Action Items for Education: Focus on English Language Learners

girl-readingWhat passes for an education policy debate in Oklahoma spends a lot of time on a few familiar subjects — education funding vs. tax cuts, vouchers and charters vs. traditional public schools, high-stakes testing vs. teacher and school independence. What’s too often missing from these debates is any consideration of the specific needs of real students. We almost never talk about why kids struggle in the classroom or what teaching strategies might overcome those barriers.

A recent OK Policy report (Education Action Items for Oklahoma) includes several proposals that will hopefully contribute to removing that blind spot. Among these is a call for Oklahoma to bring a new focus to teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). This post explains why it is crucially important for Oklahoma to take on this issue and what the research says about how to do it.

Why It Matters

Oklahoma’s Hispanic population has nearly doubled over the last decade. Because this population skews young, the growth is having an especially large impact in our schools. By 2011, Hispanics made up almost 1 in 7 (14 percent) of K-12 students in Oklahoma. The percentage in large urban districts is far higher, with Hispanics already at 46 percent of the Oklahoma City school district.

Contrary to the stereotype, a large majority of these Oklahomans are U.S. citizens. According to the US Census, 72 percent of Oklahoma Hispanics, and 93 percent of those under 18, are citizens. These children are a lasting part of the state’s community and future workforce; if they do not succeed, the entire state will see its prosperity diminished.

ELLAlthough two-thirds of Oklahoma Hispanics speak Spanish at home, 81 percent reported that they speak English “well” or “very well”, according to the Census. Nevertheless, the 19 percent who report speaking English “not well” or “not at all” remain a sizable part of the state’s population. Schools often describe these students as English Language Learners (ELL), and test results unsurprisingly show these kids face extra challenges in school. As the chart shows, the gap in 4th Grade Reading scores between ELL students and the state average is many times greater than the gap between the state average and the nation as a whole.

If we want to bring up the state average, we need to identify the students who are falling behind and tailor interventions to help them. So what is the best way to improve outcomes for ELL students?

What the Research Says

ELL students need an intensive focus on language learning in PK-3 to reach the fluency of native English speakers. To be most effective, this instruction should be conducted in both English and students’ native language, whenever possible. This is important to remember, since some have attempted to take Oklahoma in the opposite direction.

After Oklahoma voters approved State Question 751 to make English the state’s official language, lawmakers proposed bills that would ban bilingual education programs. Their proposals luckily did not make it through the House; if passed, they could have made it even harder for ELL students to become proficient in English. English-only education has been shown to actually reduce English proficiency for ELL students compared to students who received bilingual instruction. While partisans on either side can cherry-pick individual studies, a systematic review of the research showed that bilingual classes helps children learn English significantly more than English-only classes.

The good news is that research shows ELL students are just as capable of learning a challenging curriculum as any other student when provided the right educational environment. They do not need to be segregated in remedial classes. In fact, fluency in multiple languages is shown to offer cognitive advantages such as better focus on details, greater understanding of how language is structured, and higher creativity. For these reasons, bilingual education has been shown to benefit ELL students and native English speakers alike.

Besides bilingual education, other recommended strategies include offering professional development specifically for teachers of ELLs and ensuring that tests for subjects besides English can assess content knowledge without being distorted by language barriers.

The Most Important Question

Students bring very different backgrounds and challenges to school. Acknowledging this fact does not mean we have given up on their ability to learn. But it does mean education reforms should begin not with our political ideologies, but with a simple question, “What do students need?” If we want to have a constructive education debate, we should all take a step back and bring the students most in need of help to the front.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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