Oct. 5, 2020
English learners (ELs) make up over 30 percent of the young child (0-8) population and 10 percent of the K-12 student population. Even in states with relatively small EL populations, the number of EL students is growing quickly. Between 2004 to 2014, the EL population in South Carolina grew by 236 percent, in Maryland by 180 percent and in Mississippi by 131 percent.
These data highlight the need for policy makers across the nation and at all levels to be proactive about addressing the educational needs of ELs. Presidential candidates are no exception.
The Biden-Harris education platform has many strengths, including closing funding gaps between low-income and high-income districts, increasing the diversity of the educator workforce, and promoting early childhood education. But it has one glaring omission: the plan fails to acknowledge and address the needs of English learner students.
The campaign’s references to ELs is buried in their Latino agenda which, while important, is also misleading. EL students are far from homogeneous: while 78 percent of ELs speak Spanish, other commonly spoken languages are Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali and Haitian Creole. The campaign’s promise to provide equitable resources to ELs and “ensure their parents receive information in the language they understand so they can participate in their child’s education” is not just an issue for Latino voters.
By excluding ELs from their education platform, the candidates are missing an opportunity to improve how states and districts are serving this large and growing population of public school students. Federal law requires states and districts to follow a defined process to identify and serve ELs but efforts to do so are fraught with challenges. Numerous school districts and states have faced scrutiny for violating ELs’ civil rights and failing to offer required services. Moreover, a prevailing deficit-oriented lens, which ignores the considerable assets these students and their families offer, including their multilingualism, is all too common in education policies and programs. Excluding ELs from the education platform dismisses this system-wide weakness and fails to ensure that these students have access to the resources necessary for them to thrive.
So what would an education agenda for ELs look like? We propose 4 key priorities:
- Funding: At the federal level, ELs are funded through Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is meant to supplement state funding to develop new language instructional programs, professional development for teachers, and support family engagement. However, funding for Title III has remained stagnant for the past 10 years despite growth in the EL population. Past presidential budgets have proposed increases to Title III only to see Congress provide a much lower appropriation. So in order to realize a significant boost to Title III funding, there would need to be a coordinated campaign to persuade Congress to approve a higher authorization. Additionally, a new administration could conduct a study of the current mechanisms of awarding Title III funding with the goal of identifying the data sources that will provide the most accurate count of EL students within a state.
- Research and Development: The federal government has made strides in supporting research on ELs, including the recent launch of the The National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners. But greater investments are needed to develop stronger assessments and technological tools that can support student learning and facilitate communication with families. The move to distance learning has exacerbated gaps in EL instruction and illuminated shortcomings in digital resources designed to meet unique learning needs.
- Data: Federal data systems and reporting fail to provide a clearer picture of EL student achievement over time. Several states report data on the progress of former ELs and have found that these students often outperform their never-EL peers on standardized assessments. Title III of ESSA requires states to report the number and percentage of former ELs who meet academic achievement standards for each year of the four years after exiting EL services. Currently, these data are not readily available and should be integrated into the Title III State Profiles housed at the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.
- Elevating Multilingualism: Research is clear that English learners benefit from bilingual instructional models that provide them with the opportunity to learn English and continue developing in their home language. Given the rising popularity of dual language immersion, the federal government should develop a grant program to support program development and expansion, with a focus on English learners. The grants could be targeted to school districts that serve a high percentage of ELs (e.g., 15 percent or greater) and/or that have experienced a rapid increase in the EL student population (e.g., more than 100 percent growth in the past 10 years). These programs would be designed to enroll equal numbers of ELs and non-ELs in order to broaden access and to align with best practices for dual language education. Notably, the Biden-Harris plan does include a nod to the need for more bilingual teachers, with funding to help more teachers earn a bilingual credential. Bilingual teachers are essential for supporting ELs and for growing a generation of multilingual citizens.
To be sure, there is much work to do on the policy front to better meet the needs of ELs, but a starting point would be for the next presidential administration to recognize and promote an asset-oriented lens to ELs. The way the nation's highest office talks about ELs matters and the bully pulpit should be leveraged to help elevate the message: ELs’ multilingualism, culture, and knowledge are huge assets to our country. And sending this message should start with the candidates’ education platform.