Federal Reporter's Notebook

Meeting Puts Focus on Early Education of English-Learners

By Linda Jacobson — February 07, 2006 4 min read

Children who speak a language other than English at home are less likely than other children to attend preschool before entering kindergarten, a study has found.

When they do enroll in preschool, they are more likely to attend the federal Head Start program for disadvantaged children than any other type of center-based program. Overall, preschool attendance was found to improve the literacy skills of language-minority children and to reduce the chances that they would be forced to repeat a grade or be identified with a disability, according to the report.

But Russell W. Rumberger, the education researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who conducted the study, also found a strong relationship between attending preschool and behavior problems. Language-minority children who were enrolled in a non-Head Start center before kindergarten were 70 percent more likely than native English-speakers in the same programs to exhibit problems such as fighting, arguing, and bullying in 1st and 3rd grades, especially if they spent more time, rather than less, in preschool.

Preschool is often promoted as a strategy with the potential to narrow achievement gaps between minority and white children. The lower level of preschool participation by children from non-English-speaking households may actually be increasing those academic disparities, said Mr. Rumberger who presented his findings at a conference here on the early educational experiences of language-minority children.

The Jan. 27 meeting was an attempt to bring more attention to the topic of preschool education for English-language learners.

“We really do need to understand more how to help these children,” said Joan Herman, a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, or CRESST, at the University of California, Los Angeles. The center was one of the sponsors of the conference.

The gathering also capped two years of study, financed by the U.S. Department of Education, by several researchers and graduate students.

Researchers at the conference based their analyses on two ongoing federal studies—the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten cohort, or ECLS-K, and the National Household Education Survey.

But many speakers noted the limitations of the data in truly understanding language-minority children. For example, just because children fit into a language-minority category—meaning a language other than English is regularly spoken in their homes—it doesn’t mean that they do not speak English.

Tim D’Emilio, a senior research specialist at the Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition, said the department is supporting this research initiative as a way to address those issues.

Mr. Rumberger’s research is an extension of a study released last year by Susanna Loeb, an assistant professor of education and economics at Stanford University. Ms. Loeb focused on the effects of preschool attendance for the entire ECLS-K sample after one year of school. Mr. Rumberger’s work focuses specifically on language-minority children and the effects in 3rd grade.

Other conference sessions explored such issues as parent involvement and how certain teaching practices affect language-minority children.

For example, ability grouping is often viewed negatively by educators, who say it potentially harms the self-image of students in lower-ability groups and deprives them of the academic benefits of learning with more-advanced peers. But among language-minority children who primarily speak Spanish at home, ability grouping boosts school performance in the early grades, according to a study presented here.

Joseph P. Robinson, a graduate student at Stanford University, used data from the ECLS-K and found a significant benefit for Hispanic language-minority children who spend 365 days in ability-based groups in kindergarten and 1st grade.

He also found that ability grouping benefits not just the lowest-achieving group of students, but the average and high-achieving groups as well.

While it’s possible, he said, that teachers are speaking some Spanish to students in these small groups, he concluded that the benefits are most likely caused by students having “level appropriate” instruction in English.

In another session, Jennifer F. Samson, a doctoral student at Harvard University, presented data showing that language-minority children are being underidentified for special education services in the early grades. And, she said, a teacher’s ability to recognize the children’s academic needs is a major factor in whether such children are referred to special education.

A little more than 19 percent of the ECLS-K sample of children is considered to be language-minority, but only 16.1 percent of language-minority kindergartners were receiving special education services. In the 1st and 3rd grades, the percentages were 17.3 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively.

While an overrepresentation of any minority group in special education usually causes concern among researchers and advocacy groups, an underrepresentation, Ms. Samson said, could mean that children’s learning disabilities are not being properly diagnosed.

Ms. Herman, from CRESST, suggested in discussions that it is a significant challenge for teachers to distinguish between learning disabilities and limited English proficiency among young children when they don’t speak the children’s languages.

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