Achievement Gap

How English Learners Got Left Behind in the Drive Towards Equity

Many years ago, back in 2014, when the world was young and American politics had not yet gone wholly off the rails, I launched a policy research team to focus on young English learners (ELs). “Around one in 10 American students is formally classified as a language learner, and almost one in four American children speaks a language other than English at home,” I wrote in a brief announcing the new effort.

“Children of immigrants have constituted all population growth in the United States under the age of five since 1990 ... Policymakers and schools have not responded quickly to these trends. Indeed, [young ELs] have long been ignored in education policy debates—except when they can be raised as an explanation for schools’ weak academic performance.” 

This was about a year and a half into my career in education policy. I’d spent those 18 months writing constantly about linguistically-diverse children, which turned out to be enough to convince two generous foundations to help me make it a full-time focus. My 2014 diagnosis of the problem was relatively straightforward: research on how ELs learn languages and academic content was progressing steadily, but wasn’t informing public policy or classroom practice.

So, my team focused its efforts on translating new research and policies for the field, while also spotlighting examples of high-quality education for ELs. We tried to build (and join) networks of educators, researchers, policymakers and advocates who could continue to push one another’s thinking on EL issues and help us understand what other ideas could help make ELs a focus for leaders in American public education. We wrote for as many outlets as would publish us in as many ways as we could think of

Back then, I generally explained our work in terms like this: “in the United States, race and class have long been the dominant lenses for thinking about educational inequity. This is as it should be, since these are the deepest fault lines in American schools and society. And yet, in a country where almost 30% of Head Start students speak a non-English language at home, we also need to talk about inequities related to ELs’ diverse languages and cultures.”

Education leaders—from classrooms to philanthropy to administration to Capitol Hill—almost always nodded along. ELs, they agreed, were one of education reform’s biggest blind spots. They simply hadn’t been front of mind for most of its leaders, let alone for public education as a field. 

And Yet...

Looking back—from a new seat where I still write regularly about ELs in public education—I’m humbled by how little progress we’ve made. Some examples of the decade’s brightest EL policy thinking wound up underdelivering (Minnesota’s vaunted 2014 English learner law still has not been meaningfully implemented, for instance). But mostly, ELs simply continued to be treated as an afterthought, even after the publication of several national reports on ELs and multilingualism in American schools.

When No Child Left Behind was replaced in 2015, many in the field announced that ELs would be amongst the biggest beneficiaries. At present, there is little evidence that this promise has been realized

I don’t mean to suggest that those years, meetings, dollars, words and pixels were wasted. Some of our work drove real policy shifts—particularly as district leaders reached out after reading reports we’d written on districts with track records of serving ELs well. 

And yet, my conversations with leaders in the field haven’t shifted much. ELs remain a secondary priority for too many practitioners and policymakers.

Misinformation is rampant across the field. In many schools, it drives ineffective and/or illegal practices. Just last fall, a well-meaning, highly-experienced, highly-credentialed educator explained to me that she determined which students were ELs in part by the national origins of their last names. That is, students with surnames that sounded like they were from Spanish-speaking regions were assigned for EL services. 

Early in my career, researchers would cite examples like this from the mid-20th century as evidence of the archaic, biased and illegal treatment linguistically-diverse children frequently faced in the country’s most xenophobic, backward places. And yet, here it was, casually shaping children’s educational opportunities in a hyper-progressive city in 2018. 

So here we are—a field driven by equity, still stumbling over issues of language and culture in public education. 

Next Steps En Route to an Agenda

Schools have left their approaches to serving ELs largely unchanged in the past decade. How can reformers address this?

Education reformers need to: 

  1. Support multilingualism and multiculturalism in public education. Spiking national interest in bilingual education (now packaged as dual language immersion) is opening new space for ELs to maintain and cultivate their native language abilities. But these new bilingual programs are not always equitably accessible to ELs. In many communities, privileged, English-dominant children are increasingly gaining access to bilingual education even as ELs are being consigned to English-only schools. Equitable access to bilingual education should be a core priority for reformers across the country. 
  2. Tell better stories. ELs are a growing share of the student population across the country—including in states that have not historically hosted large communities of newcomer immigrants. As a result, these students often arrive in classrooms where educators have limited experience working with linguistically-diverse populations. Teachers in these circumstances are almost always eager to learn how to better serve their students. They want to know research on ELs’ linguistic and academic development, and they want strategies for helping them succeed. But teachers can’t always sift through white papers and data tables. They need examples of other schools that have changed their practices to meet ELs’ needs. 
  3. Rethink achievement gap accountability for ELs. English-learning students present unique challenges for reformers’ usual approach to school accountability. Early in their schooling, ELs tend to perform poorly on academic tests administered in English. Their academic performance generally improves with their English abilities. This means that EL students tend to show the strongest academic growth as they are leaving the official EL subgroup—that is, as they reach full English proficiency and are no longer officially classified as ELs. That makes it hard to decide which schools are serving ELs best. Reformers should push for more comprehensive data collection and analysis so that school accountability systems actually credit educators whose EL students are making both linguistic and academic progress each year—and across their K–12 careers.  
  4. Widen their lanes. Reform priorities—charter schools, higher academic standards and efforts to close opportunity gaps—are valuable. But reformers who want to help ELs succeed can’t stay in their comfort zones. They need to engage on broader topics that shape these children’s well-being and long-term development: draconian immigration policies, housing and zoning policies that foster displacement of low-income immigrant communities, and more. Better education policies to support ELs are necessary, but not sufficient, against the backdrop of current rhetoric and harassment targeting the immigrant communities where many of these children live. 

Of course, this is just a first cut. There are other ways that reformers can extend higher-quality educational opportunities for ELs. Reformers could work more intentionally to ensure that these children have access to early childhood education programs, where ELs tend to do especially well. They could commit more energy towards developing higher-quality curricular resources for EL education. They could apply a more thoroughly critical eye towards education technology that’s long on promises for serving ELs, but short on actual impact. And so forth. Above all, reformers need to finally make English learners a funding, policy and research priority.

Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Williams was previously the founding director of the New America’s Dual ...

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