English-Language Learners

Experts’ Top Policy Priorities for English-Learner Education

By Ileana Najarro — April 09, 2024 5 min read
Second grade students listen to their teacher Dalia Gerardo at West Elementary, in Russellville, Ala.
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Greater access to dual language programs, improving family engagement practices, and reimagined funding models were among the top policy priorities for English learners shared at a national convening in early April.

Hosted by the LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and ASPIRA of New York, a civic and social organization, dozens of English-learner researchers, educators, families, and policymakers came together here to discuss the current national education landscape for these students and what needs to change to better support them.

The English-learner population is one of the fastest growing public school student populations in the United States and includes a growing number of immigrant students.

Experts spoke of the obstacles to high-quality education for these students, what research says about best instructional practices, including translanguaging, and how new laws and national political rhetoric on immigration impact students. One key focus in all this is the need to think about the assets English learners bring to schools and how to help students grow from there.

“We still really think about English-learner students, multilingual students, with this deficit lens. We think about them as this empty vessel that we need to fill up with American knowledge, with [the] English language, instead of thinking about the cultural and linguistic assets that they bring that we should be uplifting,” said Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, deputy director for the advocacy group Californians Together, and a speaker at the event.

The education programs that best support English learners are in short supply

One of the top concerns raised by experts when it comes to educational opportunities for English learners is the lack of access to dual language immersion programs, where students engage with academic content in both English and English learners’ home language.

While long-term studies have shown that such programs best support students’ acquisition of the English language and their academic performance, such research is hard to complete given that the biggest impacts aren’t seen until many years down the road, said Martha Martinez, director of research and policy at Sobrato Early Academic Language, or SEAL, an organization supporting EL and dual language education.

This long-term payoff may hinder efforts to scale up such programs. One New Jersey educator at the event spoke of how her school district tends to only invest in programs for a year or two, not giving teachers enough time to demonstrate results and thus making it hard to advocate for programs such as dual language immersion.

Yet Martinez and others spoke of the value of dual language immersion programs, especially in affirming the value of students’ home languages and cultures in an academic context. There are also overall cognitive benefits for native English speakers to acquire another language as well according to past research.

Other event audience members brought up how often English learners with disabilities end up excluded from existing dual language programs. Parents spoke of concerns over cases where students are separated from non-English-learner peers and what impact that might have on their personal, linguistic, and academic growth.

Yet another key challenge to increasing access to dual language immersion programs lies in a lack of bilingual educators qualified to teach in such programs. While the U.S. Department of Education has invested in professional development grants for bilingual education, and various independent programs and districts are working to build up a bilingual educator pipeline, experts spoke of a need for dedicated funding to invest in dual language immersion programs.

Reimagining language use in the classroom and communication with families

Ryan Pontier, assistant professor of bilingual education and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, TESOL, at Florida International University, spoke of how translanguaging plays a role in ensuring true bilingual education is offered to students.

Translanguaging, in the broadest sense, is the ability to move fluidly between languages and is a pedagogical approach in which teachers support this ability.

Even in existing dual language programs, Pontier said that language use is still largely monolingual. For instance, math class is taught in English while science class is taught in Spanish. In a true bilingual setting where translanguaging is practiced, students and teachers would flow through both languages in all subjects rather than thinking of them as separate tools or one language as a bridge to acquire the other language.

On the topic of communication, several parents in attendance spoke of the need for more schools to provide detailed information about the kind of programming students have access to, whether it’s dual language immersion or pulling students out of general classrooms for dedicated English language acquisition instruction. This is especially vital for immigrant households, experts said as they may be unfamiliar with the U.S. education system.

Legal chilling effects on immigrant English learners

While there are federal protections for immigrant and migrant students, Morgan Craven, national director of policy, advocacy, and community engagement at the Texas-based Intercultural Development Research Association spoke about how some laws and political rhetoric can create chilling effects that affect students and their families.

She specifically addressed Senate Bill 4 in Texas, which would let police officers arrest migrants suspected of entering the U.S. illegally. (The law is currently blocked and moving through courts, according to the Texas Tribune.) Craven spoke of how such legislation can make families more hesitant to send children to school and can complicate the role of school resource officers, as students who don’t have legal immigration status might feel unsafe around those police officers.

That’s not the only political issue with implications for English learners. Craven also addressed how at least 18 states now have legislation restricting instruction on topics of race and gender.

“We’re in a time of a lot of attacks on DEI, on affirmative action, so-called anti-CRT policies. And so when we see that efforts to really impact the ability of teachers to speak truthfully about curriculum, to have things like ethnic studies courses, to be able to support culturally sustaining and culturally responsive curriculum and instruction, that has a real impact on English learner students,” Craven said.

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