Equity & Diversity

The Nation’s English-Learner Population Has Surged: 3 Things to Know

By Corey Mitchell — February 18, 2020 2 min read
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English-language-learner enrollment in K-12 schools has increased by more than 1 million students since 2000, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education.

There are now an estimated 4.9 million children in U.S. public schools learning the English language. These students are in classrooms in most school systems—and enrollment is surging in states across the South and Midwest that had almost no English-learners at the turn of the century.

The report tracks enrollment from the 2000-01 school year to the 2016-17 school year, the latest year for which numbers are available and provides a quick look at national demographic trends.

Here’s a look at three key data points:

1. Enrollment increased 28 percent nationwide.

Overall, English-learner enrollment in public K-12 schools increased by more than one million students, rising from 8.1 percent of total enrollment to 9.6 percent.

However, there are questions about the accuracy of the federal data on English-learner enrollment. Earlier this year, my colleague, Maya Riser-Kositsky, analyzed federal data and found that more than half of states report incomplete data.

2. Enrollment increased in 43 states.

Texas saw the largest increase, with public schools there enrolling 350,000 more English-learner students than in 2000.

While the number of English-learners is on the rise in most places across the country, that doesn’t mean their needs are being met in the classroom: Many teachers are not equipped with the skills and knowledge to properly educate English-learners.

3. Enrollment dropped in California and six other states west of the Mississippi River.

The number of English-learners decreased in seven states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico—and the District of Columbia. California experienced the biggest decline, but still has the nation’s largest English-learner population at more than 1.1 million students. Research conducted in the state has come to conflicting conclusions on whether English-learner classification helps or hinders students.

It remains to be seen if enrollment will continue to trend upward in the coming years; President Donald Trump took office during the 2016-17 school year, and educators and immigration advocates are concerned that his administration’s immigration enforcement policies could affect enrollment of immigrant and English-learner students. While research has revealed that cooperation between local law-enforcement officials and federal immigration authorities can drive immigrant students and their families from schools, most English-learners are born in the United States.

Related Reading

How Many English-Learners Do Districts Serve? Data Are Inconsistent

Overlooked: How Teacher Training Falls Short for English-Learners and Students with IEPs

U.S. Schools See Surge in Number of Arabic- and Chinese-Speaking English-Learners

Connecting With English-Learner Families: 5 Ideas to Help Schools

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Education office of English language acquisition

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