It is well-documented that multilingual learners, or English learners (EL) as they are more typically referred to by policymakers, have been left behind in our nation’s schools for years. They face specific challenges because they are tasked with mastering academic content while learning a new language, and many schools and educators are not well-equipped to support these dual needs. Many of these students also face additional socioeconomic barriers that limit their access to extracurricular academic support. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many pre-existing societal inequities, it is likely to devastate outcomes for this population of students. As the fastest-growing student population in our public schools, estimated to be 25 percent of our students by 2025, they cannot be overlooked by policymakers at the state or federal level; and specific targeted interventions must be administered to mitigate the learning loss and growing gaps in achievement that we are likely to see in coming years, especially given the disruption to learning that many students have experienced since March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But what should those interventions be, and how can they be designed to address the challenges at hand effectively? The expertise of educators currently serving these students must be central to the conversation and must be considered moving forward.
To get started on gathering this expert input, in late November 2020, Next100 launched a survey to gauge the perspectives of PreK–12 school and district staff currently serving English learners in our nation’s public schools. The survey sought to collect their feedback on the challenges that school staff face in helping English learners and the support they need to be more effective. In this commentary, we will summarize what we’ve found, and identify some key takeaways for policymakers concerned about the well-being of multilingual learners.
In the survey, 145 school or district staff currently serving English learners completed anonymous questionnaires across the span of a week. Responses came in from thirty-four school districts and fourteen charter networks across twenty states and the District of Columbia. Respondents were teachers, academic support staff, or school administrators or principals. Moving forward, the set of respondents will be referred to as educators.
84 percent of the respondents currently work in traditional public schools. The majority (56 percent) are elementary school educators. 91 percent of these educators are currently serving ELs in a virtual or hybrid setting, as opposed to fully in-person. The survey was shared with educators via the author’s networks—who is herself a former educator and current graduate student at a school of education—as well as with various EL policy working groups.
What We Learned
English Learners, Academics, and Virtual Learning
When asked how English learners are doing academically, the report from educators was sobering: 67 percent of educators said their students are not doing well or are only doing slightly well. 55 percent believe that they are either not serving their English learners well, or are serving them only somewhat well. When asked how supported they have felt to provide English learners with the services they need to succeed academically, 64 percent of educators have not felt well-supported by their schools, districts, or charter networks.
For educators who do not believe they are supporting their English learners well, two in three of them reported that they believe that few of their students have a caregiver who can support school work. Over half said that few of their EL students have a caregiver who is able to regularly communicate with the school. The students who are arguably among the most in need of academic support do not have adults available to them who are equipped and supported themselves to provide the students with help.
Further, we know the digital divide has exacerbated learning gaps. Unsurprisingly, over half of survey respondents reported that only a few or some of their EL students had the technology they needed to participate in online learning. Even more concerning, 72 percent of educators said that only a few or some of their EL students have reliable or stable Internet access with which to remain engaged in online learning.
The challenges discussed above are only the beginning, however: our respondents described difficulties in serving English learners that extend beyond educators’ skills, caregivers’ ability to help with school work, and English learners’ access to technology and virtual learning connectivity. In open-ended responses, educators are also named additional challenges directly affecting students, teachers, and students’ families, some of which pre-date the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Challenges Directly Affecting Students
Educators reported that during the pandemic, EL students lack opportunities for language development, with one educator sharing, “They do not have the ability to practice language use the way they need to.” Many students are missing out on the opportunity to build social language skills from informal conversations with their peers and then getting bombarded with challenging academic language without proper support. The skills gained from building social language abilities are a building block for developing academic language skills.
Proficiency in rigorous academic language also demands an extensive vocabulary. Unfortunately, many educators reported that students are not receiving daily, targeted support for language development in many of their classes, which would allow them to expand and build their academic vocabulary. Some teachers shared that unless students are in a specific English language development (ELD) or English as a second language course or block, they are not receiving any explicit language instruction at all. For older students who are changing classes each term, they do not always have the option of participating in an ELD course because of competing graduation requirements and limited time.
