Tanzina: I'm Tanzina Vega and welcome back to The Takeaway. Hundreds of thousands of school-aged kids are well into another semester of remote learning as the pandemic continues to keep students out of their traditional classrooms. While almost everyone can agree that remote learning is far from ideal, it disproportionately affects low-income students, students with special needs, and students of color and remote learning can also be particularly difficult for students that don't speak English as their first language.
There are more than five million English language learners in K-12 public schools across the country so-called ELL students. Many are at risk of being left behind compared to their English speaking peers. We're going to talk about what the specific challenges are that these students face with Leslie Babinski. She's the director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University and an associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Leslie, welcome to The Takeaway.
Leslie: Happy to be here.
Tanzina: My mom was an English as a second language teacher for many years. She ended her career about 25 years ago. How have things changed? Who are the students whose native language is not English today?
Leslie: It's wonderful to hear that you have direct experience with your mom as an ESL teacher. I love that. Today, we know that English learners are really a very diverse group of students. They're diverse in terms of their home language, certainly, but also in terms of their level of English proficiency, and in many other ways. In the US, about 10% of public school students that are learning English as an additional language, and this percentage varies widely across states.
At the high end, we have Texas in California with about 18% and 19% of public school students who are English learners. In at least 33 States, 6% of students or more are English learners. Really, it is quite a large group of students that we're talking about. As you mentioned at the beginning, lots of challenges they're facing during remote learning.
Tanzina: For folks who aren't as familiar with the curriculum generally for students that are learning English as a second language, they are not just learning English. They're also learning core subjects, right? Like science and math in English.
Leslie: Exactly, yes. Can you imagine learning a new language at the same time that you're being exposed to academic content in that new language? It really is quite a challenge for teachers and for schools to help scaffold or bridge the academic vocabulary that students are trying to master in a new language so they can understand and comprehend the content of their core subjects.
Tanzina: How has that curriculum been adapted to students who were learning remotely or has it been adapted for students that are learning remotely?
Leslie: As you know, remote learning is new for everyone. I don't think any of us could have anticipated that we'd be teaching our elementary school students, for example, through online learning. It's really been quite a pivot for teachers, for schools, for parents, and certainly for the students themselves. I think some of the practices that we're promising and worked well in in-person learning, have been transitioned into an online environment, although there are many hurdles in getting to that point.
We know that direct instruction in the English language is necessary for students to quickly acquire their new language. We also know that collaboration between the core subjects or the general classroom teachers in elementary school, along with the ESL teacher, is what really helps accelerate students' understanding of that new content in the classroom.
Tanzina: How much of English language learning is direct, as in a direct from, say curriculum versus more casual and in terms of their average everyday interactions?
Leslie: That's a good question. Students really need both. They really need that informal peer and teacher interaction in context, to help them acquire English. They also need direct instruction in the language. Really, we're talking about kids from kindergarten through 12th grade and so that's going to vary quite a lot at the lower end with kindergartners and first-graders. They're really emergent bilinguals, which means they're learning to read and write in both their languages. It's happening at the same time. It is a very tall order for students to acquire English as they're learning academic content.
Tanzina: In California, the state with the largest number of non-English speaking students, some districts in the area have tried to provide additional resources. In San Francisco for example, the city's department of children, youth, and families is offering specialized hubs in neighborhoods for low-income and English language learner students. They're also offering in-person staff in a COVID-regulated environment to support those learners. Leslie, how vital are these additional resources?
Leslie: They're really essential. As you can imagine, students who are learning English along with your academic content, are facing lots of challenges for we know many of our Latino families because of the industries that they're primarily working in, don't have the option to work from home. We have situations where lots of young children need supervision during the day to support their learning. These kinds of supports in the community are really essential, both for the academic progress for students, as well as their safety, their social interactions, and for economic reasons so their parents can continue to participate in the workforce.
Tanzina: Your research is focusing on schools in North Carolina. What does it look like there? What are some of the challenges that students are facing there?
Leslie: Yes, we are working in North Carolina in elementary schools and a teacher professional development program to support teachers learning new approaches for working with English learners. Just like across the country, we've been through several phases of reopening and that includes our public schools.
