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How Did We Get Here? The Dangers of Watering Down Curriculum for Multilingual Students

By Sarah Y. Ko
How Did We Get Here? The Dangers of Watering Down Curriculum for Multilingual Students

I have a few theories as to how we all got here in the first place. What place, you ask? Good question. The place of educational inequity within the same classroom. The place where multilingual students are perpetually behind native speakers in terms of academic achievement because less is expected of them. The place where our good intentions of trying to give students access has led to the watering down of curriculum and the (likely) unintended impacts of educational inequity, lowered student self-esteem, internalized racism, and the disengagement of learners. It's a terrible place to be, and we need to get out as soon as possible.

The 2015 Advocacy in Action report by the National Education Association urges that advocacy is needed to combat "low expectations and watered-down curricula" for multilingual students or English language learners (ELLs). Murphy & Torff (2019) surveyed teachers and found that they support less rigorous curriculum for ELLs than for general education students, which contributes to the achievement gap. In their call to educators to collaborate, Honigsfeld & Dove (2022) stress the importance of ELL teachers co-planning with content teachers to help shift paradigms because they know that teachers' determinations "shape not only what is being taught...but also how it is being taught, where it is being taught, and with whom it is being taught, as well as the rigor or intensity with which it is being taught." The research is there, ringing the alarm for teachers to shift to an asset-based lens when thinking and planning how to teach multilingual students. So, I ask again, how did we get to this place of teaching less rigorous, watered-down content to multilingual students? Perhaps, it’s related to implicit biases that we have.

Theory One: Implicit Bias

When I was a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of Education, I took a course with Dr. Josephine Kim that dove into issues of diversity and inclusion. One activity we were required to complete was the Implicit Associations Test (which you can take here), designed by researchers to reveal our blind spots. For this test, participants are asked to match races to commonly associated biases. The main test measures one's implicit association of European American Children with pleasant words (such as sweet, honest, and sincere) and African American children with unpleasant words (such as disaster, hatred, and rotten). One test category (which looks like it has changed since I took it) assessed the degree to which participants held the bias that Hispanics were less intelligent than Whites. Weyant (2005) studied this belief about Hispanics in 41 college students and concluded that Implicit Associations Test was “both sensitive enough to detect the hypothesized stereotypic belief and a valid test.” At least within the context of the United States, where 44 percent of immigrants have Hispanic or Latino ethnic origins (Lopez & Moslimani, 2022), this stereotype exists, and I wonder whether they may underlie some educators' response to teaching the multilingual children who come from such backgrounds.

I know, it feels terrible to sit in the place of this possibility of us being biased. It’s terribly uncomfortable. At least, it was for me. And it's more than just race we’re talking about here. It's gender, age, ability, weight, sexual orientation...any category or label that you can think of. But if we pretend like the issue doesn't exist or vehemently deny even the possibility of having blind spots because of whatever seemingly justifiable reason (I'm a person of color; I'm anti-racist; my best friend is _____; etc.), what good does that do for anyone? It's called a blind spot for a reason. Just because we can't see our biases does not mean they don't exist.

Having implicit biases does not mean you are a terrible human being. It means you've been raised in a society that perpetuates said biases and that you've been affected by it. Yet, we still have a responsibility to do something about it. So before rushing into a place of comfort, take a moment to sit with the discomfort and consider:

  • What biases do you have?
  • How will knowing your biases affect how you plan your lessons, assessments, and interventions?
  • What would change about how you design your classroom environment, set the culture, and form relationships?
  • What will you do to ensure that learning is rigorous, relevant, and asset-based for all children?

Theory Two: Conflation With Special Education

My second theory for how we got to watering down curriculum for multilingual learners is that we’ve conflated the ELL and special education worlds. As someone who has worked primarily in special education for the majority of her career, I am still working to unpack what quality support for multilingual students looks like. Words like "scaffolding," "differentiation," "push-in or pull-out support," and "co-teaching models" are used in both the special education and ELL worlds. This may lead educators to conflate the two student needs and growth trajectories to be the same. But I assure you, it is not.

The student support department in schools often consists of learning specialists (aka special education teachers), ELL teachers, counselors, school psychologists, speech and language therapists, and administrators. First and foremost, while this system of student support can be and often is helpful, schools need to be careful that having such a department doesn't lead to the conflation of all students’ needs to be the jobs of a specific subset of teachers. Secondly, we need to recognize that student support team meetings are traditionally held as part of an response to intervention (RTI) process to discuss effectiveness of interventions and whether a student may need an evaluation for special education services. In this scenario, ELL teachers are often present to weigh in on the student’s English language acquisition so that ELL students aren’t mistakenly referred to special education services. I can’t emphasize enough that the planning of interventions and support for multilingual students should occur in curriculum co-planning meetings, not student support team meetings. However, this may not be clear to everyone, and teachers may assume that the ELL teacher’s presence indicates that multilingual learners need the same type of support as students who are typically on special education teachers’ caseloads (i.e., modified curriculum). Lastly, in some schools, one teacher may take on both the learning support and ELL teacher roles for one reason or another. Unfortunately, this perpetuates the misconception that we can conflate the two worlds causing more confusion for all parties involved.

