pedagogical strategies to reach out to students of a particular background.  Theorists who have paid attention to the use of culturally relevant materials include Adair (2008), Alvarez, Hopp, and Hayes (2006), and Olsen, Bhattacharya, and Scharf (2006).  Meanwhile, Nasir, Hand, and Taylor (2008), Murrell (2007), and Elam, Robinson, and McCloud (2007) have paid attention to culturally relevant pedagogical strategies. 

Martin’s (2006) work was particularly interesting in that it called attention to the call-and-response pattern often evinced in African American communication and entertainment as a highly effective pedagogic strategy for teaching mathematics to young Black students. Although many of the studies cited in this section pertain to an African American population, they also apply to the multicultural population in general.  The volume of literature on the African American segment of the multicultural student population contributes to its usefulness in surveying the literature.

The general mechanism explaining the success of culturally relevant teaching has already been defined as the self-fulfilling prophecy effect, a specific application of which is theorized by Tillman’s (2002) work on cultural sensitivity in pedagogy.  Cultural sensitivity is a complex phenomenon that is not easy to define.  At least in Tillman’s theory, its limits are not only between members of the same culture, nor is a member of a specific culture especially adept at reaching out to members of that culture in a pedagogical situation.  Rather, cultural sensitivity consists of a number of interlocking concepts, including knowledge of and respect and affection for a particular culture. 

Cultural sensitivity is important and often described as the glue of culturally relevant teaching.  In other words, some qualitative evidence suggests culturally relevant teaching not grounded in cultural sensitivity is likely to fail, as students will be unmoved by such teaching or will consider it insincere.  Howard (2006) conducted particularly relevant research on the topic by profiling several teachers, including both White and non-White teachers who could impact the educational successes of their non-White students.  Howard discovered the key elements of cultural sensitivity with appeal to the students were respect, understanding, and affection, none of which educators can convincingly fake over the long term.

Tillman (2002) had an idiosyncratic definition of cultural sensitivity, which she described as “Culturally congruent methods, culturally-specific knowledge, cultural resistance to theoretical dominance, culturally-sensitive data interpretation, and culturally-informed theory and practice” (p. 9).  While the original intent of Tillman’s theory was as a methodology for conducting research, it also holds up well as a descriptor of what culturally relevant teachers actually do in the classroom.  Tillman’s five principles, modified slightly, are theoretical predictors of whether a culturally relevant classroom approach is likely to succeed.  If all of Tillman’s components are in place, the likelihood is that what Tillman has called an endarkened perspective will emerge to allow a teacher to engage with and reach diverse students, regardless of achievement level.  The components send a signal to the students that the teacher cares, can relate, and invests in helping the students to succeed without insisting that their existing cultural references and bias points are somehow inferior (Tillman, 2002).

Assessment as Relevant to ELL Students

            Assessment is an important issue for ELL students because it can play a key role in motivating and stimulating the academic performance of ELL students. Accordingly, it is appropriate to review some of the literature on assessment and relate it to the assessment of ELLs.

One reason for the spread of the culture of assessment is that, as Guskey (2007) has pointed out, there are links between student outcomes and teaching development. In this way, Guskey argued, it is necessary to understand assessment as a holistic context and realize that what is truly being assessed is a complex system. The system includes many components: Teacher skill, individual student motivation, parent involvement, and innumerable other moving parts make up the overall context of education (Guskey, 2007). It is a mistake to focus exclusively on assessment of students, because to do so is to wrongly assume a black box context in which each student has perfect freedom, within hard cognitive constraints, to achieve certain results (Guskey, 3007). However, education have always been aware that there is a complex interplay between the dependent variable of student achievement and the various independent variables that lie in the background and foreground.

            Guskey (2007) portrayed the teacher and the student as a symbiotic unit. It might be the student’s success that is the focus of measurement and policy, but assessment of the student only makes full sense in the context of teacher performance. The implication of this insight is that teacher assessment and student need to be mapped on to each other (Guskey, 2007). Administrators in particular need to make these two normally separate bodies of data part of the same system—so that, for example, it would be possible to track the impact of the performance of teacher Y on student X (Guskey, 2007).

            Naturally, there is some potential for teachers to resist this kind of holistic assessment, because it seems to make teachers more responsible for negative as well as positive student outcomes, and it is a natural response for members of any bureaucracy to shield themselves from negative scrutiny (Guskey, 2007). However, Guskey was not calling for a simplistic correlation of teacher performance with student performance. Instead, Guskey recommended a system of assessment that is more holistic, in which teaching performance should be considered to be a part—certainly not the whole part, and not in every case—of student assessment.

