Rebuilding the U.S. Education System for the Nation’s English Learners
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep structural inequities in the U.S. health, economic, and education systems. English Learners (ELs) have unequally borne the weight of the pandemic. With less access to educational technology, “fragmented” digital knowledge, and variable home learning environments due to interrupted child care, job loss, and food insecurity as a result of the public-health crisis, many of the nation’s 5 million ELs have experienced uneven instructional opportunities. This has resulted in higher absence rates, declining academic achievement, and setbacks in their English language development.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) includes a historic $122 billion investment for elementary and secondary schools to address the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on the nation’s most vulnerable students, including ELs. The U.S. Department of Education released two-thirds of that funding in March and will disburse the remaining $41 billion after states submit detailed plans outlining their use of ARP dollars. School districts, too, must publicly share their plans for using federal relief funds. These funds, if invested effectively, can help reset the trajectory of education for ELs, who by almost every measure of academic achievement—graduation and dropout rates, college preparation, and state standards—were behind their peers even prior to the pandemic. Some critical starting points the ARP funding could help buttress include community partnerships, effective use of increased learning time, professional development, and family engagement.
School building closures and remote learning both underscored the significance of schools as well as their limitations in supporting ELs. Community-based organizations (CBOs) have played a critical role in reaching, informing, and supporting immigrant communities throughout the pandemic. CBOs have helped EL families navigate online classes, provided additional academic support, and connected families to virtual home-visiting services and other social services.
As in-person learning increasingly becomes the norm once again, CBOs can be significant partners in after-school and summer programming, family engagement, and communication, and supporting social and emotional health. Some districts may go so far as to consider investments in community schools, which powerfully demonstrate the strength of CBO-school partnerships and have shown some significant improvements for ELs in English language arts and math as well as credit accumulation. However, effective collaboration can come in many forms.
CBOs should also be a significant target for the outreach that states and districts do as they craft and implement their plans for their share of ARP school relief funds. States and school districts are required to engage key stakeholders during this process, including civil-rights organizations and those representing the interests of ELs, migrant students, and other historically underserved students. School districts should use this as an opportunity to authentically engage trusted CBOs serving immigrant families that, with the added resources and capacity, can deepen schools’ reach and impact.
In addition, ARP requires districts to set aside at least 20 percent of their relief funding to address learning loss. With the loss of in-person instructional time over the last year, many districts might be considering ways to increase learning time, which may include lengthening the school day, week, or year. Evidence suggests that expanded learning time in combination with high dosage tutoring or acceleration academies can be a powerful gap-closing intervention for ELs. But such strategies need to be mindful of EL students’ needs. For one, staffing matters. Ideally such programs should be staffed with teachers, paraprofessionals, and highly trained tutors who are not only experienced with the content but also in working with ELs.
This speaks to another urgent need—professional development and training for all teachers to work with ELs. By now nearly two-thirds of all teachers have at least one EL in their classroom—but less than half have taken any courses on instructing ELs. All teachers should have the knowledge and skills to scaffold their instruction for ELs of varying English proficiency. Sustained, content-focused professional development to support ELs that is also grounded in culturally responsive teaching practices would be a wise long-term investment for school districts that have substantial EL student enrollment.
Finally, the shift to remote learning has further highlighted the critical role parents play in educating their children. For parents of ELs, the most effective methods often involve extensive and personal outreach in the form of phone calls, text messaging, and home visits in their home language. Metro Nashville Public Schools, for example, implemented a navigator system, staffing outdoor school registration sites and technology support hubs at the start of the school year with interpreters to support EL students and their families. Navigators also carry out weekly phone calls with families to identify areas of concern and identify students who are missing instruction. As a result of these efforts, teachers and school staff have gained a better understanding of students’ home environments and the challenges they face. With ARP dollars, school districts can take important steps to systematically incorporate culturally and linguistically responsive family-engagement strategies.
Aside from a few guardrails, school districts have a great deal of flexibility in how they spend ARP dollars. As they emerge from a long year of crisis control, their work must begin by prioritizing ELs and other students disproportionately affected by the pandemic. While remote learning and other pandemic-mitigation efforts have unintentionally deepened opportunity and academic gaps between ELs and their peers, the response must be deliberate and targeted if the nation hopes to fully recover from this unprecedented education crisis.