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Survey Raises Concerns About Non-English Speaking Students


There are 5 million schoolchildren in this country for whom English is not their native language. They're called English-language learners - ELLs for short. And this week, the newspaper Education Week released a survey showing that these kids aren't getting the quality of teaching they need. Claudio Sanchez of the NPR Ed team has more.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Two out of every 3 school superintendents and principals surveyed said they're not confident that teachers are prepared to teach English or math to English-language learners.

HILDA MALDONADO: I could see why administrators would say that.

SANCHEZ: Hilda Maldonado is executive director of Multilingual and Multicultural Education in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest.

MALDONADO: We're doing this work in light of a major shift in the standards. Students have to learn English and the content area all at once.

SANCHEZ: In other words, says Maldonado, in mostly states, the K-12 curriculum is now more rigorous for all students, the result of higher academic standards tied to the Common Core and tests that ELL teachers and students are simply not prepared for. And that has left school districts scrambling for qualified teachers for the most promising instructional programs and for better research about what works. One missing link in all this, according to the Education Week survey, is teacher training.

DAVID NIETO: It's not the first survey that points in this direction. Teachers actually feel not competent to teach ELLs.

SANCHEZ: David Nieto is with the Illinois State Board of Education. He oversees ELL programs for more than 200,000 students statewide. Most are Spanish-speaking. Most were born in the U.S., as is the case nationwide.

NIETO: These kids come with different skills.

SANCHEZ: That's important, says Nieto, because, again, most classroom teachers are not trained to build on a child's native language skills as a bridge to English, so they fall behind and often don't catch up. As the Ed Week survey points out, the consequences seem clear. Roughly 4 out of 10 English-language learners today don't graduate from high school, according to the latest federal data. Hilda Maldonado in Los Angeles insists the solutions are hiding in plain sight.

MALDONADO: The research is there. The practices are there. The pedagogies and beliefs are there.

SANCHEZ: That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that even the best ELL programs have to compete for attention and money. And on that front, they're not always a priority. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.