            Guskey (2007) did fully explore the methodological consequences of assessment. There are still many hard questions to be answered. Should teacher and student assessment coexist in any quantitative way? What role can the qualitative evaluation of a third party, such as a principal, have on making the teacher-student assessment more clear? There is no single set of answers to questions such as these and Guskey was aware that schools are going to have work out solutions for themselves, often based on unique factors. Guskey’s work is most useful as a general guide to a new kind of sensitivity in assessment, one that no longer treats teacher and student assessment as separated from each other; many other researchers have also reached similar conclusions about the holistic and systemic nature of assessment.

            Ken O’Connor is an educational researcher and consultant who has branded himself as ‘the grade doctor.’ O’Connor’s most influential work came in 1995, when he published a set of eight guidelines for grading, and his work since that time (including his chapter in Reeves, 2007) has remained focused on teaching teachers how to grade in ways that encourage learning. In this way, O’Connor addressed an old concern of education: The potential of grades to become a black box. According to O’Connor, grading should not be opaque to the student and should be the springboard to further learning rather than a simple punishment or reward, a dynamic that is particularly relevant to ELL students, whose motivations can be fragile.  O’Connor had eight specific guidelines for achieving the goal of grading for learning for ELL students. These goals are summarized in Table 6 (see Appendix):

O’Connor’s (2007) work was highly applicable to all ELL classrooms and school environments in which formal assessment is used. O’Connor pointed out that, in many cases, teachers of ELL students are trained and placed into classrooms without a precise and evidence-based understanding of how to grade, and that in other cases educational policy itself is behind the times (as with the application of curves in place of criterion-based grading). It is no surprise, then, that grading has become both a black box exercise and a means of re-orienting students away from genuine learning and towards achievement anxiety (O’Connon, 2007).

            The true strength of O’Connor’s (2007) work is that it makes assessment more accurate in a series of simple steps. According to O’Connor, teachers who implement this system with ELL students will notice that, in doing so, they will transform the grade from a mere number into a genuine tool for learning. For example, by applying the first goal for grading (see Table 6 above), teachers will give ELL students much more accurate feedback on exactly what they need to be improving and thereby raise the chances of their academic success.

            One hurdle in the path of O’Connor’s (2007) system is that there is an embedded culture of traditional grading in terms of standardized tests at every level, all the way up to graduate school (Guskey, 2007). In all too many contexts, teachers must weight students against each other in simple ways, which means the prominence of the traditional grade (Guskey, 2007). However, in non-standardized contexts, O’Connor’s approach could work; subsequent analysis will demonstrate how this kind of gentler assessment has been used successfully with ELL students.

            Almeida (2007) discussed effective assessment for English language learners. This topic is a controversial one that ties into some disputes that are ongoing in the field of linguistics. The crux of the problem is that there is no clear consensus on whether learners’ true cognitive performance is being measured in contexts outside their native language (Gail, 2006). For example: It may be the case that, when a speaker of English as a second language does badly on a particular test, it is mainly her language skill—rather than subject-matter knowledge—that has been assessed (Gal, 2006). However, it may also be the case that a student’s weakness in English is actually creating cognitive problems for the student that subsequently show up in the assessment (Gail, 2006).

            As discussed earlier in the literature review, linguists refer to these two positions as the linguistic interdependence hypothesis and the logistic threshold hypothesis (Gail, 2006). These topics are directly relevant to Almeida’s (2007) research.  In fact, Almeida offered twelve distinct approaches to assessing ELL students, acknowledging the need for multiple and distinct forms of assessment.  Almeida argued non-native speakers of English have a host of special linguistic, cognitive, pedagogical, and cultural needs that are currently being ignored and neglected in the rush to impose traditional methods of assessment.  Even schools that cannot apply all of Almeida’s twelve forms of assessment, perhaps due to the lack of trained personnel, can still benefit from the insight that assessment of non-native speakers simply fails to differentiate between linguistic, cognitive, and cultural forms of competence in what is being tested (Almeida, 2007). Thus, more sensitive and multifarious means of assessment of this population are called for (Almedia, 2007).

            Despite differences in their agendas, methodologies, and emphases, Guskey (2007), O’Connor (2007), and Almeida (2007) agreed that assessment is an indispensable part of the educational enterprise, a tool without which neither effective learning nor effective teaching of ELLs can take place. However, each researcher has also identified nagging problems with traditional approaches to assessment. One concept that applies to each of the researchers’ orientations is that of holism. Guskey asked teachers to consider student assessment as part of a larger context, one that includes teacher assessment; O’Connor asked teachers to approach grading as an exercise in breaking down a single grade into a series of more helpful, more specific measurements that can help the student focus learning; and Almeida asked teachers to consider the drawbacks of any assessment of non-native English speakers that does not take the fuller context of bilingualism into account. Naturally, because of their different focuses, these three researchers provided different suggestions, methodologies, and emphases; but they had a common aim of promoting a more holistic understanding and practice of assessment, especially the assessment of ELLs.

