“Educational Experiences of English Learners”: A Case for Improved Accessibility

Blog Post
July 11, 2018

The year is 2001. I am five years old watching the sun come up on a hot summer day in East Los Angeles. I am intrigued since we just immigrated from Loreto, Zacatecas in Mexico just a few weeks ago. The sounds of the busy city come in through the small window in the three bedroom apartment my family of six shares with two other families. My three siblings are running around the apartment, while my mother makes breakfast and gets us all ready for the day ahead. We eat, then head out into the city to run some errands, while my father works at Burger King earning minimum wage. This daily ritual is the same, more or less, for three months as my parents try to get on their feet and establish a new life in the United States.

Early childhood education (ECE), while important, was not on my parents’ radar. They were too concerned with more immediate needs: ensuring that we had food to eat and a place to live. My experience is similar to that of other young children growing up as English Learners (ELs) as a recent data story from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) highlights. This data visualization provides insight into EL educational experiences through key data points related to access and enrollment in preschool, advanced coursework and dual credit programs in high school. The data suggests that despite a wider range of instructional program models for ELs and improved guidance on research-based practices, there is still room for improvement.

A growing body of research documents the immense benefits of attending preschool for ELs including English language development, early math and literacy skills and social-emotional development. Yet, as the OELA data story shows, young ELs are less likely than their non-EL peers to be enrolled in preschool. Specifically, only 16 percent of ELs are enrolled in a preschool program compared to 21 percent of non-ELs. Enrollment is even starker in districts that charge fees for preschool. In those districts, ELs only make up 3.9 percent of enrolled children, which means that they are underrepresented in those programs.

ELs also face challenges accessing and enrolling in rigorous coursework and dual credit programs in high school. As OELA’s data story notes, these courses are often associated with postsecondary outcomes such as attending and graduating from college. Unfortunately, ELs have lower participation rates because they often attend schools that do not offer these courses or are unable to participate due to their lower levels of English language proficiency and performance on state assessments.

The data story shows us the raw data and provides a starting point for identifying key gaps in the educational experiences of ELs. It does not, however, explain why these gaps exist. There is a deeper story than the one told by the numbers in the data. It’s not just a story about access, it’s also a story of struggle and inequity. The data is inextricably linked to poverty.

Other data from OELA shows that EL students make up 10 percent of the overall student population, but “14 percent of all homeless children enrolled in public school, 15 percent of students served by either Public Title I Schoolwide Programs or Targeted Assistance School Programs and 39 percent of eligible migrant children who resided in the state.” Given that EL students are more likely to live in low-income households, this is a call for policies that are responsive to the realities of the educational challenges faced by EL students.

These challenges played out in different ways for me. Even though I was identified as academically or intellectually gifted (AIG) at an early age, I struggled constantly, not because I was not as adept as my peers, but because I did not have the same amount of time to study and do my homework. I had responsibilities outside of school. As the oldest, I helped make breakfast and pack lunches for my younger siblings weekday mornings. I had a part-time job after school. Over the summer, I took care of my siblings and made sure they ate. These added responsibilities affected my school performance at times.

And while my parents may have been unfamiliar with the U.S. education system, they did the best they could with the limited information they had. But, my experience highlights the need for school districts to promote and facilitate the engagement of immigrant families to ensure that they have access to key information, such as the benefits of ECE, how to access programs and understand the process of identifying children as English learners, talented and gifted or in need of special education services.

Taken together, the data provide a snapshot into a handful of measures of ELs’ educational experiences. Hopefully, this will spur conversations about how to ensure that these students gain greater access to programs and coursework that can help improve their academic trajectories. With the support of more research and evidence-based solutions, districts may be able to narrow these opportunity gaps and provide ELs with a stronger foundation.