An Oversimplification About Charter Schools and ELLs

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 01, 2009 1 min read
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“Charter Schools Fail Immigrants” is a headline that caught my eye on a column by Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco in the Huffington Post.

What I say about that message is, “Better not jump to that conclusion so fast.”

I suspect that Sattin-Bajaj and Suarez-Orozco didn’t write the headline for their column, so they aren’t necessarily agreeing with this conclusion. The point they make in their column is that English-language learners are “severely underrepresented” in charter schools in New York state. While 7.4 percent of students in public schools statewide were classified as ELLs in the 2006-07 school year, only 2.1 percent of students in charter schools were ELLs. The article doesn’t cite any evidence to show that charter schools do a worse job in educating ELLs than do regular public schools.

An advocacy group for ELLs in Massachusetts also recently found that ELLs were underrepresented in charter schools in that state. But in looking at test scores for those charter schools that did have a high proportion of ELLs, the group found that some charter schools did a better job of teaching ELLs and some charter schools did a worse job. You can read more about the group’s analysis in an article I wrote recently for EdWeek, “Evidence is Limited on Charters’ Effect on ELL Achievement.”

The authors of the Huffington Post column fail to mention a national study of charter schools in 10 states that found that ELLs are doing somewhat better academically in charter schools than in regular public schools. I cite that study in the same EdWeek article about ELLs in Massachusetts charter schools.

Also, EdWeek will publish a story I wrote this week about charter schools that cater to Hispanic students run by the United Neighborhood Organization, or UNO, in Chicago. An analysis released this week by the Illinois Policy Institute and the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute found that both ELLs and Hispanics in the UNO charter schools and other charter schools in Chicago with high populations of those students did better on average on state academic tests than did ELLs and Hispanics in regular public schools.

So until we know more about how ELLs are faring in charter schools, it’s an oversimplification to say “Charter Schools Fail Immigrants,” and when we learn more, it may even be proven to be a false statement.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.