Evidence Doesn't Back Keeping Kids "English Language Learners" Longer

Yesterday I talked about the new legislative session and some of the issues I will be watching. On the list is a discussion of changes to programs that serve students from families who don’t speak English as a native language. The Chalkbeat Colorado legislative preview mentioned what sort of action might be in the works:

There’s wide interest in a bill to improve programs for English language learners, increase funding and extend the number of years students can be served by such programs. A bipartisan ELL bill failed in 2013, and this year there may be competing Democratic and Republican versions.

What’s the problem with that? Well, research strongly suggests that improving ELL programs and extending the years a student can be funded as ELL may be conflicting goals. A recent edition of the Education Commission of the States’ electronic digest The Progress of Education Reform landed in a friend’s inbox recently. The topic? “English Language Learners: A Growing — Yet Underserved — Population.”

One of the big bullet point takeaways from the mini-report was:

Long-term English learners suffer worse outcomes than other English learners. States generally do not monitor how long students spend in English-learner programs.

Studies from the two largest states with large ELL student population back up the point. ECS cites research from California that found students enrolled at least six years, long-term English language learners, “fare even worse than other ELLs.” Meanwhile in Texas, students who complete the ELL course within three years achieved superior math and reading results to their peers enrolled in ELL for five years or more.

The topic of expending ELL program funding eligibility popped up last year as part of the larger Amendment 66 debate. Senate Bill 213, the new school finance act that was to be funded by the billion-dollar tax increase, would have increased funding for individual ELL students and for districts with high concentrations of those students while also allowing ELL status to reach as much as seven years (more than the current three).

My Spanish-speaking amigos tell me of a relevant occurrence on the October 31 edition of the Raaki Garcia Show. Independence Institute economist Linda Gorman shared from her issue paper on Amendment 66 how extending ELL status to seven years would discourage schools from getting the non-native speakers up to speed in a timely manner. A Hispanic mother called in to tell how her kids learned English in six months, but the school persistently sought to keep them in ELL classes.

Let’s keep the focus on what’s best for students. There may be good ideas to consider for making ELL programs more effective. But if this issue is going to be on the policy agenda for Colorado’s 2014 legislative session, someone needs to ask: Where is the evidence that keeping students in ELL programs longer will help them learn more? Because I’m not seeing it.