By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 2, 2007 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- According to U.S. government figures, English is the second language for approximately 5.5 million students in the United States, nearly one-tenth of the total U.S. student body. By 2025, one of every four students in this country's public school system is expected to initially be limited in English proficiency.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines people in that category as anyone aged 5 to 21 who speaks a language other than English at home and reports speaking English less than "very well." Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, schools are held accountable for these students and for how well and how quickly they become proficient in English.
In many respects, the government figures reflect the record-high immigration that over the last 15 years that has dramatically changed the demographics of U.S. public schools. Considering that the majority of those immigrants come from countries where English is not the native language, it would seem safe to assume that children who have recently arrived are the ones having difficulty with English.
That's true to a degree -- but actually a small one. Today, the U.S. Department of Education notes, 80 percent of students with limited English proficiency are in fact born and raised in this country; in other words, four out of five are U.S. citizens. This information becomes troubling in light of other studies that suggest many of these students are improving slowly, if at all.
A 2005 Urban Institute report found that 56 percent of children who enter high school with limited English proficiency are U.S.-born. What that means, according to the institute, is "that many children are not learning English even after seven or more years" in U.S. schools.
According to a soon-to-be-released report by the Pew Hispanic Center, English language learners as a whole are "trailing way behind" all other groups, including white, Hispanic and African-American students. Furthermore, the achievement "gap actually widens from the fourth grade to the eighth grade," according to Richard Fry, author of the report.
Among Hispanic students, who make up about 70 percent of limited English students, the dropout and noncompletion rates are disturbing. In 2004, nearly one in 10 Hispanic students had dropped out of school, and one of every three between the ages of 18 and 24 had not completed high school -- worse than any other ethnic or racial group.
These latest findings will probably do little to change the minds of those looking for proof that No Child Left Behind is failing and needs reform, or for those supporters of English-only policies or opponents of immigration. They'll see what they want to in the numbers.
I think the numbers pose a challenge to immigrant parents, particularly Hispanics. Knowing what we do -- that having no high school degree greatly reduces our children's chances to succeed -- should we not apply the same determination that helped us get to this country to ensure that we send English-proficient children to school?
In an age when learning English is a priority for children around the world, it is appalling that children born in this country can get all the way into high school without being fluent in the dominant language. True, many immigrant children are at a disadvantage because they are born to parents who are poor and uneducated, working as hard as they can to make ends meet.
But consider this simple and telling fact: As a percentage, more Asian children in this country are the children of immigrants than are Latinos.
Yet, according to the nation's latest report card released last week, Asian children scored higher on average in 2005 than the other four racial-ethnic groups.
Maybe comparing Latinos and Asians is unfair. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, the chairman of the Education Task Force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in an interview this week that it is "wrong to be expecting that Latino children" will do as well as Asian children, whose cultures have given education the highest priority for centuries.
Or maybe it's time to do so. After all, we might learn something about community-based after-school programs in which even working class Asian immigrants enroll their children to improve academic performance. According to Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian-American studies at UCLA, it isn't "hard to teach a community to do more." After all, she added, "culture is made by people." In other words, cultural differences should not be allowed to become a justification for inaction.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is email@example.com.