New Data on Hispanic Dual Language Learners in U.S. Early Education

It’s still early in 2015, and early education remains politically hot. But as we at the Early Education Initiative often point out, early education is not a one-size cure-all. Different kids with different backgrounds have different academic—and linguistic—needs. Obviously.

This is particularly true as far as Hispanic dual language learners (DLLs) are concerned. A new factbook from Excelencia in Education, The Condition of Latinos in Education, makes it clear just how important it is to tailor early education programs specifically to support these students. While just over a quarter of today’s Americans younger than five years old are Hispanics, in a matter of decades, the Census estimates that that number will rise to nearly 40 percent. The factbook consolidates and updates reams of data—and provides important nuance—on a number of commonly-cited facts related to DLLs and young Hispanic students.

This is no easy task, given that DLLs are a heterogeneous group. They speak dozens of different languages, have a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and enroll in myriad PreK–12 instructional settings. Consider: while many DLLs are immigrants, over 75 percent of them are native-born (and many of those children even have native-born parents). And while around 80 percent of DLLs are Spanish speakers, 26 percent of American Hispanics speak English exclusively at home.

All of which is to point out that not all DLLs are identical (let alone all Hispanic students, or even all Hispanic DLLs). Yet imprecise data mean that we often stage public debates about children of immigrants, Hispanic children, and DLLs as though they are all the same students. Policymakers interested in tailoring their early education investments to support these students need to know which of these students they’re trying to serve—and how their needs differ from one another.

Here are a few of the standard facts related to American Hispanic DLLs: nearly one in three 2013-2014 Head Start participants was identified as a DLL. By comparison, one in ten of all elementary and secondary public school students is classified as a language learner. Which makes it sound like DLLs are particularly heavily enrolled in early education (relative to later years).

And then we might further suppose that DLLs—and probably Hispanic students—attend Head Start at relatively high rates. Indeed, the factbook finds that 37 percent of 2012–2013 Head Start students were Hispanics, even though only Hispanics make up just 26 percent of U.S. children between zero and five years old. So far, so good.

But we also know that Hispanic children have reliably attended pre-K at far lower rates than African-American or non-Hispanic White children. The new factbook found that 56 percent of Hispanic kids are enrolled in pre-K “or kindergarten, compared to White (67%), African-American (65%), and Asian (64%).” Even more concerning, just 28 percent of low-income Hispanic children were enrolled in pre-K.

Hispanic advocacy groups have made it a priority to close those gaps. Last Congress, the National Council of La Raza and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics have both drawn attention to them and supported policies that would expand high-quality pre-K access to more American families, Hispanic or otherwise.

But it’s one thing to differentiate young Hispanic DLLs from the broader DLL subgroup (and to avoid stereotyping all Hispanics as DLLs)—and quite another to reshape early education programs to suit their needs. Fear not! We’ll be exploring new research on policies and practices that work for young Hispanic DLLs in a blog post tomorrow.

 

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work.

 "

Author:

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learner National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, and school choice.