Carola Suárez-Orozco, a professor of education at UCLA, is co-author of “Children of Immigration,” and co-editor of “Transitions: The Development of Children of Immigrants.” This column appeared in the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” section.
English learners are 9.3 percent of all K-12 students in the United States. And in states with substantial immigrant populations the percentage is higher — 22.7 percent in California, for example. English learners require more academic support, since they are mastering both academic English and the academic content of their course, but they are often underserved.
Beside the challenges of the classroom, many deal with poverty, trauma, undocumented status, racial bias and low expectations and school segregation. While some English learners have highly educated parents who are well equipped to help them play the academic game even if they are not native English speakers, many have parents with minimal academic experience placing them at an academic disadvantage. Some have attended U.S. schools since early childhood yet continue to lack English proficiency. That such students still are not proficient in English is a failure of our schools.
Our current accountability mandate is predicated on standardized assessments, but those assessments were not designed with English learners in mind.
Many educators and policy makers are not adequately aware or prepared to interpret findings or address the diverse needs of English learners in this high-stakes context. Given this growing student population, we need to make assessments linguistically and culturally valid.
We also must prepare our teachers and administrators to learn how to serve these students and their families. There are excellent programs of practice available. High-quality, language-intensive, purposeful interactions with teachers and fellow students over a sustained period of time along with patience and a demand for excellence leads to rewarding outcomes. Within four to seven years in high quality programs (not one year as some policy makers dream) English learners can be ready to compete and even surpass their peers.
Scaling up effective programs and practices can rectify protracted inequalities for this fast growing group of students. Arguably, some of these practices are simply sound for all students regardless of whether or not they are English learners. What the Gates Foundation termed the new three Rs — rigor, relevance and relationships — are sadly not being provided to all too many of our less privileged students. We must begin here.
Other practices are very specific to the needs of newcomer students and English language learners, serving to ease their negotiation of the cultural transition and learning their new language.
Many newcomers have socio-emotional needs that must be addressed before they can focus on learning. The majority of newcomers have suffered often extended periods of family separations in the process of migration. Many, especially refugees, have undergone traumatic experiences. There are myriad new cultural rules of engagement to be learned. Effective schools provide counseling supports and get to know their students, have transition teams and run advisory groups linking faculty and students to discuss a variety of topics.
Of course, crucial for English learners’ success is an intentional instructional strategy. Research shows that learning is most successful when: 1. learners are placed in a progressive and systematic program of instruction that first identifies a student’s incoming literacy and academic skills; 2. there is a minimum of transitions between types of programs; 3. high-quality second-language instruction is provided with continued academic supports (like tutoring, homework help and writing assistance) as the language learners integrate into mainstream programs. Teachers in the exemplary schools receive extensive training in providing language-intensive training both in writing and verbal discussion formats embedded consistently across the entire curriculum. By providing these supports English learners can meet their potential and become engaged members of their new society.