Sink or Swim: The American Attitude Toward English Learners

Blog Post
July 8, 2016

All too often in America, our education system employs a “sink or swim” approach to our English Learners (ELs). This evocative language captures something elemental about the American education system’s broader structure: it really is a lot like a swimming pool.

Bear with me a second. Think about it: all children are thrown into schools with a single instruction: “swim” (read: “learn”). In most schools, all students get approximately the same directions and resources in the same setting. This has an internal logic to it: if everyone’s chucked in the same water, with the same objective, the system (“the pool”) must be fundamentally fair and equal right?

But — in classrooms and in the water — “equality” is not the same as “equity.” In many educational “pools” today, it’s as if native English-speaking students have been taking years of swim classes and ELs have not.

This might be manageable if we built assessment, data, and accountability policies that reflected this basic insight. However, in a recent article by the Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, researchers Joseph Robinson-Cimpian, Karen Thompson, and Ilana Umansky concluded that current education policies limit ELs’ access to equitable educational opportunities and put them at a disadvantage compared to their monolingual peers. They cite a range of concerns, including variations in how states classify and reclassify ELs, certain states’ English-only policies, and overemphasis on English language learning at the cost of academic content.

These can create inconsistent experiences  for ELs. Solely based on the state where they are living, ELs could be on vastly different academic trajectories — the authors cite a study in which the median time for ELs from New York City to be reclassified was three years, while that window stretches to 6.5 years for ELs in two urban communities in California. That is because California’s reclassification requirements include more criteria, such as core content exams and teacher evaluations. And in states (like California) where English-only instruction is the norm, students can be pulled away from academic content instruction for up to four hours a day for Structured English Immersion.

There is no question that effective, comprehensive EL education policies are difficult to design and implement. The subgroup encompasses students from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, academic abilities, and stages in their progress toward English proficiency.

But the difficulty of reforming EL policies is no excuse for accepting an unrealistic status quo. Students sinking in a pool won’t make it just because we’ve decided that it’s too hard to prepare them to swim.

Fortunately, the article provides a series of suggestions on how to improve our nation’s education system for the 4.5 million ELs enrolled in U.S. schools.

The first suggestion involves the classification and reclassification of ELs — the moments when a student is initially designated as an English learner and then, later, exited from this category when he or she reaches English proficiency. The authors suggest that schools should do a better job at recognizing that each EL progresses toward English proficiency at a different rate. Even though the average time to attain academic English proficiency is between 4 and 7 years, outside factors like age, grade level, and native language proficiency can play a role. With these factors in mind, states should avoid setting predetermined time windows for EL services. Districts should also regularly evaluate schools to ensure that they are abiding by state-set guidelines for reclassification and not shortchanging ELs out of services they legally have access to.

These proposals could have a wide-ranging impact on ELs. Tighter classification and reclassification policies would lead to fewer students losing their EL instructional supports too early — when they still need additional support to succeed — or too late, when they have wasted valuable academic time that could have been spent on other content areas. Additionally, consistent criteria across states and districts could help every EL, regardless of zip code, get an equitable chance to access an excellent education.

The second suggestion regards the language used for instruction and ELs’ access to core content (such as science, mathematics, and literacy). Robinson-Cimpian, Thompson and Umansky recommend that states incent the expansion of dual immersion programs. Even when these programs are not feasible, the authors maintain that core content instruction should be provided in students’ native languages whenever possible. They suggest that educational technology may provide new avenues for ELs to access rigorous core content materials.

These native language supports are the equivalent of providing them with floaties when they are learning to swim. U.S. schools make these sorts of adjustments all the time! For instance, we do not expect preschoolers to learn how to read and write in English without additional support — such as visual aids. Surely we can also provide structured language assistance to ELs as they build proficiency in their native languages and English.

Finally, the authors suggest reevaluating the annual statewide assessments currently used for accountability and measurement as they relate to ELs. Assessments designed for native English speakers generally lack validity and reliability for students who are not yet proficient in the English language. They recommend that schools screen students before administering content assessments; this allows schools to decide which additional supports these students need to accurately demonstrate what they know and can do.

In sum, there’s a lot of policy work yet to do if we want to get more ELs swimming successfully through our schools. Until we get serious about providing these students with supports that give them fair opportunities to develop their languages, knowledge, and skills, we’re essentially leaving many of them to sink.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”