The number of language minority students in U.S. schools has increased dramatically in recent years. In response, teachers, principals, school board members, and others have developed policies, programs, and practices that attempt to meet their needs. But this challenge is not solely an American one. Developed countries all over the globe are also seeing a rapid influx of language minority students in their schools. Like us, these countries may be feeling their way, trying to determine how best to instruct language minority students in reading literacy.
When reading about test results from international assessments, the issue of language minority students is rarely, if ever, addressed. The Center believes this is something worth looking at. Using an international dataset such as PIRLS (see "The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study: a description") to compare U.S. language minority children with their counterparts in three other developed countries1 can help us provide insight into U.S. practices, the situation of language minority children across different countries, and recommendations for school board members. We also look not only on these students, but also at the schools they attend and the teachers who teach them reading. By going beyond students’ traits, we open a wider window on their educational experiences,2 which, we believe helps us understand the complexity of language minority students’ experiences.
Language minority students across the globe
|Why these countries?
|To make these comparisons meaningful, we have chosen to compare language minority students in the United States to those in Canada, England, and Germany3. In many ways these nations are similar to the United States, although there are some emerging differences (see Rifkin 2004). Economically, they are among the wealthiest in the world—all in some form are members of the Group of 8 (G8) countries. As we will see, both the percentage of language minority students in the each of the countries and their measured reading literacy achievement are roughly similar to that found in this country. Thus, these nations or jurisdictions were chosen because they share many important characteristics with the United States, and are challenged to deal with increasingly similar percentages of language minority students within their borders.
Language minority students in the United States
Research indicates that as U.S. language minority students move through school the percentage of them defined as “language minority” tends to fall somewhat, but it does not disappear. In fact, for a student learning a language, a minimum of three to five years, on average, is required; sometimes it takes much longer (Center for Public Education 2007). Using U.S. Census data, Capps et al. (2005) reported that in the United States approximately 7 percent of elementary-aged students are language minority. This figure is roughly equivalent to the percentage we derived for language minority students using the PIRLS data (6.4 percent), and which we will use throughout this report (see Figure 1).
While the “language minority” label may cover a large number of students in the United States, it may also hide a great deal of diversity. Contrary to popular stereotypes, most language minority students in the United States are born in this country, some do well in school, and some come from homes with well-educated parents (Capps et al. 2005). Furthermore, language minority students from different ethnic groups tend to produce different achievement profiles (Ready and Tindal 2006). In this report we aggregate language minority students from each country in order to understand their general education situation across the four countries. However, the reader would do well to remember that language minority students contain some significant diversity within their ranks.
On the other hand, when aggregated, data from the U.S. Census indicate that there are a few distinguishing characteristics for U.S. language minority students. About three-quarters of them in pre-kindergarten through grade five speak Spanish (no other language accounted for more than 3 percent of all LEP students in 2000). About two-thirds of them come from low income families, and about half had parents without a high school degree (Capps, et al.)7.
In the United States, English is the primary language, and it is also the language of instruction in most classrooms. Yet the number of language minority students is increasing rapidly. Between 1979 and 2006, the number of school age children between the ages of five and seventeen who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled (Planty et al. 2008). Spanish is, by far, the second most widely spoken language in the United States (Kapinus, Miller, Sen, and Malley 2007), and in elementary schools more than three-quarters of the language minority students are Spanish-speakers (Capps et al. 2005). Applying our definition of a language minority student to the PIRLS 2006 dataset, Figure 1 indicates that 6.4 percent of all fourth-graders in the United States were language minority students in 2006.
With increasing numbers of language minority students, the country’s K–12 schools are now facing a critical challenge: Teaching language minority students to read and write well in English. In the United States there are differing views on how best to teach these students to read. Some favor immersion in English along with learning to read. Others believe that students should be taught to read proficiently in their native language first, and then learn to read in English (Kapinus et al. 2007).
Language minority students in Canada
Canada has two official languages: English and French. In 1996, about two-thirds of the country’s population spoke only English, while about one in six spoke only French, with roughly the same proportion speaking both French and English (Jaques and Gaudreault 2002). Applying our definition of a language minority student to the PIRLS 2006 data, Figure 1 indicates that in 2006 almost 9 percent of Canadian fourth-graders were classified as language minority students.
Since policies towards language minority students varies considerably between Canadian provinces, we present below outlines of policies from the two largest Canadian provinces: Ontario and Quebec.
