Building Better Bridges Into Higher Education for English Learners

Blog Post
Feb. 17, 2022

There are roughly five million English learners (ELs) in U.S. public K-12 schools. Nationally, these students represent just over 10% of all students, and in some states like California and Texas, the number is nearly double. These students come from increasingly diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and contrary to popular belief, more than half were born in the U.S. This means that some of the high school students who are still classified as ELs most likely carried that label with them since they first enrolled in school in kindergarten. In addition to these students, often referred to as long-term ELs, high school ELs are also made up of recently arrived ELs such as resettled refugees, asylum seekers, and unaccompanied minors.

As one of the fastest growing demographics in the U.S. educational system, today’s ELs will be the voters, consumers, and community leaders of tomorrow. They have so much to gain–and so much to contribute–to our collective well-being. Yet students still classified as ELs in high school graduate at lower rates than the general population. What is more, this disparity widens when it comes to 4-year college attendance for ELs, which is less than half the rate of non-ELs. These trends were true prior to the pandemic and given that ELs have been one of the student populations impacted most severely by COVID-19, ELs’ high school completion and transition into college or career is as important as ever. As practitioners and policy-makers continue to reflect on what it means not only to recover, but to “Build Back Better” in schools, we have an opportunity to address long standing barriers to educational opportunity for ELs.

Here are three common myths about ELs that shape educational policy and practice at both secondary and postsecondary levels, followed by some promising practices that can be used to improve access for ELs and start to treat them as an educational asset in our institutions.

Myth #1: English language instruction is the (only) key to preparing ELs for college.

Many practitioners and policy-makers believe that low proficiency in English is the main reason ELs lag behind their peers in high school graduation and college participation, and that simply adding more English as a second language (ESL) classes and requirements is the answer. The reality, however, is that there are a variety of factors that impede academic achievement and college preparation for ELs. Academic language development is often hindered by other, less visible factors such as learning differences, emotional or mental health challenges, food insecurity, and other familial struggles. In fact, more time in ESL classes has actually been shown to negatively impact EL students’ progress towards graduation. For example, Arizona’s rigid requirements for ELs to spend four hours a day in Structured English Immersion classes that were not linked to content and often did not count towards the credits necessary to graduate high school had a chilling effect on ELs’ academic progress. Notably, Arizona has one of the lowest EL high school graduation rates in the country.

Myth #2: Grades and transcripts are the best indication of what ELs know and can do in college.

Grades on high school transcripts may not be an accurate reflection of students’ academic preparation for college. This is largely due to academic tracking that is so common in U.S. high schools, particularly for ELs. Many high schools create separate, “sheltered” sections of courses for ELs that have the same title, but may not have the same level of academic rigor, and transcripts may not provide any indication that these courses were “EL-only.” In colleges and universities, ELs are usually placed in remedial or developmental English courses at much higher rates than other groups which is a similar form of tracking. This stratified system in higher education often has a “cooling out” effect, lessening the likelihood that students will persist through to degree/program completion.

Myth #3: There is no reason to monitor EL trajectories in higher education.

While ELs are often over-tracked in U.S. secondary schools, they tend to be largely invisible at U.S. colleges and universities. Indeed, very few institutions keep track of the numbers of ELs or former ELs. And when they do collect information on students’ home languages, institutions may use that data to place additional requirements (e.g., to submit evidence of language proficiency or to take remedial/ESL courses) on students, rather than to create support structures and resources.Such policies can exacerbate ELs’ feelings of alienation, causing them to question whether they truly belong in higher education. Thus, the goal of monitoring the progress of ELs in postsecondary education should be to measure equity–not to penalize students for their language backgrounds.

Removing Barriers and Strengthening Bridges

Below are some promising practices that can help to smooth the college transition process for ELs, aligned with realities, rather than myths.

Gather multi-faceted data about ELs, beyond test scores and transcripts

Recognizing that English language is not the only factor in EL student achievement, and that academic transcripts (or standardized test scores) may not provide a complete picture of students’ academic preparation, both high schools and colleges need to gather more holistic, multi-faceted data about ELs. We need this data not only to identify needs and supports, but also to have a more complete understanding of what students want from their educational experience, and what assets they bring to our school communities. 3

Many school districts–including one I have partnered with in Burlington, Vermont –have developed more robust intake assessment procedures in order to learn more about students and families at the point of entry. Moreover, some colleges and universities have incorporated more robust data-gathering systems as part of the admissions, orientation, and advising process, including tools for students to accurately self-assess and to make informed choices for themselves about course selection.

Design integrative, asset-oriented high school structures and curricula

ELs need access to courses and co-curricular opportunities in secondary school that will improve their English language and literacy skills in ways that are academically rigorous and culturally responsive. Schools should develop curriculum models aimed at integration for all students, creating spaces where ELs can also draw on their linguistic resources, cultural background knowledge, and global perspectives.

This can happen, for example, through interdisciplinary units and courses centered on themes such as intercultural learning, global citizenship, anti-racism, and social justice. Even in newcomer programs for recent arrivals, there can and should be regular opportunities for meaningful interaction and collaborative learning between ELs and non-ELs. Co-designed curricular opportunities also promote collaboration between English language specialists and teachers in other content areas, which has been shown to be one of the best ways to improve equity for ELs.

Commit to institution-wide dialogue

Most educators recognize that school-wide dialogue is necessary in order to ensure that ELs have access to academic and co-curricular opportunities and are treated as an asset. However, there is still a general siloing culture in education that discourages sustained dialogue. Some areas of shared interest that might be a helpful starting place for institution-wide conversations include:

  • School and community leadership: ELs are often underrepresented in student government, administrative advisory groups, and other structures for leadership. More intentional recruitment of ELs could enrich school and community conversations, especially on issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion. The families of ELs also should be included in educational decision-making.
  • Technical/pre-professional education and college preparatory courses: ELs are under-represented in many high school programs with a pre-professional and technical focus, as well as programs with a college preparatory focus, including Advanced Placement and dual enrollment. Yet these programs can play a crucial role in preparing ELs for college transition, and can help to alleviate concerns about the financial burden of college participation, which is a significant barrier for many students and families.
  • Other career exploration: Research has found that many ELs have a strong commitment to altruistic/helping career paths. Schools can honor this aspiration by expanding opportunities for career exploration, job-shadowing, internships, mentoring (including peer-to-peer), and community service. Through these opportunities, students can begin learning how to leverage their cultural and linguistic backgrounds as a career asset.

What holds ELs back from a successful transition into post-secondary education is not lack of educational aspiration. The truth is that many school structures and policies hinder students from achieving their high aspirations, in part because they are informed by an incomplete understanding of what students need and what they bring to our high schools and colleges. None of the above strategies is simple or easy to enact. However, all of them have a dual benefit: they increase educational access and equity for English learners, and make it more likely that ELs will be positioned and prepared to enrich the educational experience for everyone.

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College Transitions English Learners