School & District Management

Stemming the Tide of English-Learner Dropouts

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 14, 2013 2 min read
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English-language learners are two times more likely to drop out of school than their peers who are either native English speakers or former ELLs who have become fluent in the language—a trend that, if unabated, will have far-reaching negative consequences, says a new report.

The report, written by Rebecca M. Callahan, an education professor at the University of Texas, Austin, synthesizes much of the research over the last three decades on the reasons behind the low academic achievement and high dropout rates of English-learners. Callahan, after explaining the consequences of failing to address the needs of this large, and growing, population of students, then lays out solutions to help staunch the flow of ELL dropouts. Her report was published by the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

While it’s well understood that the risk of dropping out is high among English-learners, in part because they are still learning the language, and because they often have other risk factors associated with dropping out such as poverty,there is still no conclusive answer to which factors—linguistic, academic, background, school characteristics, or a combination of all of those—best explains why ELLs are so much more likely than non-ELL peers to fall short of graduating, according to Callahan.

It’s still the case, she says, that many ELLs are isolated in ESL programs that focus little, if any, on academic content. Overhauling those programs to put as much focus on exposing students to rigorous, academic content at the same time they are receiving English-language instruction is critical, she says, especially for boosting the odds that English-learners can exit ESL programs in a timely way. In most states and districts, English-learners can’t be reclassified as fluent until they demonstrate proficiency both in the language and in academic content.

Primary-language instruction—which few ELLs receive, especially at the secondary level, is an “untapped resource,” Callahan says. Especially for recent immigrants, providing academic coursework in students’ first language builds their content knowledge while they adjust to a new school culture and learning a new language. Callahan also calls for a dramatic change in mindset in schools—long advocated by advocates and ELL scholars—so that the primary language skills and cultural attributes of ELLs will be seen as strengths to build on, rather than disadvantages to overcome.

When one out of every 11 students in U.S. public schools is an English-learner (closer to one in five if former ELLs are included), there is a major demographic imperative to make sure a lot more ELLs graduate from high school, Callahan argues.

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