Infante-Green & Santos: English Learners Are Left Out of the Conversation About Educational Equity. It’s Time for That to Change

Decisions about sending students back to school this fall have been overwhelming. From fears around spreading the virus to concerns about learning loss and navigating parenthood while trying to hold down a job during a pandemic, there’s no shortage of worry to go around. And that’s just when it comes to what is being talked about.

One thing that’s not being talked about? Our nation’s nearly 5 million linguistically and culturally diverse students. You may know them as English learners.

Even in the best of times, this population is woefully underserved. Now, within the context of COVID-19, economic and racial upheaval, and one of our nation’s most important elections, it is time we finally started prioritizing them as we make long-term decisions about education equity. Those who are running for office during this election need to understand that our country cannot wait any longer to focus on this critical population.

English learners make up 10 percent of America’s public school population and are the fastest-growing population in our public education system. They come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and their cultures and home languages provide invaluable insight and a diversity of perspective that benefits all of us. There’s ample research to suggest that multilingualism provides social, mental and psychological benefits — yet the assets these students bring to our education system are often ignored.

We have spent our careers focused on improving the success of these students. We’ve worked to develop and implement blueprints and programming to support multilingual learners in New York, Oakland and now Rhode Island so they can thrive academically. We are proud to say that we’ve raised the bar and set higher expectations as more district leaders realize what we already know — these students have the potential, the grit and the spirit to succeed. More than once, we’ve seen the student going through an English learner program become class valedictorian.

These students can and do excel in the right environment and with the right resources and instruction. We must ensure that their education is accessible and effective during this time. For example, we need to address the fact that access to technology and chronic absenteeism, already a concern for certain grades pre-COVID, have become even greater challenges for many students and educators in a remote learning environment. This means doing the outreach to meet this community where they are and informing parents what a quality education should look like for culturally and linguistically diverse students. Prioritizing this population means figuring out distance and in-person learning methods to support the quality interactions and dynamic conversations that are essential to helping these students succeed. Every district and state plan must see these students as a priority. It is time to lead with this population.

Luckily, when it comes to supporting multilingual students in this new normal, we do have answers. The Coalition for English Learner Equity, an organization we are proud to be part of, has launched a new initiative to help district leaders and educators reimagine how this population is served in schools. The initiative has produced a statement of agreement among leading researchers and organizations about evidence-based practice, and has a call to action to involve those who care about children. Our coalition is committed to providing resources and tools based on data-backed research from the best in the field. These resources will touch on everything from what quality instruction looks like for English learners to what professional development should entail for teachers who work with linguistically diverse students.

This is the kind of effort and energy we need to be bringing to the table this fall. These are unprecedented times, but we can’t use that as an excuse to continue sidelining millions of students. Instead, we’re asking school leaders and teachers around the country to join us in meeting this moment and renewing our commitment to provide a quality education to all students. For once, let’s make sure the word “all” actually means all.

Angelica Infante-Green is Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Maria Santos is an education consultant.

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