Reducing Inequality for English Learners: Research Questions for the Field

At the William T. Grant Foundation, we have made it a priority to support research on reducing inequality among young people in the United States. A key area for progress is in the policies, programs and practices to reduce unequal opportunities and outcomes for English learners (ELs). Typically the children of immigrants, ELs come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. On the basis of English proficiency tests, a subset of these young people have been officially designated by public schools as English learners, who should receive instruction with special linguistic supports. Even as the EL student population in our public schools has grown in the last several decades, their academic performance has consistently lagged behind their non-EL peers and remains a cause for concern.

This post highlights two lines of research inquiry that pay special attention to school- and district-level practices that address the needs of the whole child, as well as the multiple academic aspects of EL student experiences. Both lines of inquiry cross the boundaries of the silos typically found in EL student research. Research inquiries that broaden the scope of what has been previously done is critical to advance the field towards reducing inequality for this important population.

A focus on EL students as children and youth, not just as students

Typically, research studies attend only to EL students’ academic lives, with a specific focus on their experiences as students, but not their diverse experiences as children and youth. Rather than a broader whole child or whole person approach, this siloed approach to research on ELs stands to miss much nuance that could help improve student outcomes. Like all of us, English learner students are socio-emotional beings, nested in families and communities. Students’ lives outside schools involve complex issues that can bear on their lives within schools.

Immigrant children carry the load of the immigrant bargain, often trying to make up for their parents’ sacrifices with migration by doing well in school (Louie, 2012). But because of the relationship between immigrant parents’ success in the United States and their children’s own success, keeping that bargain is no small feat. More than half of children with immigrant parents live in low-income households, and nearly one-third have at least one undocumented immigrant parent; of these youth, some are undocumented themselves (Yoshikawa, 2011; Suarez-Orozco, Yoshikawa and Tseng, 2015). Many new immigrant children have undergone protracted separations from one or both of their parents before rejoining them, and the reunification process often proves to be a complicated relational process (Suárez-Orozco, Bang, & Kim, 2010.) Some immigrant children are also responsible for brokering the new American culture, including the English language, for their parents long before they have expertise in either (Orellana, 2009; Katz, 2014). Moreover, ELs tend to attend public schools with fellow ELs from largely low-income, racial and ethnic minority families and fewer certified teachers (Gándara et al., 2003; Callahan and Shifrer, 2016).

Research inquiries that broaden the scope of what has been previously done is critical to advance the field towards reducing inequality for this important population.

For educators to know these critical aspects of their students’ lives and understand how they bear upon schooling, as well as how to respond, educators need to have local professional capacity adequate to the task. Staff, teachers and leaders need training in how to do this work and programs that undergird it. There are plenty of strategies from which to draw, as family-community-student approaches have a long history of trying to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of children and youth from low-income, immigrant, and native racial and ethnic minority backgrounds (Louie, 2012). But research inquiry shouldn’t stop there.

Instead, research should get to the level of student outcomes. The assumption is that local professional capacity about students’ lives outside of school improves EL outcomes. Does it? Does school knowledge about different dimensions of their EL students’ home cultures and the whole child lead to better student academic and socio-emotional outcomes? For instance, does strengthening connections between schools (e.g., school leaders, teachers, staff) and immigrant parents promote better academic and socio-emotional outcomes for students? If so, in what ways and for what outcomes? Does it affect academic engagement, grades, or high stakes assessments? Or college attendance and completion?

Should we find that this kind of school capacity does indeed improve student outcomes, there are still more compelling research questions to consider. These include identifying and testing effective strategies that schools can use to learn and implement important language and related knowledge about their students. Other questions involve the kinds of mechanisms that can facilitate this learning—for instance, professional development, teacher preparation, and structured family-teacher interactions, as well as what these mechanisms involve. One might consider what teacher professional development along these lines should look like. Researchers should also get to the question of how knowledge about English learners as people, including insights about their home cultures, can inform practices, curriculum development, instructional materials, and formative assessments such as low-stakes quizzes that assess students’ understanding of lessons as it evolves.

