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Schools Are Falling Short for Many English-Learners

By Corey Mitchell — March 07, 2017 6 min read

Schools often provide substandard instruction and social-emotional support to the nation’s English-learners—and fail to properly train the educators who teach them.

Those blunt findings—from the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—are in a new study that explores why limited English skills remain a substantial barrier to academic success for roughly 5 million children. The report details how underresourced schools and underprepared educators can hinder efforts to help students learn and master English.

“These children are here. If we don’t educate them and prepare them for being future citizens and part of our communities, we’re doing a disservice to our country,” said Harriet Romo, the director of the Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a member of the Committee on Fostering School Success for English Learners, the group that produced the report.

The committee—a panel of educators and experts on language acquisition—delved into the struggles of specific populations of English-learners, such as those with disabilities—who are less likely than their native English-speaking peers to be referred to early-intervention and special education programs. The report also examined the challenges for long-term English-learners, those students who are not considered proficient after being educated for seven or more years in U.S. schools.

While detailing the hurdles to success for ELLs, the committee also reviewed research that found districts and schools using exemplary approaches to English-learner education.

The wide-ranging paper, which tackles everything from school readiness to accessing higher education, has a dominant theme: The nation must devote more research and effort to educating and understanding students who aren’t native English speakers.

“We do have knowledge about what will make a difference,” said Ruby Takanishi, a senior research fellow with New America, a Washington-based think thank. “There’s a need to do much better than we’re doing now.” Takanishi served as the chairwoman of the committee and wrote the final report.

Knowledge Gaps

But with the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on immigration, the federal government may not embrace the committee’s enthusiasm for bilingual and ELL education, said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the George W. Bush administration.

“That this is the Trump administration complicates this topic considerably,” Whitehurst said. “I would be surprised if this is a priority.”

While researchers produce a growing body of research about English-learner education, knowledge gaps still exist. The committee outlined a research agenda that drills down on the needs of specific ELL subgroups and focuses on comparing student achievement and outcomes in states—such as New York and Texas—that embrace bilingual education against places like Arizona and Massachusetts that adopted English-only policies.

“Policies have an impact,” Romo said.

Takanishi argues that the study is “not a report about learning English,” but an expansive survey of the English-language-learner landscape and factors outside the classroom that affect their language development.

The work wasn’t restricted to what educators and researchers would consider more traditional English-learner populations. Researchers also examined language-revitalization efforts in American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, finding evidence that such programs can yield positive benefits for students.

The National Academies convened the committee in March 2015. Its findings come two years later in a drastically changed political climate and amid beefed-up federal immigration enforcement that could disrupt the lives of many ELLs and their families.

While most English-learners are born in the United States, the researchers argue that educators need deeper understanding of how to address the social-emotional needs of those who are foreign-born, including refugees with interrupted formal education, migrant children, unaccompanied minors, and undocumented children. Such students face unique nonacademic factors and stress while trying to learn a new language.

The committee calls on the federal government, namely the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, to expand outreach to English-learner parents in states with burgeoning populations such as Georgia and North Carolina, where ELLs’ four-year high school graduation rates fall well below the national average.

Whitehurst, the former head of the Institute of Education Sciences, the nonpartisan research and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education, said the report is well-intentioned. But he doubts it will spur the federal government to action or change the national discourse on English-learners.

“Education research is political in the sense that the topics that are important are often determined by political action,” he said.

But the panel convened by the National Academies isn’t the only group pushing for schools to help cultivate more bilingual students.

The same day the English-learner-focused committee published its findings, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a new report that urges business, civic, and education leaders to help more native English speakers learn foreign languages—including targeted teaching of heritage languages spoken by immigrants and their families.

The report offers an unflattering look at U.S. language capacity on two fronts: The availability of language education is on the decline, despite growing interest in dual-language immersion programs in K-12 schools, and a shrinking share of U.S. citizens are fluent in languages other than English.

Need for Teachers

Takanishi, the author of the National Academies report, stressed the importance of schooling parents and child-care providers of dual-language learners—children up to age 5 who are not yet enrolled in K-12—to help the youngest ELLs begin school with a firm foundation in their home language and English.

The American Academies study dispels the notion that students must discard their first language to learn another.

“We have to change the minds of teachers, the minds of parents who think you should only speak English to your child,” said Romo, the UT-San Antonio professor.

To navigate that change, the report’s authors argue that teacher- and principal-preparation programs must adapt their curricula and training to ensure that K-12 educators are ready to work with an ever-diversifying student population.

Although English-learners represent nearly 10 percent of K-12 public school enrollment now, most states struggle to recruit and retain bilingual educators and monolingual educators who understand language development and language teaching. The teacher shortages exist even in immigrant-rich school districts in Texas and California, where together, the two states educate close to half the nation’s English-learners.

Both reports urge national coordination on teacher certification that would allow qualified bilingual instructors to cross state lines to work in districts that need them without having to get newly certified.

“We need teachers who understand the needs of these children,” said Romo. “We have to not think of them as being deficient, but consider the assets they can bring to our classrooms and the workforce.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Falling Short for Many ELLs

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