The number of English language learners (ELLs) in American schools is rising faster than that of any other student population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2015 report, ELLs in U.S. schools increased from 3.7 million in 2000-01 to 4.4 million in 20012-13, up from eight percent to 10 percent of all students. In California, the state with the greatest increase, 23 percent of enrolled students in 2012-13 were ELLs, and 43 percent of students speak a language other than English in their homes.

Given these numbers, it’s clear that the challenges are enormous. There are more than 150 languages spoken by ELLs in the country’s schools. In some states, the vast majority of ELLs speak a single language — often Spanish — while in other states fewer than half of the students speak the top foreign language. Schools face a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and, often, rigidity within the traditional school structure that impedes effective teaching of English learners.

It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to ELL’s academic achievement, the data shows that our schools are failing to meet the Department of Education’s promise of “fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

Where’s the Excellence?

Consider the following data from the 2011 Nation’s Report Card:

The non-ELL achievement levels are unimpressive, but the ELL results are downright depressing — especially for eight graders who may be at risk of dropping out. For the vast majority of English learners, the language barrier remains unacceptably high.

School Success Stories

Despite these dismal statistics, some schools have done an exceptionally good job educating English learners. Take, for example, Coral Way Bilingual K-8 Center in Miami, Florida, which started providing two-way bilingual education for all students in the 1960s in response to an influx of English learners from Cuba. Of the 70 percent of kindergarteners who enter the school with a Limited English Proficient (LEP) classification, most move out of the classification by second grade.

On the West coast, a technology-based approach has made a big difference at a school formerly in Program Improvement. At Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland, California, where the student population is 65 percent LEP, Principal Charles Wilson introduced the Fast ForWord online reading intervention program to help struggling learners move closer to proficiency. Within two years, the reading proficiency rate for second through fifth graders increased from 17 percent to 41 percent. The math proficiency rate increased from 39 percent to 67 percent in the same period.

As a result of these gains, Korematsu received an award from Oakland Unified School District for the largest increase in the proficiency rate of English learners of all elementary schools in the district. According to Wilson, English learners who go through the program “are able to understand English more quickly, maintain their focus for a longer period of time, and are better at following directions.”

What’s Effective?

While the jury’s still out on which program model — two-way bilingual as used at Coral Way, late-exit bilingual, pullout ESL, etc. — is “the best” for helping English learners make strides academically, research shows that successful schools have typically made an effort to restructure for better learning. School restructuring can include a variety of elements, such as:

  • Organization of schooling — alternative student groupings, project-based or thematic instruction
  • Productive uses of time — improving classroom management, creating block schedules, extending the school year
  • Teacher collaboration — team curriculum development, high standards, shared instructional strategies
  • Professional development — designed and planned by teachers to stay abreast of research on language development and acquisition
  • School decision-making — teachers and administrators share responsibility for school operation and approaches to learning
  • Parent and community engagement — parent involvement is valued and creatively encouraged
  • Integrated services — ensure that students’ health and social needs are met

Many of the benefits of restructuring — such as greater parent involvement and teacher collaboration — extend beyond ELLs to the broader school community. With a more flexible structure in place, teachers have greater latitude to help all their students build the skills they need to succeed in reading, language arts and all subject areas.

The reading intervention program used at Korematsu Discovery Academy is easier to implement than school restructuring and can provide rapid results within traditional or restructured learning environments. The program helps ELLs learn to hear the critical differences between similar sounding English phonemes so they can make sense of the English language. Once they can hear the sound differences, the “code” is broken and they can accelerate their acquisition of reading and language skills. It’s this unique intervention approach that makes it possible for ELLs to achieve significant academic gains in just a few months.

The demographic changes in American schools are demanding that educators demonstrate the same globally competitive skills that their students are expected to develop — the ability to innovate, implement effective technologies, work collaboratively to solve pressing problems, and communicate cross-culturally with parents and the broader community. There are schools like Coral Way and Korematsu Discovery Academy that have demonstrated what’s possible. Who’s up for the challenge?

Hallie Smith has 16 + years’ experience in the education technology industry and has specialized knowledge of and experience with instructional leadership, language and literacy development, special education services, speech and language pathology, autism, and bilingual education. She is Director of Marketing at Scientific Learning where she plans, develops and implements marketing strategies, communications, and public relations activities across K-12 public school, clinical professional and consumer (parent) markets.

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