A multi-dimensional focus on EL students’ academic experiences

Even when we look only at EL students’ academic experiences, we find there are critical gaps in what we know. This is because research has typically paid attention only to a single dimension of the student experience. This is especially nettlesome in research about EL students, as they can make multiple transitions over their academic journeys, more than a non-EL peer might make. Consider that in the ideal scenario, they transition from being classified as an English learner needing linguistic services to being reclassified as proficient enough in English to join classrooms that do not have linguistic supports (or what we might call mainstream classes) (Umansky and Reardon, 2014); and from less rigorous courses to more challenging classes. The hoped-for result is that they thrive academically on par with their non-EL peers, as reflected in better grades, and higher test scores and graduation rates. What can be done to facilitate these transitions and the payoffs we would expect?

At the other extreme, in reality, some ELs have become long-term English learners (classified as such for six or more years). These students may be stuck in less challenging courses and are less likely to get to college or to do well once they are there (Olsen, 2014). How can this cycle be disrupted? And how might their academic experiences and outcomes be improved? We need richer analytic frames factoring in multiple dimensions of ELs’ academic experiences to get to answers that will lead to the sustained academic success of English learners over the long-term.

…research has typically paid attention only to a single dimension of the student experience.

Toward this end, research should focus on classroom instruction in English language proficiency and academic content together, rather than separately, as is typically the case. Take math as an example. Math is widely thought of as a universal language, one that is shared by all humans. Yet, there is a critical achievement gap between ELs and non ELs. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the gap in eighth-grade math stayed the same at about 40 points from 2000 to 2013. Students who had been formerly classified as ELs in the previous two years did better on the 2013 eighth-grade math assessment than ELs, but were still lagging behind non ELs (Murphy, 2014). To change this picture, we should investigate what reasoning mathematically looks like, and how ELs experience these processes. Answers to these questions can help practitioners improve the learning process.

More studies should investigate the potential connections between what ELs are learning, and how, and what this means for their academic success. We know that teachers can have low expectations for ELs (Barlett and Garcia, 2011), and this might lead to ELs’ placement in less rigorous courses (Callahan, 2005). What we still need is a more comprehensive picture of how different teacher perceptions and behaviors toward ELs matter in practice and curriculum decisions, and how they affect student outcomes. For instance, rich linguistic environments in classrooms—teachers assigning “extended research pieces and essays” and fostering complex oral language use through discussions and debates—can be beneficial to all students, but particularly for children and youth from low-income and non-English speaking households (Lesaux, 2014). This line of inquiry should be extended to investigate the extent to which rich linguistic environments in classrooms result in better outcomes for low-income ELs. Consistent with the Foundation’s interest in identifying responses to inequality, studies could examine how this might be achieved, especially in the under-resourced schools that ELs tend to attend.

We also need more research on reclassification. As noted earlier, some students are not getting reclassified even after six years. For instance, only slightly more than half of entering EL kindergartners in New York City public schools moved into mainstream classrooms within four years (Kieffer and Parker, 2016). In this study, researchers drew on data from the 2003/2004 academic year through 2010/2011, with the exception of 2008/2009. Why some EL students are reclassified sooner than others is only part of what we need to know. While reclassification is conceived as an endgame whereby ELs join mainstream classrooms and flourish on par with their non-EL peers, it has unfortunately proven in some cases to be only a stopgap. In fact, whether reclassified ELs are actually flourishing in their new mainstream classrooms, and whether these gains are sustained over time, remain empirical questions.

More studies should investigate the potential connections between what ELs are learning, and how, and what this means for their academic success.

A study of the 2002 EL kindergartners in Massachusetts found that most were indeed reclassified after attending three years of school within the state. However, more than half of these students scored below proficient in statewide assessments in math and reading. The picture did not brighten further down the pipeline either. Sizable proportions of the reclassified students, while able to keep pace in mainstream classrooms in the early elementary school years, later encountered difficulties in middle and high school. Some ended up having to repeat a grade in school (Slama, 2014). We need to know the kinds of policies, programs, or practices that can speed up ELs’ second language learning and academic content learning so that they succeed in the mainstream classrooms.

