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The percentage of students who are classified as English learners, or ELs, is growing. Here’s how some states are adjusting to this education challenge.
The fastest-growing population of students in U.S. public schools is English learners. This group of students number around five million currently, and more enter the school system every year.
Schools offer a few different types of instruction to English learners, sometimes known by the acronym ELs, who mostly speak Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, or Haitian Creole at home. The most common classroom styles are transitional programs, where students are taught mostly in their native language with English mixed in, dual-language immersion programs, where the two languages are mixed evenly, and structured programs, where almost all instruction is in English.
But these programs are difficult to organize, and hard to staff, making ELs a challenge for policymakers who seek to improve the educational outcomes of this population while often facing budgetary limits and a dearth of teachers who are bilingual. As such, states are taking a variety of different strategies to address the needs of English learners.
In New York, education policymakers have proposed a new requirement for teacher preparation programs that would set aside a few hours to understand how they can support English learners in their language acquisition and literacy development. The new training would support teachers as they learn about the specific instructional needs and teaching strategies of these students, as well as how to integrate content designed for ELs.
“It's critical that we ensure that [teachers] enter the classroom with training and knowledge to help all our students realize their full potential,” New York state commissioner of education MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “Future teachers need to be equipped with the skills to support our students that are still learning the English language and provide rigorous instruction to foster advanced literacy skills. That work starts with our teacher preparation programs.”
The proposal seeks to address the wide achievement gap between New York City’s multilingual students and their white peers—just 10% of third- to eighth-grade ELs are proficient in reading, compared to 67% of white students. In the state as a whole, just 29% of ELs graduate from high school on time.
The outlook in other states is much the same.
Wisconsin shows a 20% point gap between the graduation rates of its English learners and English proficient students, and only 4% of English learners score proficient in math. Wisconsin currently reimburses certain costs associated with English learner education to districts that have a qualifying percentage of the students—a rare policy move used by only two other states.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, the state’s new Democratic governor, has proposed dramatically increasing the reimbursement amount to qualifying districts, and providing $100 per English learner to districts with too few students to qualify, in his state’s upcoming budget. Though Republicans in the state legislature were initially resistant to increasing education funding, the proposal remained in the budget when the legislature removed many of the governor’s other policy changes during a vote last week.
Three states have also had an additional hurdle to implementing solutions for ELs— “English-only” laws passed between 1998 and2002 that prevented schools from teaching in students’ native languages. Such policies made it difficult to pursue bilingual options, and have recently faced greater scrutiny as the percentage of English learners has grown. California repealed their English-only law in 2016 and Massachusetts did so as well in 2017. Arizona, the last state with an English-only law on the books, is now debating whether they should follow suit.
Following the repeal of California’s English-only policy, the state has taken many steps to ensure it can support the whopping 38% of students entering the public school system who are ELs. California is expanding its bilingual and dual-immersion programs, and created a broad English Learner Roadmap to guide its education initiatives. But on the ground, many districts are struggling to keep up because they can’t find teachers to staff these programs.
Jenny Muñiz, a researcher on the English learner team at the think-tank New America, said that this problem should not come as a surprise. “English-only laws contributed to the dearth of bilingual teachers that exist in these states now. Well-prepared teachers have a huge impact on the success of English learners, so it’s time for states to invest in growing their pools of qualified bilingual teachers.”
Without qualified teachers, districts can’t provide an adequate education to ELs. A recent report on the San Diego Unified School District, whose EL population is around 26,000, or 21% of students, found that the district was falling short on nearly every measure of support for English learners. The review by the state showed that students “are not consistently receiving academic instruction with sufficient strategies and differentiation to ensure ELs meet the content and performance standards for their respective grade levels.”
The lack of qualified teachers isn’t isolated to states that had English-only laws—31 states and the District of Columbia report a shortage of bilingual educators. Federal lawmakers are looking to help bolster the supply of bilingual teachers through The Reaching English Language Learners Act, which would provide grants to colleges that support programs for training teachers to work with ELs.
Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, the bill’s co-sponsor, is from Texas, which boasts the second highest number of ELs in the country. “Texas is home to nearly one-fifth of our nation’s 5 million English language learners, yet has had a shortage of teachers for these students for nearly 30 years,” Hurd said in a statement. “Teachers are the foundation of our education system. By providing English learners with better prepared instructors, we increase our students’ chances of success, so they can complete their education and become valuable contributors of our workforce.”
His home state of Texas took on the issue locally with the passage of HB 3 last week, which, among other things, provides more money for dual-language programs. But advocates for increased funding said more still needs to be done. State Sen. José Rodríguez opined in an op-ed after the bill passed, “funding for English Learners remains woefully inadequate.”
Muñiz, who previously worked as a bilingual elementary school teacher in Texas, agreed. “The efforts in Texas are sorely needed, but they leave behind students who are not enrolled in dual language programs, which are the majority of ELs in the state,” she said. “All English learners matter, and states should be fully funding programs to ensure their needs are met.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.