According to data published last month by the US Department of Education, in 2016-17 there were 4,858,377 s in public schools across the country.
California is home to the highest proportion of student ELs, who represent 20.2% of the state’s total student population, followed by Texas (17.2%), Nevada (15.9%), New Mexico (13.4%) and Colorado (11.7%).
“Forty-three states saw the number of ELs increase”
Compared to two decades ago, California kept its top spot although it saw a decrease in the proportion of ELs from 24.5% in 2000-01 (down 219,147 students).
“The number of ELs in the US grew 28.1% between the 2000–01 school year and the 2016–17 school year,” the report noted.
“Forty-three states saw the number of ELs increase, ranging from 315 ELs in Wyoming to 351,559 ELs in Texas.”
The biggest increase in the proportion of EL students was in Kansas.
Approaches to educating ELs from state to state but non-English speakers cannot be segregated from other students, although many will join classes specifically focused on language learning for part of the school day.
ELs face additional challenges when it comes to school work, often not having an English speaker at home who can help them with it. This, combined with a lack of teachers qualified to teach English as a second language, can make school particularly challenging. In some areas, students have to rely on volunteers to get help with schoolwork.
“Some 20 ago, there was about 1.8% of the student population [in Iowa] classified as English language learners, that number had grown to 6.5% of the student population last year,” explained David Cassels Johnson, an associate professor of foreign languages and ESL education at the University of Iowa.
“That doesn’t seem like a lot, in fact, Iowa still is well below national norms in terms of linguistic diversity in its schools, but there has been an increase of about 250% over the past 20 years.”
In one town in Iowa, schools have created dual-language programs where the day is split so classes are half taught in Spanish and half in English. Courses like these have then been opened up to English speakers who want to learn Spanish too.
Over three-quarters of ELs speak Spanish as their first language, with the remaining students speaking a wide range of other languages including Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Spanish was the most common first language among ELs in every state and Washington DC bar five.
In Maine, the most common first language for ELs was Somali, while in Vermont there were more Nepali speakers. In Montana, it was German, and in Alaska and Hawaii, more ELs spoke the native languages Yupik and Iloko.
According to a 2016 survey, 72% of public school students who speak English “less than very well” were born in the US.
In terms of outcomes for ELs in the public school system, other data from the Department of Education suggests they lag behind their native English speaking counterparts.
While most English language learners are in elementary grades – many start school as ELs but are considered proficient by the time they get to high school – there remains a disparity in graduation rates.
“In 2015-16, 84% of students nationwide graduated from high school on time. For ELs the rate was 67%, up from 57% in 2010-11, but well below the rate for non-ELs,” noted the report.
“This difference in the graduation rates is especially concerning because we know that those without a high school diploma experience lower earnings and higher unemployment than those with a diploma.”
The report also noted that in six states had less than half of ELs graduate from high school on time, the rate being between 34 and 48 percentage points lower than the rates for non-ELs. Graduation rates varied from 32% in Arizona to 93% in West Virginia.