THE GROWING ENGLISH LEARNER POPULATION

The EL population is the fastest growing segment of the American school population. As can be seen in Figure 7.1, while there was only a 7% increase in total PreK-12 enrollment between 1998/99 and 2008/09 (from 46.2 million to 49.5 million), the EL enrollment during the same period rose by 51% (from 3.5 million in 1998/99 to 5.3 million in 2008/09). The EL student population is expected to continue growing in the next decade. It is projected that by 2020, there will be 17.9 million school-age children of immigrants in the U.S. (Fry, 2008).

Figure 7.2 shows a state-by-state breakdown in the number of ELs. In terms of total EL enrollment, the top five EL states are California (1,512,122), Texas (713,218), Florida (257,776), New York (229,260), and Illinois (208,839). EL enrollment as a proportion of total student enrollment in a given state varies substantially across the U.S. Figure 7.3 shows that the “EL-heavy” states, where ELs account for more than 10% of the total PreK-12 student population, are concentrated in the western and southwestern part of the U.S., near the U.S.-Mexico border. California, in particular, has the highest percentage of ELs—one in four students in California schools are ELs.

Although historically, the western and southwestern states have had the highest concentrations of ELs, much of the recent growth in EL population has been observed in the eastern part of the U.S. (see Figure 7.4). This increase is attributed to a robust growth in jobs in construction, agribusiness, and service sectors through the 1990s and the early part of the twenty-first century (Maxwell, 2009). While the global economic recession and rising antiimmigrant sentiments in recent years have had a dampening effect on immigration, immigrant students and families can now be found practically everywhere in the U.S.

While ELs as a group speak more than 150 languages, Spanish is by far the most common first language spoken by ELs. According to an analysis of the 2009 American Community Survey by the Migration Policy Institute, 73.1% of all EL students in the U.S. spoke Spanish as their first language (Batalova & McHugh, 2010). This was followed by Chinese (3.8%), Vietnamese (2.7%), French/Haitian Creole (2.1%), Hindi (1.8%), Korean (1.5%), and German (1.5%). More than two-thirds of ELs spoke Spanish as their first language in 28 states. Among these, 13 states, including those with traditionally large numbers of Spanish speakers (e.g., California and Texas) as well as the more recent destinations for immigrants (e.g., Wyoming, Arkansas, and Colorado), had more than 80% of their ELs coming from Spanishspeaking homes.

Contrary to a popular assumption that all ELs are recent arrivals, 57% of adolescent ELs were actually born in the U.S. (Batalova, Fix, & Murray, 2005).

The Growing Numbers of English Learners in the U.S., 1998/99-2008/09

FIGURE 7.1 The Growing Numbers of English Learners in the U.S., 1998/99-2008/09

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA), 2011

Number of English Learners in the U.S., 2008/09

FIGURE 7.2 Number of English Learners in the U.S., 2008/09

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA), 2011

English Learners as a Proportion of PreK-12 Enrollment, 2008/09

FIGURE 7.3 English Learners as a Proportion of PreK-12 Enrollment, 2008/09

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA), 2011

English Learner Population Growth, 1998/99-2008/09

FIGURE 7.4 English Learner Population Growth, 1998/99-2008/09

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA), 2011

ELs come from diverse backgrounds. Some EL students live in homes in which no English is spoken, while others come from families that have shifted mostly to English. Some ELs may identify strongly with their heritage culture and language, while others identify only with American culture. Some ELs live in economically depressed areas, while others live in affluent suburbs. Some ELs may be high achievers in school while others struggle academically. Some students come to American schools with strong education from their home countries whereas others have had limited or interrupted schooling. In sum, there is no single profile for an EL. With such diversity, it is difficult to craft a single set of policies that can adequately address the needs of every learner. Any proposed educational plan will have to be tailored specifically to the characteristics and needs of the local EL population.

 
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