English Learners

English Learners with Disabilities Lack Consistent State Support

By Ileana Najarro — July 03, 2024 4 min read
Photo of a young student solving a math problem with a notebook while watching a help video on a monitor and listening with headphones.
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State departments of education play a key role in providing resources for schools so they can better serve English learners with disabilities.

However, an analysis of states’ public-facing documents with information about serving this student population found great variation in the types of documentation state agencies offer districts and communities.

While a study published in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies in May found a large number of states providing specific resources for dual-identified students on official state websites, only 14 states offered dedicated web pages for these students. Documents—such as guidance on identifying whether students are English learners or have learning disabilities—weren’t always translated into languages other than English for easier access by families.

The study also found that at times information for English learners with disabilities had to be pieced together from resources exclusive to special education offices and those exclusive to English learner offices suggesting a lack of internal collaboration across departments, said Hyejung Kim, an assistant professor of special education at Binghamton University and one of the study authors.

Sara Kangas, an associate professor of special education and English-as-a-second-language at Lehigh University, who did not participate in the study, wasn’t surprised to see such siloing of resources.

“The same silos we have in schools we have at the state level,” Kangas said. “We have multilingual learner offices and special education offices, and state leaders commonly report being challenged by the silos that they work in.”

Researchers find varied state support for English learners, but state leaders can help

Researchers across several colleges and universities came together to assess how often state leaders provide public-facing resources dedicated to English learners with disabilities because previous independent case studies found that families and districts lacked proper guidance for these students, Kim said.

In some case studies, districts had little guidance outlining how they could ensure students received English-language development support while also receiving accommodations for learning disabilities, said Diana Baker, an associate professor and chair of the educational studies department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and one of the study co-authors.

The study authors reviewed state education agency websites for various documents, webinars, and other such resources between February and October 2021. At times agencies would update resources during the study, and some states added resources after the study’s data collection period, exemplifying how such work is gaining traction, Baker said. Yet even within their data collection period, researchers were able to get a sense of how varied state actions can be when it comes to providing accessible resources for schools and families.

Some states, such as California, created thoughtful in-house documents, including very detailed manuals, Baker said. Others linked to resources from third-party groups including nonprofits, think tanks, and the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition. Some didn’t provide dedicated resources at all.

Though some states did go through the effort of translating documents into languages other than English, that work was rare across states, Kim said.

Researchers suggest that future studies can involve a content analysis of available state resources, checking for accuracy, thoroughness, and more.

One immediate takeaway from the study for states looking to review their own resources related to English learners with disabilities is the necessity of providing resources specifically geared toward families, said Christine Montecillo Leider, an assistant professor in applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston and another study co-author.

Leider suggested, “maybe asking our families and communities what resources would be helpful for you, what would you like to see, to kind of inform the development or updating of existing guidance.”

Tailoring resources to families of English learners with disabilities is key considering that legal protections for English-learner families are weaker than those for families of students in special education, Kangas said. For instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires parental engagement but often multilingual families don’t even know whether their children are receiving language services.

Collaboration across departments within state education agencies can help ensure they’re offering appropriate resources to the public, Kangas added.

“Let’s say special educators at the state level develop guidance on [Individualized Education programs] for multilingual learners with disabilities. How do we support their language development? How do we promote their bilingualism and multilingualism? Those critical types of connections are oftentimes missing in IEPs and often missing in guidance at the state level,” Kangas said.


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