3 strategies that prepare English learners for college success

Students learning English in U.S. schools face a number of barriers to higher education, according to The Hechinger Report. They also represent one of the fastest growing demographics in the U.S. educational system.

‘Marginalized’ in K-12, ‘invisible’ in college

By law, the nation’s public schools must provide English learners with access to the same education their English-proficient peers receive from kindergarten through 12th grade. In practice, that access, and students’ attainment outcomes, vary based on where students live. Overall, about 67 percent of English learners graduate from high school, compared with 84 percent of students overall.

The educational landscape becomes even more unpredictable for English learners after high school. Many lack the information they need to succeed, and some end up wasting time and money in remedial classes that delay their progress toward a degree.

English learners “go from being visible and marginalized [in K-12] to sort of being invisible” once they reach college, explains Shawna Shapiro, an associate professor at Middlebury College. The education system still sees English learners from a “deficit” perspective, Shapiro says, rather than considering the unique qualities they contribute, “including their first language, their culture, and their academic abilities.”

“If you’re in college and no one recognizes that you’re multilingual and not only do you need certain types of support, but you have something to offer to diversity and global citizenship in higher education, that’s also a missed opportunity,” Shapiro adds.

How higher ed can empower English learners

Writing in a New America report on best practices for supporting college students learning English, Shapiro recommends three strategies to better prepare and empower English learners as they pursue postsecondary education or workforce training:

  1. Integrate classes: Often, during K-12, English learners are grouped together into special sections of courses like history and math that are not as academically rigorous as mainstream classes, potentially leaving them underprepared for college. Shapiro recommends that schools educate English learners in classes alongside English-proficient students as much as possible. Studies have further shown that the sooner English learners test out of English language instruction classes, the better they tend to perform on standardized tests; students who linger in those classes for five years or more, “lagged behind significantly in every grade.”
  2. Resist siloing and tracking: Rather than limit English learners to specific career paths, educators should encourage proportional representation of English learners in all postsecondary programs, from college to career and workforce training. Shapiro calls on educators to reach out to the families of English learners to gain a holistic understanding of the students’ strengths, goals, and home situation. Those conversations also can help ensure that families know how the U.S. education system works, what students’ career and higher education options are, and how to pay for those choices. Communicating with students’ families goes well beyond translating websites and fliers. Instead, Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, says colleges need community liaisons who can meet families where they are and provide them with crucial information.  
  3. Collect more robust data: English learners are usually tracked according to other identities, such as being students of color, first-generation college students, or international students. Shapiro suggests educators collect more data on English learners as a whole to better meet their needs and understand their goals.
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