Specific Assessment Issues

Assessing learning outcomes for ELLs is a major challenge in the literature. Saenz and Huer (2003) commented that using less-biased assessments is a major trend in LEP (limited English proficiency) and bilingual programming because standardized tests typically do not capture adequate information regarding these students and their achievement. Alternative testing strategies are therefore highly recommended. For example, De la Colina, Parker, Hasbrouck, and Lara-Alecio (2001) called for early intensive reading intervention programs targeting bilingual classrooms and for teacher involvement in developing appropriate and culturally sensitive curriculum and study materials.

Culatta, Culatta, Frost, and Buzzell (2004, p. 89) commented on the increased availability of custom-made digital media and its usefulness in bilingual programs. Computer-assisted instruction is seen by these researchers as valuable in assisting LEP students to master basic skills needed for literacy. Similar views were advanced by Ricco, Amado, Jimenez, Hasbrouck, and Imhoff (2001, p.583), who called for the development of a tool for measuring phonological processing in Spanish.  Hardin (2001, p. 539), along with Varghese and Stritikus (2005), addressed questions related to vital cognitive reading strategies, language policy negotiation, and implications for teacher education in the bilingual arena. These researchers suggested that teacher education and classroom programming for LEP students should focus on cognitive processing issues in order to assist students in achieving maximum positive learning outcomes.

            Under the unstructured informal assessment, the teacher can adopt several techniques. The students should be given topics to write on, and such writing samples should be assessed based on their creativity (Alanis, 2003). The students should be given a certain amount of homework each day, which will be written work that can be gathered in order to carry out evaluation (Alanis, 2003). Student journals can be assessed on a weekly basis to determine how well the students are grasping concepts from this learning process (Alanis, 2003). Games are a challenging method for improving the skills of a student in a range of areas such as spelling, math, naming categories of people or objects (Alanis, 2003). The speed at which an ELL student’s oral work is improving can be assessed by holding regular debates that will help the teacher to evaluate students’ presentation skills in their ability to understand and present a concept. According to Alanis, another technique that works with a range of children and is also helpful is called brainstorming where students feel free to contribute because there is no judgment or criticism. Another technique that can be adopted either in written or oral form is story retelling (Alanis, 2003). Alanis stated that story retelling is a good way of testing a student’s ability to not only understand a concept, but also present it in his or her own manner. It also tests the student’s language-based abilities. A creative bent can be added to this by asking the child to tell a story of his cultural heritage (Alanis, 2003). Lastly, a naturalistic way of addressing the students about their progress is to make records in the form of notes at the end of each day (Alanis, 2003). More specifically, teachers of ELL students can plan structured techniques for assessment.  McKenna, Stahl, and Stahl (2008) recommended the use of a checklist to specify desired student behaviors during the progression of the curriculum. The items on the checklist should be specific area objectives that will help determine the rate or degree of progression of a child (McKenna, Stahl, & Stahl, 2008).

Societal Context

Some theorists have argued that non-white parents who do not themselves speak English as a native language are more cynical about, or indifferent to, the value of education than are white or Asian parents (Gilborn, 2008). Some non-white parents have told researchers that education is unlikely to raise the status of their child; others, especially under-educated parents, have expressed the concern that education will somehow turn their children against them (Gilborn, 2008). Finally, scholars have noted that cultures in which English is deeply embedded

prioritize early childhood development, such that children are systematically exposed to learning opportunities from an early age and expected to do well (Minkov, 2011). Families that do not speak English as a native language might lack the money to purchase educational materials for younger children, and parents in such families might also lack the time for interaction, given that many fathers and mothers in non-English-speaking communities are working multiple jobs solely to survive (Tillman, 2009).         

Nationally, the school climate problem has numerous components (Heymann & Cassola, 2012. Schools, governments, communities, students, and parents each have some form of responsibility for the problem (Manvell, 2012). Luna (2009) argued that some non-native-English-speaking students themselves feel limited and frustrated by schools and “wreak havoc” (p. 24) as an expression of their negative feelings, whereas other students simply stay home. Sugai and Horner (2008) raised the point that problem students, including non-native-English-speaking students, are not only responding to a sense of disappointment with schools, but are also acting out the frustrations associated with being raised in dysfunctional, poor, or otherwise socially-vulnerable households.  Turtel (2008) argued that the root of the problem lies in policy. The American fabric has, according to Turtel, been unraveling because of the increasing distance between rich and poor; the persistent divisions between class, race, and gender; and a government that steadily lowers funding for education and diverts more money to healthcare and defense. On the other hand, scholars such as Handler, Rey, Connell, Their, Feinberg, and Putnam (2009) have argued that the problem is more local than national. While conceding that the federal government has failed, in many respects, to fund and lead education appropriately, Handler et al. argued that individual schools have been able to improve their climates even in the absence of funding and policy guidance (Parrett & Budge, 2012 offered a book-length compendium of case studies of schools of precisely this kind).  Therefore, while scholars are agreed that American school climate remains a problem, there are differing views on who bears the responsibility for this problem, with some scholars (such as Turtel, 2008) implicating American society as a whole and other scholars (such as Handler et al., 2009) focusing on the problem at a local level. While there is an extensive body of literature apportioning the blame for the current state of American school climate, other scholars have focused more attention on what the significance of the problem is (for example, in terms of academic achievement and school efficiency) and on how it can be resolved, exemplified by the approach taken by Parrett and Budge.