The Ontario Ministry of Education states that the role of the school is to assist students for whom English is a second language to acquire the language skills required to allow them to participate on an equal footing with their peers. Programs and assessment methods are to be adjusted to accommodate the needs of these students and support them in their learning. Importantly, the decisions about how to meet the needs of these students are made at the local school board level (Jaques and Gaudreault 2002).
The Quebec Ministry of Education, on the other hand, provides services to students whose first language is not French. The aim is to help them integrate into school and society. Examples of services provided include welcoming services and special classes. If necessary, these programs are available to students for longer than one school year. The services support students while they learn French, with the goal of integrating the students into normal classrooms (Jaques and Gaudreault 2002).
Language minority students in England
England is the birthplace of the English language and English is the major language in primary schools. Now, however, other languages are also being spoken, with the most typical being those originating in South Asia (e.g., Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarti, Hindi, Bengali). The percentage of language minority students in schools varies greatly, but in some English cities it can be quite large. For example, in London the share of language minority students in schools is approaching 40 percent (Twist 2008). Using our definition of a language minority student with the PIRLS 2006 data for England, Figure 1 indicates that 5.4 percent of all English fourth-graders were classified as language minority.
The official policy in England towards language minority students is that those who are at the earliest stages of learning English should be integrated into mainstream schools, with additional language support if necessary. While instruction in English primary schools is generally given in English, support is often provided for students who are learning English as an additional language, depending on students’ level of fluency. (Twist 2008).
Language minority students in Germany
German, of course, is the official spoken language in Germany. There are now, however, a variety of languages spoken there, with Turkish dominating (Hornberg, Bos, Lankes, and Valtin 2007). Applying our definition of a language minority student to the PIRLS 2006 data, Figure 1 indicates almost 5 percent of German fourth-graders were characterized as language minority by the PIRLS data.
In Germany, there is a growing awareness that immigrant students need special courses in German, but until recently few schools offered special courses in German language instruction. Regardless of their linguistic and cultural backgrounds, however, all children learn to read and write in German, though some schools may offer learning-to-read programs in two languages (Hornberg et al. 2007).
|Technical note about students' teachers and principals
|The principals and teachers in this report were selected by PIRLS for two reasons: (1) they were the reading teachers or principals of the fourth-graders who participated in the PIRLS 2006 survey, and(2) they could provide information about these students’ reading instruction and school experiences. Since they were not chosen randomly they are not necessarily representative of teachers nationwide. The “unit of analysis” in this report is the fourth-grader. So throughout this report when talking about the teachers or principals we will say, for example, “reading teachers of U.S. language minority fourth-graders report that fourth-graders in their classes…”, or “According to the reports of the principals of language minority fourth-graders in Germany…”, where our emphasis will center on the characteristics of the principals or teachers of these fourth-graders.
Further, given the definition of language minority fourth-graders stated above, students either identified themselves as language minority students or not. That response was then used to link them to their principal or teacher responses on the PIRLS principal or teacher questionnaire. It is those linked responses from teachers or principals of language minority fourth-graders that are included in this report. Importantly, this means that while these individuals were clearly identified as the principals or teachers of language minority fourth-graders, they were also likely to be principals or teachers of other, non-language minority fourth-graders (i.e., not all the students in their classes or schools were language minority). The intent in this report is to identify language minority fourth-graders and examine their schools and classrooms. The intent is not to look exclusively at classrooms and schools that contain only language minority students.
Characteristics of language minority students
Figure 1 identifies the percent of language minority fourth-graders in each country in this study. To augment the data in Figure 1, refer to the section "Language minority students across the globe" for brief sketches of language minority students and their schooling in each country examined in this report.8
These very brief summaries of language minority students, taken together with Figure 1, suggest the following:
- As defined in this report, language minority students in each of the countries we are examining are a relatively small proportion of all students (under 10 percent), but their numbers vary by locale and appear to be increasing.
- Approaches to developing literacy in language minority students seem to vary from country to country, and sometimes, different practices are used within the same country.
Though test results from international assessments can be a source of controversy, both among education researchers and the general public9, in Figure 2 we are less interested in comparing scores across countries and more concerned with a remarkably consistent pattern within each country. In the United States, Canada, England, and Germany, language minority fourth-graders, on average, score significantly lower than the average of all other (i.e., non-language minority) fourth-graders. These PIRLS results demonstrate that by fourth grade within these developed countries, language minority students are, on average, already likely to produce average reading literacy achievement scores well below those of their non-language minority peers.