As of October 4th, public schools in North Carolina were permitted to open under plan A, which means fully in person. Most schools started in a hybrid or fully online setting. Now, many schools are transitioning to hybrid models or bringing back subgroups of students for in-person learning. Many districts are taking a graduated cautious approach to doing that and that's another challenge because now we're going back to in-person instruction, but it looks nothing like it did before the pandemic.
Tanzina: Leslie, I want to play a clip from Maria Su who's the executive director of San Francisco's department of children, youth, and families. She's highlighting here a specific issue that's come up often with low-income students in particular. This is the digital divide and how it's playing out in San Francisco. Let's take a listen to what Maria Su had to say.
Maria: The saddest thing for us when we realize when these children are participating in the house, what we're hearing from staff is that a lot of these children actually have not logged in since Shelter in Place happened because families just don't know how to and there are no supports for these families.
Tanzina: Does that, Leslie, compound, what the challenges that these students already face?
Leslie: Oh, absolutely. We know that there are significant equity issues and making sure that all English learners have access to the education that's being provided in online learning. In our own study in North Carolina, we were working with teachers and students when a pandemic hit and we're able to follow them. We found that teachers reported that 68% of their English learners in our relatively small study required a device from the school to be able to access online learning.
Another 27% of the families needed a hotspot to access the internet. What we learned is it's not simply providing the hardware and the internet access to families. Can you imagine not having a computer in your home and all of a sudden needing to log onto multiple learning platforms with your student in a language that's not your home language? It's been a significant challenge, both in terms of distributing the devices and the hotspots and ensuring internet access, but also really building up that partnership with parents so they can support their children at home.
I have to say that both teachers and parents have been amazing. It's been incredible to see the dedication of our teachers and ensuring that they connected with each and every family. Likewise, parents are going through extraordinary lengths to make sure that their children are participating and benefiting from the online learning that their school is providing. An example recently was a teacher was telling us that one of her kindergarten student's parents was joining all of her live lessons and bringing her cell phone with her.
She had a family member who was bilingual on the phone, who was then translating the lesson for the parents so the parent could support the child after the lesson was over. Just really extreme dedication and figuring out a way to make it work, which has been really quite incredible to see.
Tanzina: Leslie, what about ESL teachers, teachers who are trained to teach English as a second language? Are there enough teachers to go around to focus on these populations right now?
Leslie: Oh, that's a really good question. I think any ESL teacher would tell you, no, there aren't enough ESL teachers.
Tanzina: There weren't back 20, 30 years ago. That's why I'm wondering if this pandemic has exacerbated that.
Leslie: Absolutely. The funding formula is supporting spending for English language learners has not kept pace with the growth in English learners in the country. I think any ESL teacher would tell you that they're trying to serve far too many students for the kinds of things that they know they need. Certainly, post-pandemic, we're going to see a huge need for support services for many students, not just English learners because all students are struggling, but certainly for English learners to help accelerate their growth, both in terms of the academic content and English language.
Tanzina: What about parents who don't speak English as their first language? How are they navigating the space for their children who've now-- Parents have had to take a big role in becoming educators themselves.
Leslie: That's exactly right. That's actually one of the key findings we learned from the spring, and that was teachers reported that students who had a parent at home who could support their child learning or another adult who could support it or even a sibling, those students were more likely to miss less instruction. They miss less than two weeks of instruction if they had a supportive adult or other person in the house who could help them.
In some cases, because I said we were working with kindergarten and first-grade students, the other support in one case at least, was coming from a second-grade sibling. We have a student who's in second-grade helping his little kindergarten sister access online learning. It's been a real challenge. Only about half of the students in our study had such support at home. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of families are continuing to work outside the home as essential workers in service industries, and healthcare, and restaurants, and many students didn't have the support they needed from an adult at home to be able to successfully access the online learning that was provided in the spring.
Tanzina: Leslie Babinski is the director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, and associate research professor in the Sandford School of Public Policy. Leslie, thanks so much for joining us.
Leslie: Thank you.
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