Teachers repeatedly indicated that many ELs face additional challenges in trying to navigate a new mode of learning in a new language. Even when they have a personal device and reliable internet with which to participate in remote virtual learning, learning to navigate new technology has been especially challenging for these students because they are simultaneously tasked with content, language, and technical learning. Additionally, many of these students do not have a quiet designated area for learning at home. Further, virtual learning presents additional challenges for students to follow along, as they miss contextual information and input from their peers that previously helped them follow along in class.
Furthermore, according to many educators, the stress of moving to virtual learning has impacted students’ physical and mental health. Educators reported their ELs complaining of headaches and eyesight issues and noted some ELs have shown increased anxiety and stress.
Finally, educators noted that attendance rates have dropped and withdrawal rates have increased—students are simply not back “in” school, for several reasons. One educator suggested that students have had to relocate to other districts or their family’s country of origin to be closer to their support networks, while another said that “distrust of government in general due to COVID and their personal life experiences have caregivers avoiding school all together. Many are off the grid.” Others reported that because parents are working, students are not supervised to ensure they are showing up for classes. For older ELs, educators indicated that the higher absenteeism they have seen has come from students dealing with the increased burden of home responsibilities, like caring for younger siblings when parents are working, or needing to work themselves in order to help make ends meet.
Challenges Affecting Educators
In the open response section of the survey, educators dug into the ways in which they feel unsupported to serve English learners properly. They report feeling overwhelmed for multiple reasons. They are struggling with getting students logged in due to technology and digital literacy issues, coupled with language barriers. While there’s been much discussion of technology access for students, some educators are also experiencing some of the same challenges themselves.
They also feel they are not providing and cannot provide the support that their EL students need. Educators have felt they do not have the capacity to gather their EL students in small groups virtually or in person to provide meaningful feedback, and that they are not getting to support these students on a daily basis. They are also struggling to effectively communicate with caregivers or engage with their families, particularly for educators who are monolingual or do not speak the home languages of students in their classrooms. These educators are finding the translation services they are provided with, like Google Translate, to be insufficient, but at the same time they need them more than ever, given that they cannot readily turn to bilingual colleagues when communicating with families given remote learning and/or social distancing guidelines. Bilingual educators specifically discussed feeling overwhelmed and undervalued, given the unseen work of translating materials while maintaining every other responsibility. For example, an educator shared, “I need support in advocating for the time needed to translate all materials that are sent home, including homework. I am held to the standard of a monolingual teacher who doesn’t have this extra burden and it is burning me OUT.” When it comes to newcomer ELs and students with interrupted formal education, educators reported lacking any digital curriculum or resources to engage students meaningfully.
There’s been very little guidance about providing support for ELs during the pandemic.
Some educators reported uncertainty pre-dating the COVID-19 pandemic across multiple areas that are critical to supporting their students well. Some are unclear on best practices for supporting English language development or what the standards even are, relative to academic content standards; while others reported that general education teachers are not equipped nor required to embed language development support for their English learners. Educators do not feel they are getting the EL-specific resources they need; one wrote, “There’s been very little guidance about providing support for ELs during the pandemic, not even close to what has been put out for students with IEPs [individualized education programs].” Teachers have also found properly tracking and assessing ELs’ language development to be challenging, providing limited opportunity for students to show their mastery. One educator reported that even teachers tasked with experiential learning, like physical education or culinary arts, are now assessing students in written form. Educators trained to support ELs expressed concern with the way students have traditionally been assessed at the end of the year, and what that will look like this school year under pandemic-related restrictions.
Finally, educators conveyed helplessness and discomfort responding to unwelcoming school environments and circumstances beyond their knowledge base. One educator shared, “We as a whole in the public education system are part of the problem, and I am embarrassed to call myself a teacher when I see the injustice coming from our staff, union, administration, and superintendent.” Multiple educators reported that schools are not held accountable to their obligations to English learners, and they do not know how to intervene when they see discriminatory practices against these students.
