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LEP America: How English as a Second Language Is Taught Across the Country

Michael Nutter

September 27, 2017

One in every ten students in the American public school system is an English language learner. School districts must stay organized in order to provide these students with the education they deserve.

In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act puts the responsibility on public schools to ensure that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) are able to meaningfully participate in the educational system. Shortly thereafter, Congress enacted the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA), which mandated that school districts “act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in their instructional programs.”

Since then, schools across the country have used a range of tactics to teach LEP students who are fluent in many different languages to accomplish these goals. Guidelines from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights allow for a fairly broad set of approaches to LEP education, stipulating only that “the adopted strategy works, or promises to work, on the basis of past practice or in the judgment of experts in the field.” As we’ll see, that flexibility is needed for schools to adequately address the needs of a diverse LEP population.

English Language Learners by the Numbers

Since the 1970s, the United States population has undergone some significant demographic shifts, making the protections enshrined by the EEOA all the more important. The LEP population in the United States grew by 52% during the 1990s, and while that trend has more or less slowed to a halt during the 21st century, its effects are still being felt today. From 1990 to 2013, the total population of LEP residents in the country increased by a remarkable 80% — from 14 million to more than 25 million.

Consequently, as of the last school year, more than 10% of public school students in the United States are learning to speak English as a second language. Of these nearly five million students, more than half live in four states: California (29%), Texas (18%), Florida (5%), and New York (4%). In many states, the English language learner (ELL) populations are much lower: in Ohio, for instance, there are just over 50,000 language learners in the K-12 system, accounting for approximately 3% of the general student population.

The vast majority — some 71% — of ELLs speak Spanish at home, and only Chinese (4%), Vietnamese (3%), French/Haitian Creole (2%), and Arabic speakers (2%) account for more than 1% of the total ELL population.

Finally, although 90% of ELLs receive some form of the additional educational services to which they are legally entitled, many school districts are laboring to ensure that these programs produce the desired results. Indeed, 32 states reported a shortage of LEP teachers last year — that includes Ohio, which has notably and consistently struggled with problem since 2010.

The Struggle to Fund LEP

As with other specialized programs like IEPs and tech training, many of the shortcomings in schools’ LEP programs stem from a lack of proper funding. Per Part A of Title III, the federal government provides grant funding to states to cover the additional costs of educating ELLs. Still, that funding (generally between $100 and $400 per language learner per school year) has proven to be inadequate in most cases, as 46 states have chosen to create supplementary funding mechanisms.

34 states allocate additional LEP funding by incorporating an LEP multiplier into their per student funding formula. Another nine states — including Ohio — allocate additional LEP funding through categorical programs, creating separate line items in the state budget that are not directly tied to per student funding formulae, but must be spent on LEP services of some kind.

Staying Organized

Providing a high-quality, legally compliant education for any ELL student base is difficult. Many districts weave together a variety of instructional techniques like bilingual education, English language immersion, and pull-out LEP classes in an effort to foster both English language learners’ subject-based knowledge and their English proficiency at once. This means that defining and tracking their progress becomes very challenging, very quickly.

This is where the true value of a tool like our CheckPoint platform comes in for Ohio districts. CheckPoint processes and organizes huge quantities of education management information system (EMIS) data in a fraction of the time it would take to do so manually. That makes it far easier to closely track the number of students who rely not only on LEP programs, but on programs like Special Services and Talented & Gifted as well.

In some states, properly vetted record sets are legally required to secure LEP funding — in all states, it’s the best way to ensure that every student — ELL or not — receives the kind of attentive, comprehensive education they deserve.

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