Creating Quality Education for English Learners

As we celebrate the successes and great contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) to our nation, let us not forget that there are still many unmet needs in the AAPI community, particularly when it comes to education.  For example, nearly one out of four AAPI students is Limited English Proficient (LEP) and/or lives in a linguistically isolated household.  This does not bode well for these students’ educational attainment and their prospects for future employment.

Limited English Proficient students, also referred to as English Learners (ELs), perform at levels far below those of their English-proficient peers and are more likely to drop out.  In fact, the high school drop-out rate among Southeast Asian Americans is a staggering 40% for Hmong American students, 38% for Laotian American students, and 35% for Cambodian American students.  These numbers are simply not acceptable, which is why I view the work we do in the  Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) as being so critically important to achieving President Obama’s goal for the United States to have the best-educated workforce and the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.   

English Learners are the fastest-growing student population in the United States, and we must do a better job of educating them in order to achieve the President’s goal.  Making this a priority, I partnered with other offices in the Department of Education to lead a series of national stakeholder meetings in six cities across the country over the past four months to define quality education for English learners in the 21st century.

Attended by more than 600 diverse EL stakeholders including educators, researchers, and policymakers, these conversations were aimed at identifying major concerns, sharing promising practices, and defining new directions for reform and transformation in English Learner Education.  These gatherings underscored the fact that we have our work cut out for us when it comes to addressing the needs of English Learners.  And no one knows this better than President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as they strive to push for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA):  

  • The Administration is maintaining $750 million in its FY 2012 budget request for States to provide high quality English Learner Education, train teachers of ELs, and fund evaluation activities and a clearinghouse for the dissemination of research-based information and data on effective programs for ELs.
  • The President’s ESEA proposal would strengthen English Learner Education by ensuring States’ implementation of a system to evaluate the effectiveness of programs for ELs.  It would also provide new competitive grants to support innovative practices, including dual-language programs that promote literacy in both English and the student’s native language.
  • The Race to the Top Assessment program provided $350 million to two consortia of States to develop high-quality assessments aligned with common, college- and career-ready standards in reading or language arts and mathematics.  The designers of these assessments will be required to ensure, from the very beginning, that they are reliable and valid for ELs. 

While creating quality education for English Learners is a major challenge, I prefer to look at it as an opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of this growing population of learners from diverse backgrounds and native languages.  I urge that we all work together to ensure these students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge they will need to achieve success in college and their careers.

 Rosalinda B. Barrera is the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education

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