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Making education money talk

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Esther Cepeda
February 6, 2011
— The challenges facing public education are so great that solutions are increasingly emerging only as a result of partnerships between government agencies, school districts and private funders.

One beneficial outgrowth of this collaboration is that education issues that might not yet be viewed as emergencies get needed attention.


For instance, last year I wrote about the massive challenge of educating English-language learners (ELL) and bemoaned that discussions have rarely focused on research and frequently bow to partisan immigration reform opinions. I lamented, “Those arguments ignore the reality that the performance of students not fluent in English affects the overall performance of nearly every public school in the country.”


Last week, a national network of more than 260 private and public funding organizations, Grantmakers for Education, published new research outlining why it’s so important to bolster ELL education in our ever-diverse schools. In their report “Investing in Our Next Generation,” we learn that more than one in 10 pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade students in the U.S.—over 5.3 million—are classified as English-language learners, with a sizable achievement gap between them and their English-proficient peers. The 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress showed that only 6 percent of fourth-grade ELL students scored at or above “proficiency” in reading in English, compared to 34 percent of non-ELL fourth-graders.


The authors point out something that we’ve refused to acknowledge for years: ELLs are the most rapidly growing group of students in our nation’s schools, but these underperforming students are not all immigrants. In fact, more than 75 percent of elementary ELL students are either second-generation or third-generation Americans.


Let that wash over you for a minute. The unique learning needs of students whose native language is not English have been so tragically unmet that there are children in public schools today whose families have been in the U.S. for three generations, yet they still can’t claim proficiency of the English language. This alone should be the wake-up call for school districts across the country to wonder whether they have failed to realize a few other eye-openers that this report points out—like that English-language learners are scattered across the country in places you might not expect.


The areas with the fastest growth in English-language learners are not the places that already have large, established ELL populations such as California, Texas, New York, Florida and Arizona. And as a result, the schools and communities where the number of ELL students is increasing most rapidly—South Carolina, Indiana, Nevada, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware—often have little experience serving these types of students.


Even more complex: English-language learners are not concentrated in cities; they attend both urban and rural schools, each of which presents different challenges requiring appropriate teaching methods. And regardless of geographic similarity, districts in which ELL students come from homes where dozens or even hundreds of other languages are spoken face very different logistical and cultural challenges than districts in which the students primarily speak one to three languages.


A final crucial factor is family education—there are no safe rules of thumb to be made about ELL parents’ education level even if you limit the pool to recent immigrants. The report states: “Although immigrants account for a disproportionate share of Americans without a high school diploma, nearly one-third of Americans with doctoral degrees in 2009 were immigrants.”


Grantmakers for Education made many suggestions for funders who give to organizations to boost student achievement—make ELL success a priority, engage school and district leadership to highlight ELL issues, and thoughtfully replicate proven strategies to non-ELL students. But the most impactful suggestion was to “stage the ‘courageous conversations’ about how prejudice and low expectations” decrease the possibilities of success for English-language learners.


Those who loosen the purse strings have the opportunity to drive home that progress hinges on whether schools and districts reach goals for the percentage of all students scoring at or above the “proficient” level on state reading and math tests. If money can help improve English-language learners’ current pitiable performance, then the chances of achieving adequate yearly progress for all students will get a needed lift.


Money talks, and if the people with the money are willing to convince others that the challenge of how to best educate English-language learners goes far beyond worn-out assumptions and the politically heated topic of immigration, we’ll be halfway there.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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