January 18, 2017

Supporting English Learners

Research and data are key to improving outcomes for English learners. EDC’s Jill Weber and Julie Riordan explain.

"Districts should evaluate how programs for ELs impact student outcomes," says EDC's Jill Weber.

In New England, many school districts have been improving instructional and support services for students who are not yet proficient in English, students also known as English learners (ELs). It’s a diverse group that includes children who moved to the United States from other countries, U.S.-born children who speak another language at home, and refugee children who may never have attended school before.

Since 2006, the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC has been supporting school districts by examining the way they gather information about their EL students and build policies that support them. EDC’s Jill Weber and Julie Riordan discuss what they have learned in that time—and what is next in supporting ELs and their schools.

Q: What changes are we seeing among ELs in the northeast United States?

Weber: The population of ELs continues to grow across the region. For example, in Providence, Rhode Island, the number of EL students enrolled in school is 25 percent larger than it was only five years ago. And in Massachusetts, the population has grown by 66 percent over the last decade. This growth is accompanied by greater cultural and linguistic diversity among students. So while Spanish-speaking students have always been a large proportion of the region’s EL population, now they are being joined by students from all over the world, representing many more languages than ever before.

Q: What are some of the challenges school districts face in meeting the needs of EL students?

Riordan: One emerging concern is the issue of “dual identification,” which refers to children who receive both English language and special education services. EL students are put into special education classes at disproportionate rates, and some students are misclassified as having a learning disability when, really, all they need is effective English language development instruction.

Weber: We’ve also heard that some rural school districts are struggling to meet the needs of ELs. They simply have not had ELs before, and they don’t have many practices in place to support them.

Q: What can districts do to improve services for EL students?

Weber: One step for districts to improve learning, teaching, and support for EL students is to improve the data that they are collecting. For example, all districts must gather information about the languages that students speak at home when students first register. The results are used to help determine if students are eligible for English learner services. But some parents of ELs will indicate that English is spoken at home because they are afraid of reporting otherwise. Or, if parents themselves are not fluent in English, there may not be a version of the survey translated into their language. So the data that districts are collecting may be incomplete or inaccurate—and that has a direct impact on student services.

Secondly, districts should evaluate how programs for ELs impact student outcomes. When districts implement a new intervention that is intended to support ELs, they don’t always have a way to measure whether it is having the desired effect. Digging into the impact of programs and services can have major implications for policy and practice.

Q: How has the REL-NEI helped school districts to gather better data?

Riordan: We have done a lot to help districts assess and improve the data they collect. For example, we developed a data analysis primer for district staff on how to analyze data about their EL students and the types of services provided to them. We also conducted research studies that examined the academic progress of EL students over time. Currently, we are creating a new tool that districts can use to collect data about home language survey practices in four areas: policies and guidance, data collection, personnel, and data management.

We’ve seen this work pay dividends. Districts that we have supported are using data to develop new programs and services for ELs and considering ways to evaluate these programs. Better information results in programs that more effectively address the diverse needs of EL students.

Q: Looking ahead, what are some of the key challenges to address in helping districts support their EL students?

Weber: The REL-NEI will continue to work on the issue of dual identification. We’re interested in better understanding how EL students get identified with disabilities, what types of special education services are provided to EL students, and how they compare to special education services provided to native speakers. It’s an important area of research as the linguistic and geographic diversity of this region’s EL population increases.