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Do English-Language Learners Get Stigmatized by Teachers? A Study Says Yes

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Students are identified as English-language learners, in theory, to prevent educational inequity, but that classification may present another problem for children: teacher bias.

Research from Ilana Umansky of the University of Oregon and Hanna Dumont of Germany's Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education suggests that English-learner classification has a "direct and negative effect on teachers' perceptions of students' academic skills."

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the researchers examined teacher perceptions of 2,166 students who spoke a language other than English at home.

At the start of kindergarten, the students had the same English proficiency and academic skill levels; whether they were identified as English-learners or not largely depended on differences in states' and districts' thresholds for classification.

The study included questions in which teachers recorded their perceptions of students' academic skills and knowledge over time. Umansky and Dumont used responses from the spring of kindergarten, after teachers had been working with their students for almost a full school year, and then again at the end of 1st and 2nd grades. They focused on teachers' perceptions of students' skills and knowledge in four areas: language and literacy; math; social studies; and science.

Their findings indicate that, across all the grade levels and content areas, teachers had lower perceptions of the academic skills and knowledge of those students who were classified as English-learners.

They also found, however, that the teachers' negative bias or low academic perceptions were virtually nonexistent for English-learners in bilingual settings, such as dual-language programs and traditional bilingual programs, where a teacher or paraprofessional is using a language other than English at least half the time.

Here's a link to Umansky and Dumont's working paper, English Learner Labeling: How English Learner Status Shapes Teacher Perceptions of Students' Skills & the Moderating Role of Bilingual Instructional Settings.

In an interview, Umansky said that providing professional development to help educators who work with English-learners and developing a diverse, bilingual teaching corps that can connect with students and families could help limit the bias.

"Being bilingual, coming from a racial or ethnic background that's similar to the students you teach, those things can really decrease bias and help kids succeed," Umansky said.

While the study identifies teacher bias, it does not examine how that bias affects academic outcomes for those students.

In previous studies, Umansky has identified a negative impact of English-learner classification on test scores. She has also argued that designation as an English-learner can set up a tiered education system, one that can restrict students' access to a school or district's full range of academic resources and coursework.

"We're still in a situation where a lot of content-area teachers—we're talking here at the secondary level, math teachers or social studies teachers, for example—don't have a lot of professional training on working with English-learners," Umansky said. 

They haven't "been able to learn in a rigorous way that yes, kids that are acquiring English can still learn rigorous academic content and there are ways to help them do that."

There is debate among researchers whether English-language-learner classification helps or harms students.

A 2017 study from Nami Shin, a research scientist at CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded that the additional support that students receive as English-learners helps foster higher achievement in language arts and mathematics than was the case for students who were on the cusp but were identified initially as English-proficient students and, as a result, did not receive the extra services.

Related Reading

Overlooked: How Teacher Training Falls Short for English-Learners and Students with IEPs

Does English-Language-Learner Classification Help or Hinder Students?

Beyond Bias: Countering Stereotypes in School

How 5 Districts Unlock ELLs' Math Potential

Does the Term 'English-Language Learner' Carry a Negative Connotation?

Image Credit: Maritza Fabia, a 3rd grader at Rose Hill Elementary School in Colorado's Adams 14 school district, listens to her teacher during a Spanish class.

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