Only 5 States are Meeting Targets for English Learners: What Can They Teach Us?

Only 5 States are Meeting Targets for English Learners: What Can They Teach Us?

In an October 2018 report to Congress, the United States Department of Education revealed troubling statistics regarding English Learners and their teachers: Only five states are succeeding in helping ELs meet language, reading, and mathematics goals. Even more discouragingly, the data indicates that success rates are declining. What can this report tell us about the struggles faced by ELs and their teachers? And what can we learn from these five successful states?

In The Biennial Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Title III State Formula Grant Program, the Department of Education detailed the use of Title III funding in each state. Under Title III, each state must set its own academic goals to measure ELs’ language proficiency and academic progress; since each state may see very different immigrant populations with their own unique needs, this flexibility is essential. States report student progress in English language proficiency as well as academic progress in reading and mathematics.

Unfortunately, as of the 2013–2014 academic year (the most recent time period for which data has been submitted), most states are failing to meet their own goals for ELs. In fact, only five states succeeded in helping ELs meet their English proficiency, reading, and mathematics goals: Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, New York, and Virginia. Of those five, only Alabama had met its EL student goals for two consecutive academic years, 2012–2013 and 2013–2014.

As the Biennial Report itself cautioned, comparing data between states may not reveal obvious correlations or conclusions because Title III allows states to create their own academic goals and measures of progress for ELs. Therefore, there are no real standardized measures that can clarify why so many states are failing to meet their goals in all three areas, nor do there seem to be clear connections among the five states that succeeded in doing so. However, studying the report as a whole reveals several emerging trends—most notably the indication that as demand for EL services rises, many states are facing a growing variety of EL needs and a shrinking pool of teachers.


Demand for EL services is rising

From the data, we can clearly see that the need for EL services is ever-increasing. Indeed, over the past decade, EL enrollment in K–12 schools has increased by more than 100 percent in 11 states. While individual states show more ebb and flow in their specific EL population numbers and needs, the overall significant increase in need denotes an overwhelming demand for services.

The data also reflects that Title III programs are being heavily used to meet the needs of the growing EL population, with 93 percent of ELs in the U.S. participating in a Title III-supported program. In 2013–2014 alone, the Department of Education awarded $640 million in state grants under Title III to be used in state-determined Language Instruction Educational Programs, or LIEPs.


Variety of student needs

While there is a great deal of diversity in the home and/or native languages spoken by ELs in the U.S., the five most common native languages spoken among students during the 2013–2014 academic year were:

  • Spanish (3,637,685)

  • Arabic (100,461)

  • Chinese (99,943)

  • Vietnamese (80,283)

  • Haitian Creole (35,467)

Although these were also the five most common native languages during the previous school year, the data reflects changing populations. For instance, Chinese was the second most common native language in 2012–2013 and Arabic was the third. The rise of Arabic to become the second most common native language one year later reflects the country's growing population of Arabic-speaking ELs. Indeed, the report noted that this population grew by 157 percent between school years 2006–2007 and 2013–2014.

Additionally, the immigrant populations and home languages of ELs can vary dramatically from state to state, and the overall data showed more than 40 different home languages among ELs. In both 2012–2013 and 2013–2014, 13 states reported that there was no “majority” native language (i.e., no one language was spoken by more than 50 percent of the EL population).

The question remains: How can schools prepare to meet the needs of their specific ELs? For example, hiring bilingual educators who speak Spanish and English may sound good in theory but would not be very effective in schools where only a small percentage of ELs speak Spanish at home. Similarly, a school may have a student population with such a wide variety of home languages that it is difficult to find educators or translators who can communicate effectively with families.

The teacher pool is shrinking

The need for qualified bilingual and certified ELteachers has been a concern for years, and data from the Biennial Report reflects this: Between school years 2012–2013 and 2013–2014, 18 states reported a decrease in the number of certified and licensed teachers working in Title III-supported programs. With a growing population of diverse ELstudents, the lessening number of qualified teachers is concerning.

Further, the data suggested that the need for qualified ELteachers will only continue to grow, as 22 states projected needing an even greater increase in the number of certified or licensed teachers in the next five years. (By contrast, the projected number of additional teachers needed was unchanged in 16 states, and 12 states actually decreased projections.) Clearly, many states are aware of the need for more qualified EL educators. So, how can we close the gap between teacher supply and demand?


What can we learn?

While an initial review of these trends and predictions may be overwhelming, we can take note of what is working in the states that demonstrate success. For instance, five states reported meeting their Title III goals for EL students in school year 2013–2014 in all three areas: English language proficiency, academic progress in reading, and academic progress in mathematics skills. Let’s take a closer look at what we can learn from Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, New York, and Virginia.


As previously mentioned, Alabama holds the distinction of being the only state to report success in both academic years 2012–2013 and 2013–2014. Interestingly, unlike the other four states, Alabama is one of 10 states that only offered programs focused on increasing students’ English literacy, while the other 40 states offered LIEPs that aimed to develop students’ literacy in two languages.

Alabama also reported one of the largest decreases in students making progress toward English language proficiency—with a drop of 24 percentage points—between school years 2012–2013 and 2013–2014. While the state experienced this decrease, it should be noted that Alabama still met its goals for student academic progress and language proficiency in both school years.


Despite an increase in its number of identified ELs between 2012–2013 and 2013–2014, Indiana reported an increase of more than 20 percentage points in students who made progress toward English language proficiency between the two school years, which may be related to the drastic increase in the number of certified and licensed teachers working in the state's Title III funded programs. In 2012–2013, 1,190 Indiana teachers were working in LIEPs; this increased to 2,179 in 2013–2014.


Mississippi reported some of the lowest numbers of ELs nationwide, with fewer than 10,000 ELs identified in school years 2012–2013 and 2013–2014. However, the success they experienced in meeting their state's Title III goals is undeniable—like Indiana, Mississippi reported an increase of more than 20 percentage points in progress toward English language proficiency.

New York

Between 2012–2013 and 2013–2014, New York reported an 8.8 percent increase of certified or licensed teachers, along with an increase of 5.4 percent in the number of students needing English language learning services during this time period. Outpacing student need with teacher availability is certainly a positive approach—and given the state’s success in meeting its Title III goals, the strategy seems to be very effective. As with Indiana and Mississippi, New York reported a more than 20 percent increase in the number of students who made progress toward English language proficiency.


Of the top five states, Virginia demonstrated the most consistency in terms of LIEPs offered and rates of student progress; there were no remarkable changes between studied school years in terms of number of EL students, teachers, languages spoken, or programs offered. Although the state did report a decrease in the percentage of ELs making progress in English language proficiency (with 70 percent making progress in 2012–2013 compared to 58 percent in 2013–2014), Virginia did meet its English proficiency goals for EL students in both school years.


The path forward

As the EL population rises throughout the country, language programs funded through Title III aim to serve every student in terms of achieving English language proficiency and academic success in reading and math. The Title III program allows each state to set and assess its own goals for EL students—a necessity given the wide array of needs—and each of the five states outlined above demonstrates a unique picture of what success under Title III can look like. This data confirms an overall trend of rising EL populations, along with the need for qualified teachers, specialized language programs, and funding through Title III. While each individual state and school community must individually evaluate the needs of its own population, remaining conscious of data detailed in the Biennial Report will allow us to look at our own school communities and reflect on how Title III funding can help us meet the needs of our unique student groups.

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