English-Language Learners

Rising Number of ESL Students Poses Challenges for U.S. Schools

By Corey Mitchell — January 17, 2018 2 min read
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Almost one in four children in the United States speak a language other than English at home, according to an analysis of national data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center.

In 2016, the number of emerging bilingual children rose to roughly 12 million, an increase of 1.2 million over the past decade. The Kids Count data examines the linguistic background of children between the ages of five and 17, finding that 22 percent do not speak English at home. That percentage has remained unchanged for five years, but the number of children who speak one language at home and another in school is growing.

But some research has shown that while the number of English-as-a-second-language speakers in schools is on the rise, the quality of education those students receive in the nation’s K-12 schools is not.

A 2017 study from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said as much, making the case that schools often fail to provide adequate instruction and support for this population of students. The study explores why limited English skills remain a barrier to academic success for millions of children.

While graduation rates for English-language learners are on the rise nationally, there are still states where fewer than half of eligible students graduate on time. That’s why it’s a tough call on whether to label this group of children bilingual: school enrollment does not ensure those children will reach proficiency in English . Some of the students pick up the language quickly, reaching proficiency in three or four years while others, known as long-term English-language learners, can struggle with the language for seven years or more.

The percentage of students who speak one language at home and another at school varies from state to state, ranging from a low of 2 percent in West Virginia to a high of 44 percent in California, where more than 70 percent of ELLs graduate on time.

The same Kids Count data set found that 3 percent of children, roughly 2.5 million, in the United States are foreign-born, a number that includes naturalized citizens. In New York, an estimated six percent of children are born outside the country. In seven other states—California, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island —about five percent of children are foreign-born.

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Photo Credit: Eriselda Hernandez, right, reads with Fernanda Arana before school begins at Washington Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. The school’s weekly Madre a Madre meetings help bring parents into the school regularly to support children’s literacy development.

--Preston Gannaway/GRAIN for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.