This important finding, however, requires an equally important caveat: It does not indicate that language minority individuals are predisposed to lower achievement. First, data in Figure 2 are average scores; some language minority fourth-graders scored higher, others scored lower. Second, in every participating PIRLS country except England, language minority fourth-graders, on average, scored at or higher than the PIRLS international average score of 500. Finally, while there was a statistical difference between the average scores of language minority fourth-graders in Canada and those of non-language minority fourth-graders in England and the United States, the difference was slight—suggesting very little average score difference between the two different groups in these countries.
Clearly, the data demonstrate that language minority students are capable. Nevertheless, within every country examined here, language minority fourth-graders typically performed less well than their non-language minority counterparts. If these scores are related to future achievement, then this pattern is troubling.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, economic hardship on children can have staggering implications for children’s educational lives (Cauthen and Fass 2008). And while poverty may not directly diminish the minds of these children, it can draw attention away from learning to the competing demands of safety and survival, and can weaken children’s hope for the future (Rose 2005).
Figure 3 shows child poverty rates10 for all children—not just language minority fourth-graders—in the four countries11 in this report both before and after taxes and other various transfers. Tax and transfer policies are generally aimed at reducing child poverty rates that would otherwise prevail if left only to the incomes that families receive from work and other sources (Allegretto and Grey 2006). Yet one result is constant before and after government intervention: U.S. child poverty rates are the highest among the four countries in this report. And even after taxes and transfer policies are implemented, more than one in five U.S. children was still living in poverty.
What can we say about language minority children in poverty? In the United States, the poverty rate for families of language minority children tends to be quite high. According to Capps, et al. (2005), 68 percent of language minority children in the United States in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade were “low income.”12
Across the other countries in this report, official definitions of poverty and language minority status vary, and so it is not possible to standardize poverty definitions for language minority children. However, two pieces of evidence suggest that the trend is not moving in a positive direction for them:
- Child poverty has increased in seventeen out of twenty-four OECD13 countries for which data were available (United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF] 2007).
- Income inequality is rising in most OECD countries, with children and young adults now 25 percent more likely to be poor than the population as a whole (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2008). Such findings do not bode well for language minority children in these countries.
International studies have shown that homes with extensive literacy resources tend to have higher average achievement than those with fewer resources (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, and Foy 2007). There may be many reasons why this is so, but one key factor associated with providing these resources is a sufficient family income (Barton and Coley 2007).
From the standpoint of language minority students, that finding is not encouraging. United States research has found that in the homes of children where English was not spoken, parents may not have the additional resources necessary to purchase materials for children to complete their homework (Brock, Lapp, Flood, Fisher, and Han 2007). Figure 4 shows the percentage of language minority fourth-graders in the four countries in this study who indicated having selected educational materials in their homes in 2006.
- More than three-quarters (77 percent) of U.S. language minority fourth-graders reported having a computer in their home, but this percentage was significantly lower than the 90 percent of Canadian language-minority fourth-graders and 88 percent of England’s language-minority fourth-graders who reported having a computer in their homes.
- More than two-thirds (69 percent) of language minority fourth-graders in the United States reported having their own study desk/table in their homes. But this percentage is significantly lower than that for Canadian and German language minority fourth-graders (79 and 85 percent, respectively).
- On the other hand, similar percentages of language-minority fourth-graders in the United States, England, and Germany reported having books of their own in their homes.
Research indicates that television viewing time generally increases between ages eight and thirteen (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, and Brodie 1999; Wright, et al. 2001), and that during those years children appear to be spending less time than before watching “child-informative” television (Huston, Wright, Rice, Kerkman, and St. Peters 1990). Furthermore, it is likely that many children in this age group spend more of their time watching television than they spend on any other activity except sleep (Comstock and Paik 1991; Pecora, Murray, and Wartella 2007).
But television has electronic competition for the attention of children: Computer and video games. A recent Pew study (Lenhart, et al. 2008) found that 97 percent of all U.S. adolescents have played some sort of video game14.
Yet, regardless of these electronic activities, children are still reading. PIRLS found that across countries, fourth-grade students overall still held generally positive attitudes towards reading and viewed themselves as good, or at least moderately good readers. Moreover, on average, about 40 percent of theses students, internationally, are reading for fun every day or almost every day (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, and Foy 2007).
