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A New Federal Equity Agenda for Dual Language Learners and English Learners

English learners (ELs) constitute a large—and growing—share of the student body in the United States. More than 10 percent of U.S. pre-K–12 students are formally classified as ELs, which means that their states have determined that they have not yet reached sufficient English proficiency to cease participating in language instruction educational programs.1 But the linguistic diversity of U.S. schools stretches well beyond those 5 million students. U.S. schools also enroll millions of former ELs, linguistically diverse students who have met state criteria to exit EL status and be reclassified as English proficient; data from California and Oregon suggest that the number of former ELs is likely to be nearly as large as the number of current ELs.2 Indeed, data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that nearly one-quarter of U.S. children speak a language other than English at home.3 Furthermore, one-third of children under age 8 have at least one parent who speaks a non-English language—these younger language learners are sometimes referred to as dual language learners (DLLs) in the early years.4

Despite their increasing share of the U.S. student body, ELs have long been underserved and marginalized in the nation’s schools. Too often, states and school districts have treated ELs’ linguistic diversity as an obstacle or liability to be overcome. This monolingual, English-only approach has stripped many of these students of their emerging bilingualism and failed to set them up for academic or professional success. ELs’ graduation rates are lower than the national average, as well as the rates of almost every other student group: across the country, in the 2018–19 school year, the four-year high school graduation rate for current ELs was 69 percent, compared to the national four-year high school graduation rate for all students, which was 86 percent.5

Clearly, the United States is decades—generations—overdue for overhauling how its schools serve EL students. The nation needs a more equitable, “English-plus” approach to supporting ELs, beginning with systemic recognition that their home languages are considerable strengths to be developed. Research suggests that the work of developing bilingual proficiencies may confer cognitive benefits to young bilingual students, such as greater mental flexibility and a range of metalinguistic skills.6 This helps explain why these students often thrive in integrated, two-way dual language immersion programs that foster their bilingualism alongside English-dominant peers.7 Further, studies indicate that there may be long-term wage advantages for adults who have retained and deepened their bilingualism during their time in school.8

Better serving EL students means engaging the full diversity of the student group. Specifically, any efforts to support linguistic equity in education must also engage in discussions of racial and socioeconomic disparities in United States schools. For instance, a large majority of ELs are children of color. Nearly 78 percent of ELs identify as Hispanic, 11 percent identify as Asian, and 4 percent identify as Black. Just 7 percent of ELs identify as White.9 Further, while many ELs are children of immigrant parents, the large majority of these students are native-born U.S. citizens.10

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