Uncharted Tesol

What Happens to ESL Programs When the Money Dries Up?

A Personal Story 

This blog entry grew out of my experience of working for a community-based ESL program that closed when its funding was not renewed.  My disappointment that the program, which the students found beneficial and useful, was not continued forced me to examine the shifting priorities in ESL funding. I was alarmed by what I discovered.

Recently a dramatic shift in the priorities of many funders has put additional stress on community-based ESL, a field that always operated under considerable constraints. The new outcomes demanded by many funders go well beyond consistent attendance and improved command of English, although those were once the primary benchmarks used to measure many programs.  Now there are new demands from government and foundation funders alike that programs must demonstrate “higher” outcomes, such as securing a high school equivalency diploma or new job or job promotion. In many cases these outcomes are out of sync with the goals of students and program founders. Unfortunately, these new elevated expectations also provide a rationale for funders to withhold vital monies. In some cases this means the end of programs.

Last year I worked in a community-based ESL program. I taught beginners mainly from Spanish and Arabic speaking countries four nights a week at the Cypress Hills Development Corp in Brooklyn.  At the end of our final spring semester I and the other teachers learned that the program had been denied funding and would not continue in the 2018-2019 school year. I was not privy to most of the details why our program could not continue. However, we teachers were told that the funders were demanding higher outcomes than the program had used traditionally. The administrators mentioned that the funders now wished to see higher rates of such achievements as securing jobs, promotions, GEDs or college attendance. In my view these outcomes were unrealistic and

disturbingly out of alignment with our students’ own aims.

For instance, our students included many mothers and fathers who did not receive much if any formal education in their countries of origin.  Their primary goal was to be able to help their children with homework. In my experience this is a very common aim. If the funders had demanded to see rates of improved homework assignments by the children of our students we probably could have demonstrated successful outcomes in many cases.  But that was not one of the new outcomes sought.

These parents also were eager to learn English to conduct daily life activities, including speaking with doctors, neighbors, teachers, and their own children. Here once more the funders’ new outcome objectives would not match the goals of our students. Yet most of the students achieved a higher level of English for everyday activities.  Once again the students frequently achieved the outcomes they desired and that demonstrably improved their lives.

To give an even more worrisome example, we also had undocumented students who were under major emotional and legal stress. In their cases it might have been catastrophic to pursue such outcomes as job promotions or enrollment in degree programs. That is because achieving those objectives would give them a higher profile that could make them more noticeable to the authorities. In my experience these students go about their lives as quietly as possible. They are experts in not “making a splash.” For undocumented students the outcomes sought by the funders could have resulted in great harm, including deportation to unsafe countries of origin.

Unfortunately, I have sometimes been forced to wonder if the new objectives are being sought purposefully to exclude undocumented and other marginalized students.  I have no hard data to support that speculation but I can conclude that the new objectives certainly align with the articulated aim of the Trump administration to make it difficult and unpleasant for the undocumented to remain in the U.S.

To give a final example, the new outcomes sought can easily lead to discrimination against senior citizens like the ones in the Cypress Hills program. These students spent many decades working and raising families and previously had little time to focus on improving their English. They had planned to use their retirement time to do so. However, because they were already out of the workforce and generally not interested in pursuing a GED or entering a college, they would be ineligible for programs with the new stiffer outcomes standards. What were the actual goals of the older students? They were in general interested in staying mentally active and learning more English. Again in the case of this program the students handily met their own goals. In fact, they were among our best students because they had more time for homework than younger students. Unfortunately, these students, although highly dedicated and reliable, would be of no interest to the funders due to their advanced age. This is a case of the funders’ objectives being outright ageist.

My Conclusions

It is suspect and profoundly unfair for some funders to demand ever higher and higher achievements from a student population that often had limited previous education and frequently struggles just to maintain itself. These funders appear to be confounding the needs and goals of non-English speaking immigrants who arrive in the US as adults with those of their more advantaged, first generation children. The tougher new standards also smack of a “more bang for the buck” mentality more appropriate to business schools or industry.  They also illustrate a profound disconnect on the part of the funders from the realities of immigrant life in poorer neighborhoods.

The demand for higher outcomes threatens to remove one of the basic supports of immigrant life in the U.S.  At this point we are at risk of seeing community-based ESL transformed into a field that caters only to the most youthful and upwardly mobile students who possess secure legal status. In my anecdotal experience, that would reduce enrollments in many programs to a fraction of typical levels. Or, as was the case at Cypress Hills, these policy objectives can lead to programs being shuttered. This again may be the unstated true objective, but it too is a deeply objectionable one that fits much too neatly into the profoundly anti-immigrant Trump Administration narrative.

On a more personal note, I have concluded that these changes require a direct response from teachers. In the current political and funding environments, community-based ESL teachers must do much more than just improve our classroom techniques. Because the funding for community-based ESL programs is in a state of tremendous flux we teachers are forced to focus on funding and the politics and economics of the field. If we do not do so, the field could contract sharply or even collapse. This threat is changing and expanding the very definition of our jobs.

Speaking only for myself, I have concluded that it is necessary to learn MUCH MORE about how individual programs and the field in general are funded. This means learning who and what exactly the available funders are and which outcomes they wish to see. This does not mean simply accepting their stated goals and attempting to meet them.

Rather than acquiesce meekly to the funders’ priorities in all cases, it would be better to begin a dialogue with some traditional government and foundation funders about the consequences of their new priorities. If they are intractable in their objectives, then it will become necessary to search for alternative sources of funding for community programs.  At this moment I would not rule out such non-traditional sources of funding as community-based crowd-sourcing appeals.

This is all very new for me and I am hardly presenting myself as an expert on ESL funding, a complex subject that varies considerably from program to program and place to place. I only began to focus on this problem when my old job abruptly ended in June. I am at the beginning of a new phase in my ESL career because we are in a new era in which many community-based programs are under threat if they do not meet inappropriate business school-style outcomes. Unfortunately, these objectives are totally incongruous for a large portion of immigrant students. It is tragic that this is occurring at a time when the immigrant community at large already is under heavy political and personal pressure.


Author’s Biography: Leslie Wines is a graduate of the New School MATESOL program who has taught both within and outside the United States. She has worked for language schools in Chile and Morocco and for a variety of programs in the New York City area. Currently, she is teaching English to foreign business executives in Manhattan. She is a book author and former journalist.

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