Students learning English speak more than 150 languages nationwide. The challenges schools face in teaching these students may be most evident in California, which hosts the most English language learners in the country.
The number of English language learners is growing across the country, representing one in four California students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research group.
In an analysis of 2008-09 state education reports [PDF], released Wednesday, the institute found that Spanish was the predominant language for the vast majority of California's 1.5 million English language learners.
All together, more than nine out of 10 English language learners ages 5 to 18 spoke one of five languages:
- Spanish, 84.8 percent
- Vietnamese, 2.4 percent
- Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin), 2.3 percent
- Tagalog, 1.5 percent
- Hmong, 1.2 percent
The prevalence of these languages can both streamline and complicate programs for English language learners, said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at the institute and author of the report.
"States that have large groups that speak the same languages, they can leverage and create economies of scale," Batalova said. "The state becomes more cost-effective at various levels and efficient, and a greater number of students can be served at the same time."
"But then when you have smaller groups … the challenge is of course how to accommodate the needs of very highly diverse, linguistically diverse, populations," she said.
California state and local agencies came under fire last month for failing to accommodate non-English speakers. But many of the state's schools may be struggling to serve non-English speakers as well.
Researchers at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute last year questioned whether Los Angeles Unified School District was leaving students in English language-learning programs for too long, stunting their academic performance. One in three students last year was an English language learner, and students spoke 92 different languages, according to the district.
In March, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights launched a compliance review to determine whether the district provided equal education opportunities for English language learners. The investigation is ongoing, said Jim Bradshaw, a department spokesman.
According to information provided by the department, the Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating a dozen school districts nationwide for compliance with English language-learning requirements. In addition to LA Unified, the office is reviewing services at Mt. Diablo Unified School District and Ontario-Montclair elementary school district.
It's difficult to compare the performance of English language-learning programs because there are no universal metrics, Batalova said. Although school districts must assess a student's ability to read, write, speak and comprehend English, they are given a great deal of leeway to shape their own programs.
"In the absence of a unified, nationwide definition and harmonized procedure of identifying (English language-learner) students … we don't really have a definitive answer on if California has better ways of identifying students or teaching these students than states like Nevada and Georgia and others," she said.