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THE ENGLISH LEARNER DROPOUT DILEMMA: New Report Examines Consequences, Causes, and Solutions to High Dropout Rate Among English Language Learners

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As is the case for all dropouts, the economic costs for EL students who fail to earn a high school diploma are “steep,” the report notes, “both to the individual who must navigate the adult labor market without a base set of academic credentials, and to the society at large that must incorporate an inadequately prepared individual into its economic and civic spheres.”

A new report from the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California–Santa Barbara finds that English learner (EL) students make up 11 percent of students nationally, a percentage that climbs to 20 percent when students who were once classified as EL students are included. The report, The English Learner Dropout Dilemma: Multiple Risks and Multiple Resources, examines the consequences, causes, and solutions to the high school dropout crisis among EL students and argues that the social, economic, and health consequences of dropping out threatens both the general population as well as EL students.

As is the case for all dropouts, the economic costs for EL students who fail to earn a high school diploma are “steep,” the report notes, “both to the individual who must navigate the adult labor market without a base set of academic credentials, and to the society at large that must incorporate an inadequately prepared individual into its economic and civic spheres.”

One interesting difference the report identifies between outcomes for all dropouts and EL dropouts is the greater role education plays in an EL student’s civic participation. Specifically, the report points to research finding that social science course credits are “directly associated” with the odds of voting and registering to vote among children of immigrant parents, but not for children of U.S.-born parents. “Given the potential of social science course-taking to shape EL students’ future political participation, high school graduation has the power to influence not just their individual futures, but those of their communities as well,” the report notes.

While acknowledging that determining an accurate dropout rate for EL students is difficult due to multiple factors,2 the report finds that EL students are about two times more likely to drop out than native and fluent English speakers.

“The dropout risk is high among EL students not only because they are learning English, but also because they are also significantly more likely than the general population to be disadvantaged racial or ethnic minorities, poor, and born to immigrant parents, each a status group at heightened risk of dropping out,” the report notes. “Whether EL students’ pronounced risk of attrition is due to linguistic, academic, background or school characteristics, or any combination thereof remains to be determined.”

The report also notes that while many of the same factors that produce dropouts in the general population also apply to EL students, some factors are unique to the EL population, including tracking as a result of EL status, access to certified teachers, and a high-stakes accountability system in which a greater proportion of EL students’ instructional time is spent on assessment preparation compared to non-EL students.

To address these issues, the report offers solutions in three areas: (1) targeted reforms at the programmatic level; (2) comprehensive reforms at the school level; and (3) systemic reforms to education in general. Examples of solutions presented in the report include the following:

  • Opportunity to learn: Academic content in EL programs: Reframing EL programs to focus on academic rigor along with English acquisition to address one of the root causes of the EL dropout dilemma: poor academic preparation.
  • Teacher certification: Improving pedagogy in EL programs: Low levels of teacher certification in and across EL programs threaten the quality of EL education.
  • Primary language instruction and moving beyond the English-only high school: While most high schools offer course work in English only, successful programs capitalize on EL students’ resources (literacy in the primary language) to allow content area development while they acclimate to new academic context and learning in English.
  • Shift from a deficit to an additive perspective: EL students enter the U.S. education system with numerous linguistic and cultural resources that remain largely untouched by their teachers and classrooms. Capitalizing on these resources can improve EL achievement and stem the flow of dropouts.

“EL students are already at-risk and marginalized in U.S. schools; their exclusion from the population of high school graduates will only increase the economic and civic disparities that confront U.S. society,” the report concludes. “Only through concerted efforts by policymakers and educators will EL education shift from a compensatory, deficit-oriented approach to an additive, academically centered design. Only a systemic paradigmatic shift will fully prepare EL students academically and socially, for higher education and the workforce … Ultimately, systemic reform is necessary in order to reframe EL educational programs as additive rather than subtractive, and EL students themselves as resources rather than problems.”

The complete report is available at http://www.cdrp.ucsb.edu/pubs_reports.htm.

2 For example, EL students are a “constantly changing demographic,” the report argues, in which the most academically and linguistically proficient among them exit from the EL student group on a regular basis when they can demonstrate English proficiency and grade-level academic competency.

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