3 Ways to Improve Educational Outcomes for English Learners in P-12 Schools
Like a growing number of students in the U.S., I learned English as a second language. My parents brought me to the United States from Mexico at the age of four. I spoke Spanish as my home language and learned English through my siblings, friends, neighborhood, and schools. Throughout our educational journey, our parents never learned English and made sure we did not forget our home language.
Currently, there are more than 5 million English learners in our nation’s public school system. While there are many different languages spoken here from all over the world, the overwhelming majority of English learner students speak Spanish as their primary language (76%), with Arabic coming in a distant second (3%). Spanish speakers have diverse backgrounds, hailing from more than 20 Spanish-speaking countries from Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Yet, the majority of English learners are not immigrants — they are U.S. born (85% in primary grades and 62% in secondary grades).
English learners in the U.S. have been traditionally underserved, and the pandemic has only exacerbated long-standing inequitable outcomes. English learners face many challenges and opportunity gaps in their educational journey — such as economic hardship, segregation, interrupted schooling, under-resourced schools, lack of ESL/bilingual certified teachers, low expectations and rigor. These structural factors, among others, influence the educational attainment of these students. For example, in the 2022 NAEP score results, English learners scored a 191 in Reading and a 215 in Math, compared to a 218 in Reading and a 237 in Math of their native English-speaking peers. This is over a 20-point gap in both key content areas.
Considering these disappointing yet predictable NAEP scores, I hope that the education of multilingual children is prioritized now that schools have returned to in-person learning. With an unprecedented influx of federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan, state, district, and school leaders have an opportunity to reimagine the education for English learner students. Hiring translators or increasing the number of certified bilingual teachers and leaders is a start. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution to effectively educate English learners, there are three things that are essential building blocks:
1. Acknowledge, interrogate, and interrupt the structural racism and xenophobia faced by English learners
There is a historic legacy of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression of non-White communities in the United States because of their race, ethnicity, culture, and language. It is important to learn about the racialized histories of immigrant communities, including new immigrant populations and those communities who have lived in the U.S. for generations. But it is equally important to promote policies, behaviors, and practices that interrupt structural racism and xenophobia. For instance, schools can offer high-quality, equitably resourced dual-language programs to English learner students from low-income backgrounds and be committed to teaching honest U.S. history. Also, school leaders can improve relationships and communications with non-English-speaking families and caregivers to help build a stronger sense of an inclusive community.
2. Understand, value, and embrace the intersecting identities of English learners
Multilingual learners are labeled in schools due to their linguistic identity. But that is only one social construct that defines these individuals. Race, culture, ethnicity, (dis)ability, gender, and sexuality are also important intersectionalities. Educators need to understand the intersecting identities of English learners beyond linguistic labels to better meet their individual needs. School districts need policies, behaviors and practices that understand, value, and embrace the intersecting identities. For example, policies need to differentiate between language and disability so that not being fluent in English is not seen as a disability. Also, use culturally relevant curriculum and reading assignments so that students feel represented and seen.
3. Take a holistic, asset-based approach to educating English learners
It’s easy for policymakers and educators to get overwhelmed by educating multilingual learners, especially when there is a large concentration and/or many languages are spoken. Well-meaning yet ineffective isolated interventions are commonly utilized such as teacher aids, pull-out programs, English Language Development coordinators and before-/after-school programs without certified personnel. English learners will benefit from policies and practices that take a holistic and integrated asset-based approach instead of a siloed deficit-based approach. For instance, rethinking how English learners are identified and labeled, where are they taught, what educational program(s) they are provided, who teaches them, how are they taught, how they are assessed and reclassified to be fluent English speakers among other essential elements that build on their primary language(s) and culture(s) as well as improve access to rigorous coursework in secondary schools.
Being a multilingual learner is part of my identity and has helped shape my career. I am proud to be the new director of P-12 research at Ed Trust. I hope that policymakers, educational leaders, teachers, and advocates take can reflect on how they are or are not addressing the educational needs of English learners to improve educational outcomes. I look forward to bringing more of these issues to light.