The systems theory approach to ELL student underachievement does not assume that climate only is the independent variable that predicts the dependent variable of student behavior (Finn & Voelkl, 2009). However, the assumption among many school climate theorists is that most non-native-English-speaking students are predisposed to attend school regularly, and that failures in climate are the major determinant of why such students do not attend or perform well (Fantuzzo, Grim, & Hazan, 2009). Behavioral theorists, on the other hand, assign a more important role to students’ own decisions, actions, and cognitions as determinants of academic underachievement (Kearney, 2009). There is some common ground between these two theoretical bases; school climate theorists agree that variations in student behavior is an important predictor in its own right (Lauchlan, 2009), and behavioral theorists realize that the environment of the school is an important feedback mechanism in determining student academic underperformance (Ladner, 2009). However, behavioral theorists go further than school climate theorists, in two ways. First, behavioral theorists suggest that the environment that helps to form a child’s school attendance behavior also includes the home, the street, and other locales within society (LaVant, Anderson, & Tiggs, 2009). 

Student Perception of Incentives and pressure

Some scholars have argued that non-native-English-speaking students are aware that they have reduced chances to succeed economically in American society, and therefore act to minimize their involvement with school (Graham & Williams, 2009). The essence of this argument is that non-native-English-speaking students make a rational cost-benefit calculation about school, and realize that being better students makes them unlikely to succeed after school (Graham & Williams, 2009). There is in fact statistical evidence that education level, regardless of race, is highly predictive of economic success in American society (Gomm, 2008); however, according to some psychological researchers, non-native-English-speaking students remain genuinely convinced that school achievement will not avail them in later life (Weinstein, 2009). In some studies, non-white students, including non-native-English-speaking students, have been observed to avoid doing homework, volunteering in class, and taking other academically-productive actions because of their fear of seeming like white people or people from the majority linguistic culture (Stinson, 2011).

Theoretical Framework

Many researchers believe learner-instructor interaction for ELLs is essential. According to Moore and Kearsley (1996), “the instructor’s role is to present content and then maintain the learners’ motivation and interest, while assisting them as they interact with the content.”  The need for individualized attention by the instructor is key because it addresses motivation, needs and performance of every learner. Learners’ application to content is also a key factor in performance. The instructor’s response to the application provides necessary feedback concerning their achievements and where they need to improve.

Studies based on cultural differences concepts show that the academic performance of students from a different cultural background from where they are studying from, as is the case with ELLs, will do better if the instructors create a friendly and familiar learning environment (Jordan, 1987). One way to do this is to create an environment that provides cultural compatibility, which according to (Jordan, 1987) is to modify classroom instructions to match the home culture of students.

            Rossi and Montgomery’s the seminal theory: Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994), in the seminal theory, outline various elements that determine a students’ success. The theory suggests that unless societal context and quality of home and community environment are designed to compliment a student’s efforts, chances of success are minimal. The quality of school climate and curriculum, student abilities at birth, and student perception of incentives and pressures to engage in school activities also play a significant role in a student’s ability to achieve and maintain a good performance. Home, school and societal environments however, must complement each other. When this fails, achievements made by the a good home environment can be frustrated by a poor school environment, and vice versa.

Not surprising, previous research has shown a significant relationship between achievement and improved attendance and engagement, both of the student and teachers, and the various environments they interact with (Finn & Rock, 1997). After children join enroll in school, their natural motivation does not persist for long and is not enough to keep them there. Research also reveals that the level of disengagement goes up as children progress to middle and high school (Brewster & Fager, 2000). As they move from elementary school, they lose interest in classroom activities and their response to class interactions decreases. Rossi and Montegomery (1994) cite that educational disengagement starts as early as third grade.