In Figure 5 we examine those fourth-grade language minority students who are viewing TV, playing computer games, and reading books for a considerable amount of time: Five or more hours per day on a normal school day.
- Over a quarter of U.S. language minority fourth-graders indicated that they watch television or play computer games more than five hours on a regular school day.
- A greater share of U.S. language minority fourth-graders are likely to watch television or play computer games for five or more hours a day than is the case for language minority fourth-graders in Canada and Germany, but not in England.
- On the other hand, a higher percentage of language minority fourth-graders in the United States are likely to read books for five or more hours per day than is the case for their counterparts in England and Germany, but not Canada.
Are language minority fourth-graders ready to read when they enter school? Figure 6 identifies principals of language minority fourth-graders who believe that more than 75 percent of all students in their schools could perform the indicated beginning literacy activities upon beginning first grade (not just language minority fourth-graders).
- A majority of U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders indicated that more than 75 percent of the students in their schools could recognize letters of the alphabet, read some words, write letters of the alphabet, and write some words upon entering first grade.
- In no other country did a majority of principals indicate that more than 75 percent of the students in their schools could perform these beginning literacy activities. The U.S. percentages are considerably higher than those of their counterparts in Canada and Germany. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of the principals of language minority fourth-graders in those two countries reported that 75 percent of the students in their schools could perform these tasks.
Considering the earlier findings, the results from Figure 6 are, from the U.S. perspective, impressive—and probably surprising. Perhaps U.S. principals are simply more optimistic about their schools. Enrollment rates in preschool across the four countries are not likely to explain the wide differences between these U.S. principals and their international counterparts.
An alternative explanation is the “hurried child” theory proposed by Elkind (2001), which suggests that U.S. children are rushed into educational activities. Evidence from a federal survey indicates that most U.S. parents, including poor parents, were reading to their three- to five-year-old children fairly consistently (U.S. Department of Education 2006). However, it is uncertain how many parents of language minority students are able to participate in these literacy activities, since many may lack English skills.
The findings in Figure 6 are intriguing, but the supporting evidence is not definitive. Clearly, further investigation is warranted.
Schools of language minority students
In this section we investigate various aspects of the schools language minority students attend in order to understand these fourth-graders more fully, Data for the figures in this section were gathered almost exclusively from the principals of these language minority fourth-graders, not the students themselves. Moreover, these principals oversaw schools that enrolled both language minority and non-language minority students.
PIRLS asked the principals of language minority fourth-graders to provide an estimate of the percentage of all students in their schools who came from economically disadvantaged homes. Because descriptions of economic disadvantage may vary from one country to another, this measure does not provide a precise calculation of poor students in these schools, across countries. Instead, it gives principals’ estimates of how economically disadvantaged they consider their schools to be, given their various national contexts. PIRLS found that, on average across countries, students attending schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students had lower reading achievement than students who attended schools with fewer disadvantaged students (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, and Foy 2007).
- Over sixty percent of U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders reported that more than half of the students in their schools came from economically disadvantaged homes. This percentage of U.S. principals is much higher than the percentage for principals in either Canada or Germany—more than 4 times higher than Canada and almost three times higher for Germany.
- Only 16 percent of U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders indicated that 10 percent or fewer of their students came from economically disadvantaged homes. Almost three times as many principals in Canada reported that percentage.
While U.S. principals appear to have greater percentages of economically disadvantaged students in their schools, do they also have more language minority students? Principals of language minority fourth-graders were asked to identify the percentage of students in their school who were language minority students. Figure 8 shows the results:
- A fairly large percentage (41 percent) of principals of U.S. language minority fourth-grade reported that language minority students comprise 10 percent or fewer of the students in their schools. This percentage is not detectably different that that reported by principals in Canada and England, but is higher than the percentage reported by German principals.
- Twenty-six percent of U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders indicated that more than half of the students in their schools are language minority students. Again, this percentage is not detectably different than the principals from the other countries in this study.
- Taken together, the data from Figures 7 and 8 suggest that even though all four countries have similar percentages of language minority students in their schools, U.S. schools have greater percentages of economically disadvantaged students.
Educators and policymakers are concerned with structuring schools so that all students can succeed. One structural aspect of schooling that has received a large amount of attention in recent years is the size of schools that students attend. Findings in this area are plentiful and diverse, so here we present only a small sampling of the research.
