English-Language Learners Opinion

Exercising Choice: English-Language Learners and School Choice

By Urban Education Contributor — February 12, 2018 5 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC). This post is by Leah Binkovitz (@leahbink), senior editor for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (@RiceKinderInst), and features reflections from Madeline Mavrogordato, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University and co-author of the research for HERC discussed here.

Today’s post represents the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

With the Houston Independent School District (HISD) facing budget challenges and proposing drastic changes to school funding to promote equity, it is critical to consider research that sheds light on how different student groups have interacted with the district’s choice system before moving forward.

As a district of choice, HISD offers magnet programs, charter schools, and other options for students to attend non-zoned schools, with the goal of attracting diverse student bodies. Yet the effectiveness of such efforts to integrate schools has been called into question. For one, many magnet schools have now moved away from holding a specified number of seats for different groups of students, leading to a re-segregation of schools. Secondly, not all groups of students might practice school choice equally. With its significant English learner (EL) student population in mind (just under a third of HISD students are classified as English language learners, according to the Texas Education Agency), HISD wanted to understand how Houston’s school choice policies shape their educational journeys - and if English learners even participate in school choice.

What The Research Examined

In a recent study from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Houston Education Research Consortium, Madeline Mavrogordato and her colleague Julie Harris looked at access to school choice offerings in HISD for English language learners by examining how many of them ended up attending a school outside their designated zoned neighborhood school compared to their peers in the 2012-2013 school year. The study differentiated between current English learners, former English learners, and never English learners. It also looked at other systematic differences between the groups, such as socioeconomic status, and how those might affect access to school choice.

What The Research Found

Current English language learners, the researchers found, were much less likely than their peers to attend non-zoned schools. Significantly, that was not the case for former English language learners. Those students were just as likely as students who had never been classified as English language learners to attend non-zoned schools.

So while only about 33 percent of elementary students classified as English language learners attended a non-zoned school, roughly 46 percent of their peers - for both the former English learner and never English learner group - attended non-zoned schools.

The results were similar in middle school with 34 percent of English learners attending a non-zoned school versus 54 percent of former English learners and 52 percent of students who were never classified that way.

The largest gaps were at the high school level, where 18 percent of students classified as English language learners were enrolled in a school outside their designated zone compared to 43 and 45 percent of former English language learners and students who were never classified as English language learners, respectively.

Current and former English learners were significantly more likely to qualify for free or reduced- price lunch than their never English learner peers; however, the researchers’ analyses revealed that current English learner status continued to be negatively related to students’ probability of enrolling in a non-zoned school even when controlling for family income and other variables.

Why is that? Mavrogordato said there were several explanations, with “language” being a significant one: "[These students’] parents have a language barrier and learning about schools and gathering the ... information they would need to inform choosing a non-zoned school for their child is just more difficult for these parents.”

Though the district does offer information about its choice program in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Arabic in addition to English, and it hosts regular fairs for parents seeking information, language can still be a significant barrier.

“There’s also an issue of cultural familiarity or cultural literacy,” Mavrogordato said, “meaning that in the U.S., this idea of school choice is pretty well-known and has been underway for quite some time in various forms. But for parents who are immigrants from other places, that may be a completely foreign concept.”

Implications For Policy And Practice

So what can be done? In addition to reaching out to families, Mavrogordato and Harris propose specific policy changes, including moving to a “system of controlled choice.” The district used to have such a system that worked to enroll a certain number of black and Latino students in its magnet schools but it did away with that policy in 1997 after the district was sued over white students being denied admission to two of the district’s vanguard magnet programs on the basis of race. Though equity is often part of the goal of these magnet and choice programs, many districts have shied away from race-based or race-conscious policies in recent years in light of similar court cases.

But the authors argue factoring in a student’s language status could likely be used without legal challenge, a move that the district later instituted for qualification to secondary magnet programs.

“I think that choice systems can be structured in ways that are going to serve the students that need the most help,” said Mavrogordato. “That’s really what I’m trying to look at in [this research].”

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