The American Dream Deferred

The American Dream Deferred: US Needs to Repair Broken System to Teach

Lost amid the din of the nation’s immigration debate are the best interests of 23 million US adults who cannot speak English adequately. Although most of these adults are foreign-born (20 million), another 3 million are US-born citizens who are classified as Limited English Proficient. And our system of federal programs to help them learn English is badly broken.

For these adults, English matters. For Latino adults, limited English directly contributes to dropping out of school and $3,000 in lost wages each year — costing the US economy a total of $38 billion annually. But English proficiency can be as vital and basic as parents communicating with teachers and doctors about their child’s well-being: most immigrants are highly motivated to learn English.

But according to the US Department of Education between 2007 and 2010, only 40% of those enrolled in a government-funded or administered course improved their English proficiency. The remaining 60% either dropped out or did not advance. Most government programs do not even collect data on their effectiveness and where federal and state funds are spent.

In 2009, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that there is no evidenced-based approach to teaching English to adults. According to GAO, the lack of accountability in these programs leads to failure — a failure that costs taxpayers and adult learners, especially immigrants, a great deal.

Why aren’t the programs working? The blame falls primarily on the government programs designed to teach English –they don’t meet the needs of adult English learners. Since the government dollars flow regardless of outcomes, if they are even tracked, the programs have no incentive to adapt and adopt best practices.

If lawmakers are keen to assimilate immigrants, they should look to best practices being pioneered in the non-profit and private sector. Unlike government programs, community-based organizations are held accountable by their students and donors. Well-implemented accountability systems especially reliance on data have produced impressive results for many of these organizations.

Community-based non-profits like Los Angeles’ Puente Learning Center have made accommodating its students the center of their approach. For CEO Luis Marquez, “We meet the learner where he or she is by assessing their skills, then design a program based on their strengths, and support their ability to go as far and as fast as they choose.”

Puente’s instructional model called blended learning uses computer adaptive lessons and assessments help multiply the efforts of English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) teachers by giving their useful and timely data to identify student’s weaknesses and focus their attention there. In 2005 alone, 85% of Puente’s adult English learners advanced in proficiency compared to the government average of 40% that year.
Another promising model is adult charter schools like Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington, DC. Under Rosario’s model, the curriculum is divided into 10 course levels where student placement is based on rigorous testing of both reading and writing proficiency. Once assigned to a level, Rosario’s students receive individualized and targeting lessons based on their specific needs and goals in contrast with the one-size-fits-all curriculum of government-run programs.

Rosario incentivizes student learning further by offering workforce training programs to students once they reach a specified level of English proficiency including computer repair, culinary and nurse’s aide programs. The approach is working as 87% of Rosario’s students in levels 1 and 4 passed their respective proficiency exams and advanced to the next level. Another crucial characteristic of adult charter schools like Rosario is accountability. If outcomes are insufficient, students will seek out better options. Moreover, oversight systems are in place to withdraw taxpayer dollars when a charter school no longer meets the needs of the community.

Rosario and Puente are not alone as a myriad of non-profit and private sector organizations are achieving similar success in helping adult learners gain English proficiency. Policymakers should take heed — these programs are built on accountability, rigorous data collection and most importantly a desire and flexibility to meet the adult learner where he or she is.

Before further entrenching the government-run ESL system with more funding and mandates, policymakers must reform the broken system. Tax dollars should flow to community-based organizations that are achieving success. All Americans, especially English learners and immigrant communities, would be better off.

Sean Kennedy is a fellow with the Lexington Institute, a non-profit think tank in Arlington VA and co-author of the recent report, “Repairing The Nation’s Education System for Adult Learners” released in July.

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