English learners (ELs), also known as emergent bilinguals, are students whose primary language is other than English and who are in the process of becoming proficient enough to participate in English-only instruction. In Houston area public schools, about one-third of students who begin elementary school are in this category.
These students receive language support and instruction to support their English language skills until they are reclassified and ready to participate in English-only instruction. Reclassification as English proficient is a critical milestone because, until they reclassify, these students will not have access to their schools’ full range of education programs, such as advanced coursework.
English learners who reclassify as English-proficient in elementary school go on to achieve academic success. However, those who take longer to reclassify and continue on to middle school are at risk for negative educational outcomes in middle school and high school. These students are known as long-term English learners (LTELs). In the past decade, the percentage of ELs who go on to become LTELs has increased by 90% in Texas and by 50% in the Greater Houston area.
With our school district partners, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research is conducting a multi-year study to understand LTELs and their outcomes. In our most recent report, the Houston Education Research Consortium examined factors that increased or decreased the likelihood of becoming an LTEL. In this study, only students whose home language was Spanish were included, which consisted of 89% of ELs beginning elementary school during this time period (i.e., students who began first grade in 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15).
What increases the risk of an EL becoming an LTEL?
Students who were retained a grade in elementary school and students who were identified for special education services were at the highest risk of becoming LTEL. Students who were suspended, who were more likely to be absent, and who changed schools in the middle of the school year were also at increased risk of becoming LTEL. Finally, changing EL instructional programs during elementary school increased the risk of becoming LTEL. All of these factors point to some sort of disruption or change in educational services.
These findings underscore the need for continuity of instruction, which is important for the educational success of all students, particularly in the elementary grades.
What reduces the risk?
Not surprisingly, starting school with higher English comprehension skills decreased the likelihood of an EL becoming LTEL. In addition, sticking with one EL instructional program (and not switching programs) during elementary school decreased the likelihood of becoming LTEL, with effects varying by program type.
ELs who participated in only one instructional program that supported a student’s home language, such as a bilingual or dual-immersion program, had a decreased likelihood becoming an LTEL. In contrast, students who participated in an English-immersion program, called English as a second language (ESL), where students are only given instruction in English, had a higher chance of becoming LTEL.
We know that student mobility—transfers between schools—can disrupt educational progress for many students. While this study found that switching schools, especially during the school year, increased the risk of becoming LTEL – it wasn’t just students switching schools who were switching EL programs. The results suggest that some children who stay in the same school can experience differing English language instruction— either the school changes its program approach overall, or it may provide differing approaches based on grade level.
What it means
Continuity of instruction appears to be a critical element for the success of EL students, particularly in elementary school. In addition, EL programs that support a student’s home language provide greater protection against becoming LTEL.
At the same time, the benefit of receiving instruction exclusively in one program type is also important, and when students change programs, the risks of ELs becoming LTEL increase. Campuses wanting to shift from ESL to dual-immersion or bilingual programs should consider phasing in new programs, or introducing new programs to new cohorts of students, while keeping existing programs for current students.