Strategies that promote engagement must involve an interaction between the home environment and the classroom. For example, a student who struggles to finish their class tasks on time because they are slow or lack interest can be allowed to complete them at home with the proper support.  Rossi and Montegomery (1994) also note that children with low levels of engagement are more likely to involve themselves in disruptive behavior, have higher levels of absenteeism and have a higher risk of dropping out of school. The need to increase the level of engagement between home and school environments is therefore, critical.

Sociocultural theory: There are a number of ways in which teachers can help students develop language knowledge from the socio-cultural perspective. One such way, is related to the sociocultural theory (SCT) and is particularly suited to ELLs. Sociocultural theory is based on the work of Lev ygotsky, a Russian philosopher and educator. According to the theory, learning comes before development, language is one of the main tools of thought, and medication in imperative for learning. It also presumes that social interaction is the platform through which learning and development occurs, and the Zone Proximal Development is an imperative space for learning to occur (Walqui, 2006).  Vygotsk argues against traditional psychology, which presumes development must exist before learning. The theory also argues against the presumption that learning can only happen after a learner can prove they have a mature mental function. Creating contexts for language learning in the Zone of Proximal Development occurs in part through social interactions. These social interactions occur at the school and home environments, and it is important that the two do not conflict.

Discursive Identity Theory: The discursive identity theory involves the study of how other people may view and define other individuals. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, esteem needs, which are largely developed at the home environment, play a role in students’ behavior and how they perform in school. These needs include the desire to achieve certain aspects of life and to be appraised and held in high regard by other people. In this case, whatever others perceive of a given individual tends to be an important need for human beings than simply interacting with these individuals.

The way students view themselves determines the motives of the various actions that they may engage in and the efforts and commitment that they may direct towards such actions in the view of achieving certain outcomes. The discursive identity theory can thus be used to determine and understand the decision making process among struggling students concerning various aspects in their curriculum. The results would enable teachers and parents design appropriate solutions customized to meet the needs of different students. For example, when a teacher is aware that a student struggles with self-esteem, the teacher would not pick on the student in class to answer question on a subject the student is struggling with.

It is important to note that students tend to look for different ways in which they can manipulate and influence the interpretations of other peers and teachers regarding them. Thus, they adopt different actions aimed at influencing the discursive identity type developed by others concerning them (Hall, 2007). These actions may include class participation, the way they approach and complete various assignments, and the decisions they make when they are expected to carry out a given activity such as reading a text in class. In addition, the efforts of such a student in influencing the perception of others may not alter the ultimate judgment and categorization that the others may develop concerning them as students.

Through development of an understanding of the type of discursive identity, that struggling students try to achieve is essential in explaining how they behave whenever they are asked to carry out any activity such as reading out a text or their varied efforts in trying to appear intelligent and better in their academics. As such, through analyzing discursive identity, teachers can be able to understand the various behavioral practices as posed by struggling students, and thus alter the instructions they give in the classes so as to offer more support to these students and to facilitate an all round achievement of the desired discursive identity (Hall, 2007). By all round achievement, it is meant that such individuals should be able to adopt strategies that help them improve in all areas.

By observing the actions of struggling students, with reference to discursive identity, an individual can be able to recognize that struggling students also have multiple goals that make them complex people. Thus, discursive identity disproves the idea that struggling students are demotivated, an aspect that makes them to engage less in learning activities (Hall, 2007). The theory develops a way through which researchers and teachers can identify the various ways in which struggling students exhibit their care for learning, an aspect that would enable them to identify the various aspects that are of importance to these students. Through understanding the way in which struggling students view curriculum content, perceive themselves, and the way they desire others to perceive them, educators can be able to come up with various strategies that would enable them to effectively respond to the needs of such students.

It is important to note that when students are supported by their teachers to develop strong egos and high self-esteems, they achieve feelings of worth, self-confidence, capability, and strength, which enable such individuals to attain even higher goals. On the other hand, when an individual’s self-esteem is thwarted, they may develop psychopathology in the form of inferiority complexes, insecurity, and helplessness (Hall, 2007). Such individuals whose esteem needs are not adequately met tend to become discouraged and withdraw in most cases. It is very important for teachers of struggling students to direct all efforts towards helping them to attain their discursive identity, as this would grant them the gratification they desire to aim at even higher goals that would facilitate their improvement in terms of academic performance. The discursive identity theory also enables teachers to identify the various struggling students who have already given up and do not care about the views of other people concerning them. This would help them to disburse the most appropriate measures to help such individuals to improve their self-esteem.

