Nov. 5, 2021
After months of deliberation and negotiation with Congress, President Biden unveiled the Build Back Better Framework on October 28, 2021. This framework encapsulates tangible legislative actions to see through many of President Biden’s campaign promises, like the proposal to implement universal pre–K for all three-and four-year-olds. Previous research has found that universal access to pre–K has a positive impact on students’ academic performance and can also reap longer-term benefits to the U.S. economy. The legislative mock-up of the framework calls for dual language learners (DLLs) to be prioritized in outreach and expedited enrollment. This decision is in line with findings from a new report out of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research which found positive correlations between early access to pre–K and long-term success for English learners (ELs).
In the report, English Learners in Chicago Public Schools: An Exploration of the Influence of Pre–K and Early Grade Years, researchers looked at 14,058 students in pre–K and 16,651 students in grades K-3 to investigate two primary questions:
- What factors are associated with stronger outcomes for ELs in pre–K and early grades?
- How can schools identify ELs who would benefit from additional support?
Regarding the first question, the study found that ELs enrolled in a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) full-day pre–K program experienced better learning outcomes and attendance through third grade. These students were better poised in terms of their English language development and early literacy by kindergarten, with observed differences among those who enrolled earlier (i.e. prior to age four vs. at age four). And up until third grade, ELs who had enrolled in pre–K still showed higher attendance as well as math and reading performance.
In regards to the second question, the report indicates that ELs’ initial scores on the Kindergarten Screener and the Pre-IPT (the English Language Proficiency screener given to three- and four-year olds), both used to identify ELs by measuring their English language skills, can be a good indicator of future need. Specifically, the report found that while those who scored higher on the screener tend to do better in reading and math by third grade, those with lower scores did not, meaning that the screener is a good indicator of which students should be provided with extra support. Furthermore, the research shows that English learners who are dual identified as students with disabilities still made progress toward ELP, albeit at a slower pace, despite having lower attendance rates.
In late October the Latino Policy Forum hosted a release event for the report where the authors and key state education representatives discussed the state-wide implication of the findings. Illinois is already ahead of the curve as it is one of the few states that identifies ELs in state pre–K programs at the age of three (currently about 21,000 preschool children) instead of four or five when they start kindergarten, but there are still areas in need of improvement, especially if the federal proposal to expand universal pre–K is adopted.
According to Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, director of education policy and research at the Forum, policymakers and district leaders should expand and prioritize access to full-day pre–K for English Learners beginning at age three. Additionally, a system should be developed to identify English learners who scored at those lower levels on the K Screener to be able to prioritize additional supports and direct resources to ensure these students keep pace with their peers. And as lead researcher Marisa de la Torre noted in an interview after the event, this is easily deployable since this screener tool is already available and teachers are able to access this data.
Lastly, communication with parents should be strengthened to inform them about the long-term benefits of bilingual/ESL programs in early childhood. According to de la Torre, it is a common misconception that being immersed in English is what’s best for ELs and this has influenced some parents of ELs in both Chicago and Illinois as a whole to opt-out of services for their children, about 3 and 6.5 percent respectively. This is unfortunate given the report’s findings that ELs who received bilingual services were not only more likely to reach English proficiency by the third grade, but their attendance and performance on assessments benefitted as well compared to those that refused services.
Although the report is focused on ELs in Chicago Public Schools, its findings and implications add to other studies documenting the important role that access to pre–K programs plays in enhancing ELs’ learning and early outcomes. A sweeping expansion of pre–K, however, does not automatically mean DLLs' needs will be reflected in these programs. And in fact, previous research has concluded that state-run preschool programs do not have a great track record of adequately supporting bilingual children. This means the federal government currently has the opportunity to make a concerted effort to adopt baseline requirements that would ensure pre–K programs are prepared to meet DLLs’ needs.
The Biden administration’s inclusion of DLLs as a priority population for outreach and enrollment in universal pre–K programs is just the first step. DLLs must also be provided with access to inclusive learning environments that support their home languages, including dual immersion programs that allow them to maintain and strengthen their bilingualism. Luckily, the administration doesn’t have to start from scratch and can begin by looking at Head Start’s asset-based approach towards promoting DLLs’ linguistic, academic, and socio-emotional development in both their home languages and English. As de la Torre shared, we need to be thinking two to three steps ahead and as the findings from this report show, interventions at age three and four pay off for DLLs/ELs in the long-run.
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