Stop Overlooking English Learners

Deborah J. Short outlines a plan to invest and engage in English Learner education

In the past six months, we have heard the cry “DEFUND” in varied contexts, often as a call for social justice, always engendering public controversy. But when the action is the gradual defunding of one area of education, we hear nothing: no controversy, no public outcry. In the past decade, the slow disinvestment in English language teaching and learning has relegated and disempowered our profession and set back the diverse communities that represent the future of our country. Although English learners are the fastest growing subset of the PK-12 student population in the nation, federal funding for them has remained flat or with minimal increase since 2015.

Besides the decrease in funding of programs for teachers and learners, the federal government has implemented hostile policies against immigrants, such as reducing refugee admissions, restructuring the asylum process, and enacting restrictive visa rules. Communities where English learners live suffer when society veers towards an anti-immigrant stance.

English learners bring relevant native language skills and multicultural perspectives critically important for the 21st century to the schoolhouse doors. But too often those skills and knowledge are denied entry into the classroom. Teachers and administrators in our schools may misguidedly believe English-only is the right policy because they lack the training in best practices for language development to know otherwise. They may also struggle with teaching content to English learners, or view the students’ initial lack of English as a deficiency or disability. But in reality, it is simply that the students don’t know English yet.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the inequities that English learners have encountered for years. Report after report show the clear lack of resources for remote learning. Many English learners have fewer online devices, less access to reliable Internet service and learning platforms, and limited support in their homes for help with assignments and technology. Even in some of the nation’s wealthiest school districts, we have seen these inequities persist, resulting in a dramatic rise in failing grades among English learners as well as sharp drops in other academic performance measures of English and mathematics in the first quarter of this school year..

In this context, and despite clear evidence of the benefits those who learn English as a new language bring to our economy and culture, the most dedicated and qualified professionals serving this population have largely been ignored and left out of key education policy discussions and decisions. It has been long overdue for the United States to acknowledge its past shortcomings and strengthen this critical sector of education. It is now time for strong educational programs for English learners with high expectations and support systems focused on student and teacher success.

In order to achieve such goals, we highlight the following areas for attention:

·         Funding for schools to remedy the learning loss during the COVID-19 school shutdowns and correct historic inequities in funding for English learners. With tight budgets we need smart investments – in extra instructional time for English learners to catch up in both academic English and subject area learning and in professional development opportunities for teachers and paraprofessionals to support them using research-based practices.

·         Recommended changes to state teacher certification requirements. Pre-service teachers must learn how best to teach the current and former English learners they will have in their classrooms. These requirements include coursework in the latest research on developing a second or additional language, methods for integrating language and content instruction, and cross-cultural communication and culturally responsive teaching.

·         Policies and opportunities to promote bilingualism. Knowing more than one language is an asset to our national economy and security. Dual language education programs, heritage language programs, and the Seal of Biliteracy are well-tested options that all learners, no matter their native language, can participate in.

·         Engagement of English language teachers in key policy decisions. Whether they are being made at the local, state, or federal level, policies impacting English learners should be discussed with the experts who teach them and are at the forefront of the latest research-based practices for learning a new language.

We know that overcoming decades of indifference won’t be an easy task, but after a tumultuous year, let’s take this opportunity to build language education back better.

Deborah J. Short is president of TESOL International Association

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this piece. You have highlighted important areas in which English learners and the professionals who teach them have been overlooked. In Illinois, at the post-secondary level, a bill has been approved of which a portion stipulates that students must be enrolled in college-level coursework by the second semester of their first year at the college. This bill is focused on providing access and equity to students who have been over-represented in the developmental education category, but, in doing so, it buries the needs of English learners who may need more than two semesters of academic ESL (which is coded as developmental education in the state of Illinois). We, English-language teachers — TESOL professionals — are aghast at this. Can you suggest any resources that we might use to strengthen our opposition to this?

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