Warm demanding theory: Warm demanding theory, which rests on the empirical detection of the so-called Galatea Effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968), is that students improve to the extent that their mentors—whether teachers or parents—combine love with expectation. The warm-demanded—whom Ladson-Billings (1994) called the dream-keeper—is a figure who must balance on what can be the thin line between affection and expectation. Too much warmth and the student will feel that he or she can slack off without penalty; too much demand and the student will tune out, burn out, or revolt. Finding the balance to compliment and reprimand a student both at home and in school is, therefore, imperative. When the two environments present different sets of rules and expectations, as student may be confused and can condemn one based on more liberal standards set in one. For example, if a student has very strict teachers and extremely liberal parents as far as academic performance is concerned, they can interpret it to mean their teacher has a problem.

Typically, warm demanding theory has been applied to teachers, as in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) seminal early study, but the theory also applies to parents and even to entire social contexts. If the social context of a child does not require excellence while providing warm support, the child is more likely to fail in the classroom (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Some theorists have argued that a systems theory approach can be taken to understanding how social context contributes to ELL student performance (Foehrenbach, 2009). Theorists who apply the systems approach have argued that ELL student underachievement is at least partly a response to what is happening in school or at home, or to what the two environments are failing to do to engage each other (Ford & Sutphen, 2009). According to these theorists, focusing on ELL student underachievement as a specific outcome is equally important as understanding how the home and school environment relate to create an atmosphere that encourages better performance (Fornwalt, 2009).


The main purpose of the literature review has been to discuss and analyze what previous scholars have written about each of the major predictors of academic performance in the Rossi and Montgomery (1994) model.

The Rossi and Montgomery (1994) model of student achievement postulated the following main predictors of student achievement:

•           Societal context

•           Quality of home and community environment

•           Quality of school climate and curriculum

•           Student abilities at birth

•           Student perception of incentives and pressures to engage in school activities

What is not clear from the literature is exactly how these variables interact with each other to lead to student performance. Rossi and Montgomery (1994) suggested a specific series of interactions (see Figure 1; Appendix), but other scholars feel that positing a specific pathway to academic success is highly difficult (LaVant et al., 2009; Tillman, 2009). The fact that there are so many variables that can contribute to the academic success of an ELL student, and that students have distinct personalities and live in distinct contexts, can make the task of trying to precisely quantify the process of ELL student achievement highly problematic. Nonetheless, the main predictive factors discussed by Rossi and Montgomery appear to have a basis in the literature on ELL students. In other words, each of the main predictors in the Rossi and Montgomery model has been recognized as a predictor of ELL student achievement.

Figure 1. (see Appendix) Rossi and Montgomery (1994) Model of Student Success. This model was based on a meta-review of three decades of literature in student success. This graphic, and Rossi and Montgomery’s accompanying book, were released to the public by the U.S. Department of Education.

If the Rossi and Montgomery (1994) model is accurate—at least in terms of its categorization of the main predictors of ELL student performance in Figure 1—then there are important methodological implications for any study of ELL student performance.

First, since there are so many variables involved in determining the success or failure of the individual ELL student, data must be collected from a multitude of sources. Students, parents, administrators, and teachers all have a role to play in casting light on various performance precursors in the Rossi and Montgomery (1994) model. For example, students might be the best sources of data in terms of student perception of incentives and pressures to engage in school activities, while parents might be a better source of data for the quality of the home environment. Teachers and administrators also can serve as data sources for school climate, curriculum, and other variables. If student achievement is genuinely the end result of a complex series of interactions based on the Rossi and Montgomery variables, then it is justified to gather data from as many participants as possible in order to apply the model to actual ELL students. A methodological procedure for doing so will be specified in the next chapter of the study. 

The problem of ELL student underachievement is clearly multifaceted and complex, as has been demonstrated in the literature review. For this reason, it is all the more important to design a methodology capable of gathering and analyzing data that are relevant to ELL student performance.



            The purpose of this qualitative case study is to draw upon the perceptions of teachers, administrators, and parents to determine the respective contributions of home quality, classroom quality, and home-classroom interaction quality to the decline of ELL students’ underperformance in reading and mathematics. The study will apply Rossi and Montgomery’s (1994) seminal theory to the problem of ELL student underperformance through Yin’s (2009) case study principles. The purpose of this chapter is to describe and defend the means used to answer three research questions that were designed to gather data capable of generating insight into the reasons behind ELL student performance decline at the schools:

RQ1: What is the role of home quality decline in the observed decline of 4th-grade ELL students’ academic performance decline at the two schools?

RQ2: What is the role of classroom quality decline in the observed decline of 4th-grade ELL students’ academic performance decline at the two schools?

RQ3: What is the role of home-classroom interaction quality decline in the observed decline of 4th-grade ELL students’ academic performance decline at the two schools?

