Not Safe in the Harbor

I recently began a new position as an Academic Coach at a middle school. At the end of my second week the principal asked me to present at our next staff meeting on an aspect of NCLB entitled “Safe Harbor”. As the Academic Coach my responsibilities include professional development and I love the idea of presenting ways to differentiate instruction, engage students and classroom management, but learning about “Safe Harbor” made me feel anything but “safe” when it came to presenting in front of a room full of middle school teachers.

I work at a school that is in Year 5 of Program Improvement status. What that means is for over 5 years we have not met our Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO) on the yearly state test. The state determines the annual measurable objective (AMO) we must reach in order to show students are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward the goal of all students reaching proficiency in English language arts and mathematics. As a result of “Program Improvement” status the district has moved teachers to other school sites, extended the school day and replaced the principal as part of restructuring the school site.

As I began my research on “Safe Harbor” I was actually quiet surprised to learn another way we could meet academic benchmarks. If the number of non-proficient students in a particular subgroup decreased by 10% from the previous year we would meet “Safe Harbor” target. Our school could exit “Program Improvement” status if we meet this target for two consecutive years. Thus if you have 100 students in the English language learner subgroup and 80% or 80 of the students are not proficient only 10% or 8 additional students would need to move to proficient in order to meet Safe Harbor.

Although this seemed like a simple calculation the complexity lies when you start comparing groups of students from one year to the next. What is 10% with one particular group could be significantly more with another. For example of the 200 seventh grade students who took the 2010 test, about 50% were proficient in ELA. Thus 100 students were not proficient and 10 additional students would need to move to proficient. However of the incoming seventh grade students their previous year scores revealed only 40% proficient. 120 students were not proficient, so you see the calculation is much greater than moving just ten percent.

There is a danger in comparing different groups of students from one year to the next and if we are going to look at data we should really look at growth. School growth should be examined by where students begin and determining if there is growth at the end of the year. We are oversimplifying this process by making group comparisons from one year to the next. As a mom of two I know what works for one of my boys will not just work for the other and although I may teach them the same way their progress and “growth” will be significantly different. As I wrapped up my presentation for “Safe Harbor” I wondered what kind of response I would receive from middle school math teachers who are probably still in awe that fifth grade mathematics determines if schools are making progress.


  1. Reading both blogs from Dr. Dickerson it is obvious she understands the challenges ELL students face in primary and secondary academics. From standardized testing to disparity in education between affluent and poor she gets it. But she also goes one step further by actually suggesting viable solutions. Kudos.

    That said what can I add? A son of a foreign immigrant and who lived in a foreign country for the first two years of his life and spoke a foreign language before English?

    I am just a student who failed who miserably in primary school. I could point blame to many reasons for my lack of academic performance when I was young; some my own choices, some institutional and other reasons a result of a mixed-race home-life, but for the purpose of this thread I will not. However I will say that language was not an issue in school. I learned to speak English, because it was forbidden to do so otherwise. The reward was no punishment.

    So what other ways are there to provide "Justice for English Language Learners, and address the diverse needs of English learners?" My gut tells me to scrap the entire system and go to Singapore or Shanghai to see how (and why) their educational systems are rated higher, but Dickerson has some suggestions that should be given some considerable thought.

    For example, Dickerson said “tracking is the culprit” that accounts for the two percent rating of Latinos in the sciences, and that “track placement was found to be a better predictor of English learners academic performance than proficiency in English”. This seems reasonable to me, but more so does her statement that “successful ELL programs take into consideration school and community culture, teacher professional development, quality of teaching, intensity of instruction, and most importantly students' needs.” Indeed. School districts, educators and administrators who are proactive in their community to all cultures within that community are bound to be more successful in developing meaningful relationships with students, parents and community residents. I posit it the cause and effect from Dickerson’s thesis is addressing ELL student needs more efficiently, while developing teacher professionalism and cultural awareness. This must be the gateway into understanding the Developmental Learning Continuum, and in taking the first step towards having a classroom conducive to environmental stimuli that evokes a change in the ELL student via their behavior and that of the behavior of non-ELL students. Dickerson mentions pairing and grouping students, both of which would benefit from an interchange of languages. This is one way to promote student engagement while demonstrating to the ELL student the native students also do not know their native tongue. This is an equalizing affect that puts the ELL student on par with native English speakers. It is also my experience that students enjoy helping other students and learning together. It's a win-win.

    Dickerson also points out that tracking, standardized testing and a simplified curriculum is “oppressive” to the learning environment, which in turn affects student’s behavior regarding purpose and engagement in meaningful learning. If school districts and their administrators see this but do nothing, it’s no wonder why America is behind other nations in quality education.

    I am of the opinion Dickerson's suggestions for reversing the current trends regarding ELL students and their graduation rates is a must do. She has the sound theories for solutions, now only if she had the ears (and minds) of the school policy makers.

    1. Thank you Felix. I agree that ELL's should not be penalized for being a second language learner. We need to find ways we can support these students and end cultural isolation.

  2. As you read the information in each post, you will use links to other websites, view video demonstrations, and look at samples on the Internet to learn about each of the concepts and resources.

    professional development