When President Obama mentioned English Language Learners in his speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Hispanic Heritage Month gala last month, it served as a reminder to the education community that ELLs, 80% whom speak Spanish as their native language, are an integral part of his plan for our nation to win the future.
The President has said many times that having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020 is one of his goals. But in order to reach that goal, we as a nation need to ensure that English Learners (ELs), which number five million strong and constitute the fastest growing student group in the K-12 system, receive a high-quality education that will prepare them for college and career.
As Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education, my job is to advise Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters related to the education of English Learners, now estimated to be about 10 percent of the total school enrollment nationwide.
Over the past eight months, OELA has led six National Conversations attended by over 800 stakeholders including educators, researchers, policymakers, university instructors, and advocacy groups who came together to discuss issues affecting English Learners. These meetings held in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City and Charlotte, North Carolina, served to reconnect OELA with those in the field and inform the work being done at the department.
In addition to this series of national conversations, OELA also hosted two National Forums: one on English Learners with Special Needs/disabilities and another on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education for English Learners. Both forums underscored the fact that ELs are often relegated to second class status in our schools and are not provided the appropriate services or access to the kinds of classes that will prepare them to be successful in college.
OELA is utilizing the results from the National Conversations and these two forums to inform our work over the next fiscal year. Planned activities include conference sessions on English Learners with special needs, STEM education for English Learners, teacher preparation and professional development for teachers of ELs, and education for adult English Learners. These sessions will be held in collaboration with national education organizations and other federal agencies. Other activities will include professional dialogues and webinars on various topics. We encourage those interested to visit the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) web site for updates on these events.
If human capital is our nation’s greatest resource, then we cannot afford to fail to educate our English Learner students, many whom are Hispanic. Therefore, as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month let us also remember that we have a lot of work to do to ensure our EL students are ready for college and careers. They, like generations before them, deserve a shot at the American Dream, too.
Rosalinda B. Barrera, Ph.D., is Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education