Research Design

            The study is a case study. According to Yin (2009), case studies are designed to examine a research phenomenon “in depth and within its real-life context” (p. 18). In educational research, the real-life context of the case study often focuses on a single school or in a limited number of schools (Yin, 2009). In this kind of approach, the researcher examines the problem at the level of the individual case and does not focus on the generalizability of the problem, or solutions to the problem, beyond the case (Yin, 2009). The case study approach thus grants researchers the liberty to examine and solve local problems by paying attention to local contexts (Yin, 2009). Given that the identified problem exists in two schools with a specific and shared approach to ELL pedagogy, it is appropriate to employ a case study methodology to explore the problem. This design is the most appropriate one for the study because the focus of the study is on a local case. The study can be classified as a multiple case study because of the use of two individual case studies to explore the same phenomenon that of 4th-grade ELL students’ performance decline. 

Population and Sampling

The setting for this research study is two public elementary schools in a state in the southern United States. The population consists of (a) TESOLs, (b) content teachers, (c) administrators, and (d) ELL parents associated with the two schools. After acquiring a letter from the IBR and permission from the school administration, TESOLs, content teachers and administrators in the two schools will be approached with a request to participate in the study.

Recruitment for parents will be done by using a social network and online forums between parents to reach out to targeted participants. The snowball technique will be used to reach the targeted number of participants required for the study. In this technique, parents familiar with the study will be used to reach out to more parents who will then be directed to the research’s weblink. To narrow down the number, the participants will be contacted on the phone by fetching their numbers from the school with permission from the management.

Data Collection

The research methodology applied in this research project will be designed to achieve the set objectives of the paper. It included study of books, academic journals, online articles, past projects by different authors, and government statistics on performance for ELLs. Information from these sources will provide the study with secondary data.

Primary data will be gathered through here different sources. The first will be through a semi-structured interview protocol designed to capture participants’ perspectives pertaining to the research questions of the study. All interviewees from groups named in the population and sampling section will be presented with adequate explanations and guidelines for the study. They will also be required to fill and sign a consent form agreeing to voluntary participation. This is necessary to ensure voluntary participation, which is one of the paper’s ethical considerations. The instrument of this part of the study will be a set of open-ended and qualitative interview questions presented in Appendix A.

The sample population will be made up of the heads of schools, two other administrators from each school, 10 parents, five content teachers and five TESOLs from each of the two schools. This method of data collection will be necessary in order to gather specific information. “Using semi-structured questionnaires allows a broad scope of answers and sufficient latitude for further questioning on specific responses” (Singh and Naurang, 1996, p. 1). Questions will be closed at the initial stage of the interviews and opened later to allow more in-depth discussions with the interviewees.

The second source of primary data will the two schools’ publicly-available student performance data, which will be used to confirm to confirm or falsify already established hypothesis in the research. A third source will be the two schools’ annual memos on ELL student performance. This information will enable the study establish the type of interaction there is between the schools, the students and parents or guardians. The aim of the data collection part of this study is to have exploratory, descriptive and confirmatory data.

Data Analysis

Analysis of the interviews will take place by Clark Moustakas’ (1994) three-step model. Even though Moustakas has been associated with phenomenology, his approach to coding can be, and has been, used by non-phenomenological researchers (Van Benschoten, 2008). Additionally, Yin (2009), considered the authority on case studies, has argued that case studies do not require a specific form of data analysis, and that it is necessary to import other forms of data analysis for case studies. For both of these reasons, Moustakas’s analytical procedures are appropriate for this study.

The first step in the procedure, horizontalization, refers to the researcher’s duty to re-examine and evaluate all of the collected data before starting data analysis. The means of data horizontalization that will be employed by this study is line-by-line coding (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2008). In this approach, the researcher annotates all of the transcribed data, which has two functions. First, line-by-line coding compels the researcher to look at all of the gathered data, not just at the data the researcher feels to be most relevant to the study, or most confirmatory of the researcher’s own perceptions and biases. Second, line-by-line coding is a means of acquainting the researcher with larger themes in the data—a process that is known as thematic clustering (Moustakas, 1994). By examining and annotating all of the data, a researcher can make inferences about themes that recur in the data. These themes then become organizational foci for the reporting and discussion of results; in other words, thematic clusters are a form of sense-making that allow patterns to emerge from the mass of gathered data.

            The third step in the Moustakas (1994) model is data synthesis, which begins immediately after thematic clustering is complete. In data collection, the researcher is very close to the data; the focus at this stage is working with individual study subjects or focus groups to gather data, and not to try to understand the data’s applicability to the research questions and research problems of the study. In thematic clustering, the researcher takes a step back from the data in order to isolate themes that cut horizontally across the narratives. In data analysis, or what Moustakas referred to as data synthesis, the researcher takes yet another step back and attempts to generate a single explanatory framework from the thematic clusters. In data analysis, the researcher is essentially answering the research questions with reference to the thematic clusters; the clusters are analyzed in such a way as to draw conceptual inferences between the gathered data and the research questions. Thus, the Moustakas process of working with data proceeds from the highly specific to the highly general; the researcher begins the study immersed in individual narratives and concludes the study by looking for general themes, theories, and explanations that emerge from the data (Moustakas, 1994).

