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Education for Adult English-Learners Faltering, Report Asserts

The prevailing system for educating adult English-language learners is falling woefully short in helping students reach proficiency in the language, a new report asserts.

With just around 40 percent of adults who are enrolled in English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) courses demonstrating improvement in their proficiency each year, the federal and state-funded adult ESL programs need a major overhaul, argues the Lexington Institute, a conservative public policy think tank based in Arlington, Va.

The report—written by Sean Kennedy and John Walters—cites U.S. Census data that 23 million adults in the United States lack "adequate" English proficiency. More than 2 million of those are American-born. That, they argue, is already, and will continue to be, a "severe hindrance for both the economic mobility and assimilation of these immigrants and some native-born Americans, who are trapped in generational linguistic isolation."

And though many adult English-learners are highly motivated to learn the language, Kennedy and Walters argue that the system of education available to them is rife with "high dropout rates, low proficiency gains, and barriers to participation and rapid language acquisition."

The main reason for those disappointing outcomes, the report says, is that many adult ESL programs—the majority of them run by government agencies—are not at all designed to meet the needs of the learners themselves.

A 2009 report on the state of adult ESL by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the federal health, education and labor departments needed to do a better job of sharing information and working together in providing English classes for adults.

In their report, the Lexington Institute authors urge government agencies to study, and adopt, the practices in use by nonprofit groups, including charter schools, to provide adult ESL courses. One of the most obvious changes needed, they say, is flexible course scheduling. Too many adult ESL programs occur in daytime work hours, when many students are working.

A shortage of data to measure the effectiveness of adult ESL is another major problem that must be addressed, they argue.

They cite a program in Los Angeles as a model for flexibility—the PUENTE Learning Center. That program uses blended learning to individualize instruction and closely track students' progress toward proficiency. In 2005, the PUENTE program saw 85 percent of its students make progress in proficiency, the report says.

A District of Columbia charter school—Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School—is also achieving good results with its adult ESL learners, they say.

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