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A 'One-Size-Fits-All' Approach to English-Learner Education Won't Work. Here's Why

While English-language learners generally lag behind their peers in academic achievement, lumping the students into one group can limit schools' ability to identify their individual strengths and struggles.

Whether they're a newcomer to the United States, a longterm ELL struggling with academic English, or a student who is somewhere in-between, English-learners have diverse academic and linguistic needsand a new study argues that there are vast differences in what they need and how they perform in school.

Using longitudinal data from a large, urban California school district, the research found that newcomer English-learners and reclassified English-learners take just as many, if not more, advanced academic courses than their native English-speaking peers.

Conversely, the data reveals, longer-term English-learners take fewer advanced academic courses.

"ELLs are very diverse," said the study author, Angela Johnson, a research scientist at the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA, formerly the Northwest Evaluation Association. "They're not this monolith that we can serve well using a one-size-fits-all policy. Educators and researchers have to appreciate the differences in their strengths and differences in their needs."

In her research, Johnson argues that schools must do more to support students who struggle with English proficiency and academics by prioritizing exposure to math, science, and social studies in the English-learner curriculum well before they reach high school, the final stage of their K-12 education. For that work, educators must avoid "watering down" the material.

Prior studies on English-learner coursetaking identified three subgroups within the English-learner population: newcomers; reclassified English-learners; and longterm English-learners. In her work, Johnson identified a fourth subgroup, which she calls midterm English-learners--students who are not newcomers, but may be on the path toward longterm English-learner status.

Johnson's research, "A Matter of Time: Variations in High School Coursetaking by Years-as-EL Subgroup," conducted during her time as a Stanford University doctoral student, appears in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. The work is the latest in a string of studies that has examined whether English-learners have equitable access to higher-level course work in high school. 

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, released last fall, concluded that school systems should do more to ensure that current and former English-learners have access to STEM education.

But a study released online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that immigrant children in the United States, particularly those students whose native languages are dissimilar to English, tend to study more math and science in high school and college than their peers.

While the findings of the two studies seem to clash, it is important to note that the English-learner and immigrant student populations aren't one and the same: U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that 72 percent of English-learners are U.S.-born.

The new body of work raises questions about the way English-learners—most of whom were born in this country—are educated: If foreign-born newcomer students who aren't fluent in English can access and excel in STEM courses here, why aren't some U.S.-born English-learners, specifically longer-term ELLs, afforded those same opportunities?

"It's not that the students came in with some kind of deficiency, it's that the system is not always prepared to serve them well," Johnson said.

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