According to one recent review, smaller schools were associated with lower dropout rates, better academic outcomes, better attendance rates, greater school safety, and greater student participation in extracurricular activities (Center for Public Education 2008). Other researchers (Howley and Bickel 2000) found that small schools tend to break the typically strong and negative bond between poverty and achievement. Importantly, they also found that smaller schools tend to work best in poorer communities.
Yet, while small schools appear to engender many positive outcomes, actually restructuring school environments may create its own problems. Bloomfield (2008, January 25) indicates that attempts to place students in smaller schools can actually backfire, putting students in schools where overcrowding is already a problem. Importantly for this study, the students who are generally displaced tend to be special education and language minority students.
Nevertheless, the promises that small schools engender have been widely embraced and are strongly supported by a number of prominent educators and education foundations15, even though to date, achievement results have been mixed (Hoff 2008).
In Figure 7, we describe the percentages of all students attending schools of various sizes.
- A much greater percentage of U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders report that their students are in large schools (i.e., over 600 students) than do their counterparts in the other three countries.
- On the other hand, a smaller percentage of U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders report that their students are in a small school (i.e., 200 or fewer students) than do their counterparts in Canada and Germany.
- In short, the findings strongly suggest that greater numbers of language minority fourth-graders in the United States are more likely to attend large schools and less likely to attend small schools than are many of their international counterparts.
Seasoned educators have long known that parental involvement in schools can have important effects on students’ achievement (Meier 2002). Yet parents of language minority students may not be as involved as others. They may not understand English, or be unfamiliar with the requirement of the school system. Differences in cultural norms concerning the proper level of parental contact may further hinder their involvement with the school (Quezada, Diaz, and Sanchez 2003). In addition, family income level may be associated with parental involvement in their child’s school (Lee and Bowen 2006).
These findings suggest that within the United States, home-school involvement for the homes and schools of language minority fourth-graders may be relatively low. But how does it compare across the four countries in this report? To better understand home-school involvement internationally, PIRLS developed the Home-School Involvement (HSI) Index16. Results are presented in Figure 10.
- Almost all principals of language minority fourth-graders in Canada (94 percent) and more than eight in ten principals of language minority fourth-graders in United States were judged to have a high level of home-school involvement.
- The share of principals of language minority fourth-graders who evidenced a high level of home-school involvement in England and Germany was significantly lower than that for the two North American countries.
- Less than one in ten Canadian or U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders were considered to have a medium level of home school involvement. The percentage of English and German principals with a medium level of home-school involvement, on the other hand, was much higher.
A good school climate is usually considered a prerequisite for learning. On the left side of Figure 11 data from the PIRLS index of school climate is reported.17
In addition to a strong school climate, students must feel safe in their schools. One team of researchers (Baker and LeTendre 2005) discovered that the extent of adult violence in a country (and it is relatively high in the United States) was not highly related to school violence. Rather, the quality and equality of a country’s educational system appeared to be the more important factors. This is a topic with broad implications, and we will return to it in the conclusion of this report.
For now, we focus on data from the school safety index developed by PIRLS. The school safety index was created from principals of language minority fourth-graders’ perceptions about safety in their schools and, like the other indexes reported here, was generated by aggregating a number of responses about safety from the fourth-graders.18 Figure 11 compares high levels of school climate and safety.
- In the United States more than half of the principals of language minority fourth-graders were judged by PIRLS to have high levels of school climate in their schools. Almost three-quarters of these principals were considered to have high levels of school safety.
- When comparing the schools of language minority fourth-graders in the United States with their counterparts’ schools in Canada and England, there were no detectable differences for high levels of either school climate or school safety. There were significant differences, however, between the United States and Germany.
Teachers of language minority students
In this section we examine the education of language minority fourth-graders through the lens of their reading teachers. As noted in the introduction, it is likely that these teachers had both language minority and non-language minority students in their classrooms.
Studies have found that students at risk of failure need the best teachers, but typically they get just the opposite (Viadero 2000, March 20). For example, language minority children often need reading teachers with extensive experience, but they generally attend schools that have less experienced teachers (Cosentino de Cohen, Clemencia, and Clewell 2005).
An initial way of judging the quality of language minority students’ reading teachers, albeit fairly crudely, is to measure their years of experience. Figure 12 shows the overall experience levels for the reading teachers of fourth-grade language minority students in the United States, Canada, England, and Germany.
- Fewer U.S. teachers of language minority fourth-graders had greater than 10 years of experience than did their counterparts in Canada and in Germany.
Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know (see Education Trust 2008), and some teachers, through no fault of their own, may not be aware of the special needs of language minority students. Figure 13 quantifies the extent to which reading teachers of fourth-grade language minority students received formal training on this subject.
- More than one-quarter (27 percent) of the U.S. reading teachers of language minority fourth-graders reported that they received training that emphasized second-language learning. Of their counterparts in the other countries, only 8 percent in England and 4 percent in Germany reported receiving training that emphasized second-language learning.
- On the other hand, 29 percent of the reading teachers of U.S. fourth-grade language minority students reported that they received no training at all in second-language learning. Nevertheless, this percentage compares favorably with teachers of language minority fourth-graders in the other countries in this study. Significantly greater percentages of teachers of language minority fourth-graders in Canada, England, and Germany reported that they received no training at all in second-language learning than did their counterparts in the United States.
- In sum, U.S. reading teachers of language minority fourth-graders compare relatively well to their international counterparts, yet only a little more than one-quarter have received training that emphasized second-language learning.
How should language minority children be taught reading literacy skills? Perhaps surprisingly, a report from the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth suggests that the research is not especially strong in this area (August and Shanahan 2006). Indeed, a writer in a prominent educational research journal pointed out that, “[E]ven within educational circles there is heated debate about how best to educate [English language learners], and what ‘best practices’ and ‘best programs’ look like” (Hawkins 2004).
Nevertheless, the Institute of Education Sciences (an office in the U.S. Department of Education) released a “Practice Guide” for elementary-level teachers of language-minority students (Gersten, et al. 2007) that contained a number of specific recommendations for teaching language minority students. The panel indicated that reading, discussing, and writing about texts should be a central part of the instruction dispensed during the school day.
Figure 14 provides data about how frequently teachers of language minority fourth-graders assign reading for homework, have students make predictions, make generalizations, or describe the style of the text they have read in class every day or almost every day.
- More teachers of language minority fourth-graders in the United States report having their students make predictions and make generalizations about the text they read every day or almost every day than do teachers of language minority fourth-graders in Canada, England, or Germany.
- A greater percentage of teachers of language minority fourth-graders in the United States report that their students describe the style of text they are reading every day or almost every day than do their counterparts in Canada and Germany, but not in England.
- Greater percentages of teachers of language minority fourth-graders in the United States report assigning reading for homework every day than is the case for teachers of language minority fourth-graders in England and Germany.
While good data about how to teach language minority students may be a bit thin, there is a strong line of research indicating that teacher expectations can play an important role in student learning. For example, the work of Jussim and Eccles (1992) found that teacher expectations predicted changes in student achievement more than either their students’ previous achievement or their motivation. This finding is consistent with much of the research literature, which indicates that teachers are likely to get the kind of outcomes they expect to get from their students.
Unfortunately, not all expectations are positive. According to Tkatchov and Pollnow (2008), teachers often act differently towards students based on the assumptions they hold about individual learner’s capabilities. Teachers might see language minority students as less capable. Good (1987) found that if teachers believed students possessed less potential they often provided them with less exciting instruction. They also might be grouped together, maintaining low levels of performance (Good and Marshall 1984).
The responses in Figure 15 come from the school principals of language minority fourth-graders. They represent principals’ perceptions of teachers’ expectations for student achievement. Of course, what constitutes high or low expectations may vary from country to country. Nevertheless, principals were asked the same questions, and in the United States, Canada, and England principals produced similar profiles. Finally, it should be noted that these principals were asked this question about all the teachers in their schools – not just those teaching language minority students.
- Like their counterparts in Canada and England, well over eight in ten principals of language minority fourth-graders in the United States indicated that their teachers held high or very high expectations for all of their students.
- In addition, a greater percent U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders indicated that their teachers held high or very high expectations than did principals in Germany.
- In sum, responses from U.S. principals of language minority fourth-graders suggest that the percentage of teachers in their schools holding high or very high expectations for all students is quite high and generally similar to principals’ reports in Canada and England, and on average, higher than those in Germany.
How the United States is doing
Language minority fourth-graders are currently a relatively small (under 10 percent) but growing segment of the student population in the four countries examined in this report. But while their numbers are increasing, their average reading literacy test scores remain significantly below those of their non-language minority peers in each country in this report. Thus, by fourth grade, language minority students, on average, have already fallen behind their non-language minority peers in basic reading literacy skills, not only in the United States, but also in Canada, England, and Germany.