            The three-step coding method is the most appropriate method to analyze the data for two reasons. First, the three-step method, first introduced by Moustakas (1994), is now considered a seminal coding technique (Creswell, 2009). Second, the three-step method is supported by NVivo, the qualitative analysis software that will be utilized in this study . 

Negotiating Access and Researcher’s Role

            Access will be negotiated by contacting the principals of both target schools and formally requesting permission to conduct research. The researcher’s role will be that of interviewer; no other form of observation or data collection will take place. As a junior administrator at the school, the researcher has access to the principal, the teachers, and the parents. Each potential participant in the study will be sent a recruitment letter. 

Methodological Assumptions and Limitations

            Case studies are limited by their focus on highly specific settings. What is learned from such a specific context might not be applicable to other contexts (Yin, 2009), thus limiting the ability to generate state-wide recommendations on the basis of study data. Another limitation of the study is that it supports only a speculative linkage between home quality, classroom quality, and home-classroom interaction quality and ELL students’ performance decline. Only a quantitative study can objectively verify whether these variables are linked. However, according to Yin (2009), qualitative case studies are also capable of generating explanatory insights into the links between variables.

In case study research, researchers benefit from spending extensive time with research subjects (Yin, 2009). One of the limitations of this study is that the researcher will not be able to spend more than two hours each with each of the participants of the study, possibility limiting the richness of data that are obtained. Another limitation is that data synthesis might be rendered more difficult because of what might be the highly different perspectives of the participants (who include students, parents, teachers, and administrators).

            A final limitation of the study is that the researcher is likely to be familiar with at least some of the study participants. According to Englander (2012), personal familiarity with interview subjects does not discredit or invalidate qualitative research, as long as (a) the focus of the research is on the phenomenon of interest and not on the interviewer-participant relationship and (b) the relationship between interviewer and participant is acknowledged and discussed in the methodology of the study. 


            Pitney and Parker (2010) defined trustworthiness as having three components. The first, which is credibility, is the “the plausibility of a study’s findings” (Pitney & Parker, 2010, p. 63). For data and information to be trustworthy, it also has to be transferable, defined as  “the ability to apply the findings of a study to similar environments” (Pitney & Parker, 2010, p. 63). The third element is dependability, which according to (Pitney & Parker, 2010, p. 63) is “the ability to learn and understand what is really occurring”.

            One way of addressing each of these kinds of trustworthiness is to provide research privacy.   All participant details will be disguised in the study, preventing the participants’ identities from being inferred and therefore giving participants more incentive to speak freely and at length, qualities that will lead to greater credibility and dependability. Although the transferability of the study is limited by the case study format, in which only two schools will be studied, the use of several interview subjects and distinct means of data collection could ensure that the findings of the study might be more applicable to other schools in the state.

Ethical Considerations and Procedures

            Several ethical issues are expected to arise in the course of completing this research project. One of the most fundamental principles that will be followed in this survey is voluntarism participation. The principle will be adhered to by ensuring that no participant will be coerced to participate in a research or give false information. A participant will also required to give consent before their identity is revealed if there is a need to do so, although for this project, anonymity will be the principle of anonymity will be adhered to and participants’ privacy will be guarded.

            According to Taylor (2005), during a research project, ethics also demand that the process must not subject the respondents to any danger or harm, a factor that the survey will take very seriously. A researcher is supposed to apply the principle of anonymity to protect them from consequences of revealing the information they do. It is also the respondent’s right to be treated with respect and dignity during the study. These ethical issues are expected to be adhered to when any organization or individual is conducting its research. The case will be the same in this paper.

In addition, no data will be collected until receiving IRB approval. All digitally-recorded data will be stored on a password-protected laptop to which only the researcher has access. All data will be destroyed five years after the approval of the study, as required by law.  An important ethical consideration is that of balance of power. ELL students might feel as if they have to participate in the study, given their dependent position as students. Creating informed consent forms in students’ native languages could help to assuage such concerns. 


            The purpose of this section of the study was to define and defend a means of gathering data to answer the research questions posed by the study. A multiple case study approach (Yin, 2009) will be the main methodological orientation of the study. The focus of the study is on interviewing teachers, administrators, and parents in order to learn more about changes in home quality, class quality, and home-class interaction quality that could help to explain why 4th-grade ELL students in the two research sites experienced marked performance declines over the past several years. Data will be gathered through a combination of interviews and document analysis of both performance statistics and school performance memos. Data will be analyzed through Moustakas’s (1994) three-step coding process.