Furthermore, the term inclusion, which has traditionally been used almost exclusively in the field of special education, has started to take on a broader meaning in recent years. It now no longer solely refers to the ensuring of equitable access to education for students with special needs but also the feeling of "an authentic sense of belonging to a school classroom community where difference is expected and valued" (Teoharis & O'Toole, 2011). While this change is a matter of social justice and much needed, it is a rather recent shift and those who are accustomed to identifying inclusion with special education may be in danger of conflating the two. Teoharis & O'Toole (2011) emphasize, "We need to make clear that the needs of ELL students are distinct from those of students with disabilities and that language diversity is not being constructed as a deficit or disability."

I want to be clear here that in speaking about the conflation of these two worlds, it is not a question of whether students with disabilities or those who are neurodiverse are more intelligent or not than multilingual learners. It isn't a question of who can be held to higher expectations. As teachers, we need to have high expectations for all students and guide each student’s learning journey towards their own excellence. The problem arises when the expectations are set for entire groups of students rather than individuals or when one way of supporting a student is used for all students who need any sort of support. A beginning ELL should not be held to the same expectations (or given the same work) as a student on a modified curriculum. We need to see individual students for all of who they are and support them accordingly. This is where having frameworks and systems based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) become indispensable to schools striving to meet individual learner needs.

From my experience, these are some of the major factors that make it almost too easy for teachers, parents, and students to conflate special education and second language acquisition, yielding in the generalization of support for disparate and diverse student needs. It also has unintended consequences of looking at ELLs through the medical model with the accompanying stigma and deficit-based frameworks, ultimately contributing to lowered expectations and a watered-down curriculum.

I by no means believe that these are the only two reasons that have contributed to this problem of watering down curriculum for multilingual learners. Regardless of the reason, however, we have a responsibility to ourselves as professionals and a responsibility to our students as teachers to do something about it. As educators, we need to ensure that we do not continue to mirror the injustices of our society. We have the privilege and power to teach and advocate in a way that undoes some of the wrong in our world. We can start by reflecting on our own biases, determining the gaps of our understanding and skill sets, and collaboratively planning rigorous, culturally relevant, and meaningful academic experiences for those in our charge.


Advocacy in Action in How educators can advocate for English language learners: All in! National Education Association, 2015, pp.11-14. Retrieved from https://app.schoology. com/course/6492504545/materials/gp/6622779366

Honigsfeld, A., Dove, M. G., & Gonza´lez Claribel. (2022). Co-planning: Five essential practices to integrate curriculum and instruction for English learners. Corwin, a SAGE company.

Lopez, M.H. & Moslimani, M. (2022). Latinos See U.S. as Better Than Place of Family’s Ancestry for Opportunity, Raising Kids, Health Care Access. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from latinos-see-u-s-as-better-than-place-of-familys-ancestry-for-opportunity-raising-kids-health-care access/#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20Hispanic%20immigrants%20living,the%20nation's%2044.7%20million%20immigrants.

Murphy, A. & Torff, B. (2019). Teachers’ Beliefs About Rigor of Curriculum for English Language Learners. The Educational Forum, 83:1, 90-101. DOI: 10.1080/00131725.2018.1505991

Theoharis, G., & O’Toole, J. (2011). Leading inclusive ELL. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47(4), 646–688. 10.1177/0013161x11401616

Weyant, J. M. (2005). Implicit Stereotyping of Hispanics: Development and Validity of a Hispanic Version of the Implicit Association Test. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 27(3), 355–363.

Sarah Ko is an educator trained in special and general education, counseling, and ELL support. She currently works at Seoul Foreign School and has been teaching internationally since 2018. She is passionate about building inclusive communities.

Twitter: @SarahYKo

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08/26/2023 - Uma Shankar Singh
I would like to throw more light on the aspect of Implicit Bias. As an educator myself in South Korea being an Asian myself, I see that when it comes to imbibing values within childhood, there is a highly biased attitude prevalent in the country. Why wouldn't the newer generations of Koreans still date Asians of another country? What cultural change can we see in the next twenty years on top of restaurants or nightclubs that say "no foreigners allowed". Is the Korean culture too closed at the moment while developing technologically faster? What impacts do you think that may have on students being educated internationally and at the same time, parents looking to stick to closed cultural norms?
05/10/2023 - Mailyn Smith
I think you have an interesting perspective. I feel that in my experience of working with ELL students, we still held them accountable to complete the same level of work.(This would have been overwhelming with no additional support though). We might have modified work or provided students with accommodations, but I found most students could catch on within two years if literate in another language when fully immersed in a new language. If they did not, there were other underlying factors such as a disability, motivation, or a mental health concern. I am sure we were not watering down things, but maybe not having the support that is needed for students is. There will be many perspectives culturally and in different environments on this, so I am not sure this is always the case.