Challenges Affecting Families
Educators reported that some families are lacking resources to meet basic needs, much less the resources for their children to engage meaningfully in remote learning. Some parents have no option but to work outside the home, and often in unstable, low-wage, and potentially unsafe conditions. Educators suggested that the families of their EL students are both confused and overwhelmed, because of inadequately addressed language barriers, constant changes in immigration policy and in school schedules and contexts (many of which are not clearly communicated in multiple languages or easily accessible to those without consistent internet access), a lack of familiarity with the education system even as it was pre-pandemic, and varying literacy levels. Families are struggling with the new demands that virtual learning has placed on digital literacy and technological savviness, with little to no training or support to navigate many new apps and web-based programs.
My greatest concern is that when the remote students eventually return to the in person setting, teachers are going to be faced with an incredibly difficult job of meeting the needs of groups with huge gaps.
So many of the challenges raised by educators pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, but have been glaringly exacerbated over the last nine months. One educator wrote, “My greatest concern is that when the remote students eventually return to the in person setting, teachers are going to be faced with an incredibly difficult job of meeting the needs of groups with huge gaps. All of these children will be in the same grade but the learning needs will be even more disparate and make it really difficult for standalone classroom teachers to adequately differentiate and meet their individual needs.” The additional challenges being faced by English learners and their families necessitate they get additional targeted support.
The Solutions: What Are Educators Reporting They Need?
Below are some high-priority solutions for this multifaceted crisis, pulled from educator responses in our survey. They include the most common responses to the questions, “What practices have been especially helpful for you when working with English learners?” and “What needs to be in place to help students who are English learners catch up academically and get the social and emotional support they need?” and are coupled with additional qualitative data gathered from the question, “What do you believe Departments of Education should prioritize when considering how to better serve English learners?”
Sustained Multilingual Support Services and Resources Available in Multiple Languages
81 percent of educators believe they need access to ongoing multilingual support services for the students and families they work with, including free access to trained interpreters and translation services for educators and for families. They noted these services need to be multilingual, not only in Spanish, to represent all languages spoken by the families they serve. One educator wrote, “We need translation support for students with home languages other than English or Spanish. For any other language it is so difficult to get translation support and these families feel estranged from the school.”
Additional EL-Qualified Educators and Staff Designated Specifically to Support ELs
72 percent of educators believe their school needs more staff to adequately address the needs of ELs. Working with ELs in small groups, whether virtually or in-person, was identified as one of the most helpful practices for serving this population, second only to providing ELs with the technology to engage in virtual learning, and tied with being a bilingual educator. However, educators need colleagues who can provide the necessary support so that educators are able to work with small groups. Educators noted that the shortage of qualified staff to support ELs is not new, and recommended that education agencies explore routes to address the need. One educator wrote, “Sufficient, highly-qualified staffing for ELs must be prioritized. Our programs are severely understaffed with little to no oversight. We also need to require that colleges and universities better prepare all teachers and administrators to meet the unique needs and leverage the unique assets of multilingual learners.”
We need qualified bilingual teachers. Those future teachers are currently ELs and need comprehensive, structural support in order to go from EL to highly qualified teacher. Please help mentor, support, and prepare these teacher candidates.
Leveraging the assets of multilingual learners could also look like building multilingual, multicultural educator pipelines by tapping into the vast resource of English learners and former English learners graduating from high school and supporting them to pursue a career in education. An educator offered, “We need qualified bilingual teachers. Those future teachers are currently ELs and need comprehensive, structural support in order to go from EL to highly qualified teacher. Please help mentor, support, and prepare these teacher candidates.” Another educator suggested alternative routes to certification for experienced educators coming from abroad who are fluent speakers in foreign languages or possess specific bilingual teacher credentials.
Ongoing Professional Development for Educators Serving ELs
72 percent of educators want professional development on best practices, effective curricula, and evidence-based models for supporting language development. They want clarity on English Language Development (ELD) standards and how to incorporate them into lessons. They suggested that all educators, not just those specifically qualified to work with ELs, should have access to ongoing training. One educator wrote, “Supporting ELs is not only the responsibility of those certified service providers, such as ENL or bilingual teachers. All educators should be involved and consider themselves as a teacher of language to all of our students.”
