PreK-3rd: Raising the Educational Performance of English Language Learners (ELLs)

Author: Dale Russakoff / January 10, 2011

PreK-3rd Policy to Action Brief: #6

In 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols that 1,800 Chinese-speaking children in the San Francisco public schools were entitled to English-language instruction or other support to help them understand what was happening in their classrooms.

“[S]tudents who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education,” the Court found.

Thirty-six years later, state and local responsibilities to public school children who do not speak proficient English fill an entire section of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Title III). But it is a matter of serious national debate whether the vast apparatus born of Lau provides a “meaningful education” to the nation’s now five million English Language Learners (ELLs).

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) holds every state, district, and school accountable for students’ academic progress. It also revealed the extent to which schools have failed non-English-speaking students by requiring states and districts for the first time to disaggregate their reading and math scores on annual assessments. The large achievement gap has moved educators, scholars, and policymakers to try urgently to reverse decades of neglect, even as the scale of the challenge is growing exponentially. This brief spotlights major issues facing those taking up this challenge and offers them emerging policy solutions. The primary focus will be on the 75 percent of ELLs who speak Spanish, and who are believed by scholars to be at high risk for school failure.