Similarly, we should know more about the kinds of policies that place ELs in higher track courses and whether they work in terms of stronger academic outcomes. Analyses of the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a study of public high school students, reveal that “38% of native English speakers completed all the recommended college preparatory course-work;” this was compared to 31 percent of language minority students not placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and 11 percent of EL students in ESL (Callahan and Shifrer, 2016: 16). As with reclassification, being placed in academically rich courses does not necessarily translate into high academic performance for English learners. Researchers, then, should further explore the academic performance of ELs who gain access to higher track courses. One might expect them to get higher academic returns, but do they? And if not, why not, and what can be done to get them there?


This is an important time for new research that may shed light on ways to improve outcomes and reduce inequality for English learners. The recent Every Student Succeeds Act gives special emphasis to English language standards and assessment for ELs. States and school districts are tasked with designing and carrying out plans to raise academic achievement for ELs in the years ahead. The stage is set for research to sort through which ones work and why, so that by the next reauthorization of federal standards-based reform, it will be clear what long-term issues states and districts should consider. Research that considers English learners not just as students, but as children and adolescents with rich experiences outside of school, as well as research that takes a broad, multidimensional view of ELs’ academic experiences, will likely be essential to this effort.


Bartlett, L., & García, O. 2011. Additive schooling in subtractive times: Bilingual education and Dominican immigrant youth in the heights. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Callahan, Rebecca M. 2005. Tracking and High School English Learners: Limiting Opportunity to Learn. American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 305-328.

Callahan, Rebecca M. and Dara Shifrer. 2016. Equitable Access for Secondary English Learner Students: Course Taking as Evidence of EL Program Effectiveness. Educational Administration Quarterly 52(3): 463-496.

Gándara, P. C., Rumberger, R. W., Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Callahan, R. M. 2003. English learners in California schools: Unequal resources, unequal outcomes. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(36).

Katz, Viki S. (2014). Children as brokers of their immigrant families’ health-care connections. Social Problems, 61(2), 194-215.

Kieffer, Michael J. and Caroline E. Parker. 2016 October. Patterns of English learner student classification in New York City public schools (REL 2017-200). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved from

Lesaux, Nonie K. 2012. Reading and Reading Instruction for Children from Low-Income and Non-English Speaking Households. Future of Children 22(2): 73-88.

Louie, Vivian. 2012. Keeping the Immigrant Bargain: The Costs and Rewards of Success in
. New York: Russell Sage.

Murphy, David. 2014. The Academic Achievement of English Language Learners. Child Trends Research Brief. Publication #2014-62.

Olsen, Laurie. 2014 March. Meeting the Unique Needs of Long Term English Language Learners. National Education Association.

Orellana, Marjorie Faulstich. 2009. Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Slama, Rachel B. 2014. Investigating Whether and When English Learners Are Reclassified Into Mainstream Classrooms in the United States: A Discrete-Time Survival Analysis. American Educational Research Journal 51(2): 220-252.

Suarez-Orozco, Carola, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, and Vivian Tseng. Intersecting Inequalities: Research to Reduce Inequality for Immigrant-Origin Children and Youth. William T. Grant Foundation.

Suárez-Orozco, Carola, Bang Hee Jin, & Kim, Hae Yeon. (2010). “I felt like my heart was staying behind:” Psychological implications of immigrant family separations & reunifications. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21(2), 222-257.

Umansky, I. M., & Reardon, S. F. 2014. Reclassification patterns among Latino English learner students in bilingual, dual immersion, and English immersion classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 879-912.

Yoshikawa, Hiro. 2011. Immigrants raising citizens: Undocumented parents and their young children. New York, NY: Russell Sage.

Vivian Louie is a Program Officer at the William T. Grant Foundation. She serves as a key member of the Foundation’s Senior Program Team, which sets our research agenda and annual priorities, and manages the Foundation’s funding programs on reducing inequality.

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