Statement on English Language Acquisition

In the past decade, as the student population in the U.S. has grown increasingly more ethnically and linguistically diverse, the debate around English language acquisition has come to the forefront of national educational policy. In 2001, for example, almost 3 million students in the U.S. were enrolled in programs for English language learners; approximately 75% of these students are from nations whose principal language is Spanish. Moreover, the majority of English language learners have matriculated into public school systems in urban and rural areas, which face increasingly restricted physical and pedagogical resources and a lack of qualified (i.e., fully certified and/or competently-trained) English language acquisition instructors. Schools now face the challenge of educating more English language learners than ever before -- in the midst of rising academic standards, diminished resources, and an increasingly technology-based economy.

The debate between proponents of traditional bilingual education programs -- which use students' native languages to help them learn English and content areas -- and those who favor an English language immersion approach -- teaching new English learners only in English, is being played out across the country. For example, legislation that severely restricts or completely eliminates bilingual education was enacted in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000. Similar initiatives will be voted on this fall in Massachusetts and Colorado.

Although up to half of all teachers in the U.S. may expect to educate an English language learner at sometime during their career, currently only 2.5% of all teachers who work with English language learners hold a degree in "English as a second language" (ESL) or bilingual education. Federal legislation emanating from President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" plan contains funding for a National Professional Development Program that provides discretionary grants to improve classroom instruction for English language learners. However, historically, states and districts have not provided professional development to bilingual educators in systematic and targeted ways that provide opportunities for regular instructors to become adept at working with new language learners.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that new English language learners, previously exempt from many standardized exams, are now required by federal law to take most of these tests. This only increases the need for innovative and effective ways of educating these students, since in some cases decisions about monetary rewards and sanctions for individual schools and districts are based on students' scores on standardized exams.

AJC believes that the ultimate goal of public schools is to prepare all students to be full participants in American civic life and to maximize their chances for individual success. To that end, AJC urges the following:
  1. Depending upon a range of particularized circumstances, both bilingual and English-only immersion approaches can be effective ways of incorporating new English language learners into the linguistic, social, and economic mainstream of American society. AJC strongly opposes legislation that mandates one methodology or approach over another. AJC believes that flexibility is the most desirable and effective approach for educating these students. Schools should have access to a range of options that can be tailored to meet the needs of students, based on their backgrounds, prior levels of educational attainment, age, and knowledge of specific content areas. Whichever program or methodology schools decide to use, AJC believes that its primary aim should be facilitating students' proficiency in English as quickly as possible. All such programs should undergo regular evaluation to ensure compliance with their stated aims.
  2. Students in English language acquisition programs should not be completely isolated from their peers or relegated to a "remedial" status within schools. Instead, students in these programs should have the same rights as those not in such programs to challenging and appropriate coursework, competently-trained instructors, and opportunities for participation in non-content areas, including the arts and physical education. Classes and recreational activities that mix English and non-English speaking children should be encouraged.
  3. Instructors of new English language learners should be fully trained and have opportunities for coursework and professional development that will enhance their ability to work with such students. Teacher training should address the specific developmental, academic, and social needs of English language learners. In addition, all teachers should be sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of their students and, whenever possible, should undergo training that facilitates such sensitivity. Financial resources to support professional development for these instructors should be increased. AJC also encourages the development of innovative programs for certifying paraprofessionals and educational aides, and programs that strive to cull and train potential English language acquisition instructors from the local community, parents, and public schools.
  4. AJC believes that parents of new English language learners should be involved in these programs as much as possible. Ideally, they should be aware of which methods are being used to teach their children, the qualifications of the students' teachers, and what program options are available. In addition, AJC supports the expansion of English language acquisition opportunities for parents and other adults.
  5. AJC strongly supports further research and study into English language acquisition models and methodologies that have been scientifically validated and approved by the educational community. Resources should be provided for long-term studies that are subjected to peer review. Materials and methods that "work" should be widely distributed to schools, state and local agencies, and community groups and parents. The education of America's diverse children is a matter of concern to all of us. Our public schools must find a way to teach English language learners both English and subject matter content. The health of our democracy depends upon it.

    Adopted by the Board of Governors on October 7, 2002.
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