Another suggested a need for “mandated-ongoing training of educators in regard to working with ELs. If there is accountability down to the teacher level when reviewing lesson plans, methods and supports used—then there is more likelihood that they will be used.” Educators also wanted guidance on providing a safe environment for English learners and their families and viewing ELs from an assets-based lens. One educator shared, “We need to consider how we cultivate the cultures of our schools to be intentionally multicultural and multilingual. More ESL support staff will help children reach academic goals, but ensuring that schools are spaces in which ELs are not viewed as incidental but welcomed and integral will help to support ELs and their families as a whole.”
Furthermore, educators who were familiar with civil rights obligations under federal law to English learners repeatedly referenced a need for schools and districts to be held accountable for upholding the rights of ELs. They suggested that all educators should be trained on the obligations to English learners and their families. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) of 1974 requires that local and state educational agencies address language barriers that limit meaningful participation by EL students in instructional programs, including staffing their instructional programs adequately and requiring that parents receive information in a language they understand. However, the needs prioritized by educators suggest that those obligations are far from being met.
We need funding to provide adequate staffing, resources, and translation/interpretation to meet fundamental civil rights obligations to English Learners.
One educator wrote, “It doesn’t seem to matter that there is a law saying they need to have material available in other languages. They don’t do it.” Another shared, “We need funding to provide adequate staffing, resources, and translation/interpretation to meet fundamental civil rights obligations to English Learners. Districts need to be held accountable to the civil rights obligations clarified in the 2015 OCR/DOJ Dear Colleague Letter. With no accountability, these rights are not implemented. There are few administrators, teachers, parents, or students that understand these basic civil rights obligations. Those that do, do not feel safe to report compliance issues.” Proper oversight and implementation of EEOA, backed by adequate funding for the programs meant to serve ELs, would go a long way towards ensuring districts are held accountable to these students and addressing each of the needs that educators outlined above.
Partnerships with Organizations and Other Entities to Provide Wraparound Services
It is impossible to ignore ELs’ needs beyond the classroom. 68 percent of educators responded that partnerships with outside entities are necessary to help students get the services they need, so that they can thrive inside the classroom as well as outside it. The pandemic has interrupted traditional support mechanisms and methods for coping for many families, resulting in a breakdown of mental health and an added urgency for schools to help connect families with wraparound services. An educator shared, “Please partner with community groups, so the school isn’t the only place the child goes to meet every need: food, health, mental health, learning, laundry, etc. The pandemic has shown us that we need more than one way to address the systemic inequities our children and their families are facing.”
Educators believed wraparound services should include classes targeting caregivers, including navigating remote learning, communicating with schools, and learning English. They also highlighted a need for more multilingual parent coordinators to help engender trust between schools and families, create a space for parents to engage, and support families in accessing services.
Addressing Additional Needs Resulting from This Emergency
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the needs of our English learners cannot be forgotten. The conditions we are in are unprecedented; learning gains are being lost and education is in jeopardy for vulnerable student populations, even more so than in the past. There are emergency needs that cannot be ignored.
Educators are well aware of the ways challenges at home are interrupting student learning. One educator encapsulated much of it when responding to the barriers their ELs are experiencing, writing, “Many older students have had to find work so are trying to balance work and school. Also many of the MS and HS students are responsible for helping younger siblings while at home for remote learning. This adds a barrier to older students being able to do their best with school during the pandemic.” Another educator expressed that EL students themselves are “needing to perform duties that normally would fall on adults to handle.” These challenges are not just about students being mentally present—several educators expressed concerns around attendance. One educator shared, “Financial insecurity [is] leading to students preferring to work rather than participate in remote or in-person learning.” This is not a matter of preference, but of survival. Children should never have to choose between working to survive and support their family or getting an education.
There will need to be targeted interventions backed by sufficient funding meant for the students who have missed out on so much learning over the past year, because of the systemic inequities that lead to them and their families being overlooked. There will need to be concerted and proactive efforts to find the students who are no longer enrolled in or engaging with school, and get them back into schools.
How Did We Get Here, and Where Do We Go Next?
The responses shared by educators pose the question, “How did we get here?” In the words of one educator, “English Learners have historically been underserved in our schools.” We, the educators and advocates who champion education equity, cannot allow our multilingual learners to continue getting shortchanged, which means honest conversations about how we are failing them. The incoming administration, states, and districts must prioritize listening to educators, and understand that supporting English learners means better equipping their educators to serve them.