Research demonstrates that poverty can have a devastating impact on the educational lives of children. The data show that U.S. children have the highest average overall poverty levels in the four countries studied in this report. More to the point of this report, about two-thirds of U.S. language minority children come from low-income homes. These poverty rates may be reflected in the data indicating that fewer U.S. language minority fourth-graders are likely to have a computer or their own study desk or table in their home than language minority fourth-graders in several other countries studied in this report.
Compared to the other language minority fourth-graders studied in this paper, U.S. students appear to have somewhat extreme television-viewing and electronic game-playing habits. Over a quarter of them spend more than five hours per day watching television or playing computer games—considerably higher percentages than their international counterparts. This time spent in front of electronic media may take away valuable time that could be devoted to learning.
On the other hand, about 15 percent of language minority fourth-graders, a larger percentage than some of their international counterparts, do spend a considerable amount of time reading books. And a greater percentage of their principals believe that U.S. language minority fourth-graders can perform basic reading literacy activities when they entered first grade than do the principals in the other countries in this report.
The schools that U.S. language minority fourth-graders attend present them with both difficult challenges and unique opportunities. On the one hand, according to their principals, schools of U.S. language minority fourth-graders generally contain more economically disadvantaged students and are larger than those attended by language minority students in the other countries in this report—even though they contain roughly similar percentages of language minority students. On the other hand, relatively large percentages of their principals in the United States, Canada, and England were judged to have schools with high levels of both good school climate and school safety. And greater percentages of these U.S. principals showed that their students are likely to be in schools that offer a potentially high level of home school involvement than was the case for students in England or Germany.
U.S. reading teachers of language minority fourth-graders appear to be somewhat less experienced than fellow teachers in the other countries in this study. Yet, for the most part, U.S. reading teachers of language minority fourth-graders compared relatively well against their international counterparts. Greater percentages of them seem to be better trained to teach second language learners than their peers in most of the other countries (even though only 25 percent of the U.S. teachers have received concentrated training in second language learning). Additionally, more of these U.S. reading teachers teach reading comprehension skills and strategies, and assign reading for homework more frequently than their counterparts, generally, in the other countries in this report. Finally, U.S. reading teachers of language minority fourth-graders were just as likely as their Canadian and English counterparts to have high or very high academic expectations for their students.
What this study means for school boards
What lessons can be drawn by school board members and other education policymakers from this international analysis of language minority students? Clearly language minority students are in need, which may be reflected in their average achievement scores. As we have seen in every country, language minority fourth-graders produced average reading literacy scores that are significantly lower than their native speaking counterparts. In the United States, even though there have been recent gains, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that the reading proficiency gap in scores for fourth-graders between language minority and native speaking children in the United States exceeds the gap between blacks and whites (see Perie, Grigg, and Donahue 2005).
Although U.S. teachers of language minority fourth-graders appear to be offering strong in-class instruction in general, school boards can support policies that employ more qualified, experienced, and better trained teachers, especially for language minority children. While school boards alone cannot change the economic composition of the students in their schools, they can support programs calling for a more equal distribution of educational resources, particularly for their language minority students. School boards are clearly not responsible for disparities in student achievement that they did not create (Ready and Tindal 2006), and they cannot change the home economic situation of language minority children, but they can argue for better living conditions for all their students.
Finally, data from this report indicate that the problems and challenges that language minority children present are global in scale. Thus, U.S. school board members might want to initiate international conversations to determine what educators and education policymakers in other countries are doing to enhance the reading literacy of their language minority students. While the challenges offered by the growing population of language minority students in the United States will not diminish soon, school board members should actively seek solutions wherever they can find them.
A word of caution
After reading this review, school board members may be tempted to go in search of an education silver bullet—a narrow reform policy which may result in raising average scores of language minority students by a point or two. Exhaustive analysis of international mathematics and science data by Baker and LeTendre (2005) suggests that such an expedition would lead to folly. While it might be possible to bump up average scores a bit, a larger problem—one of inequality in the distrubution of educational resources—would remain. Baker and LeTendre (2005) suggest that this may be the strongest factor associated with lower overall average achievement. If this is correct, education policymakers need to focus on the broader issue of equalizing education resources for all students, in their homes and in their schools, instead of concentrating on narrow policies like improving test-taking skills. Importantly, the students, schools, and classrooms most in need would receive the most attention.
This original report was researched and written by Laurence T. Ogle, who served as the PIRLS National Research Coordinator at the National Center for Education Statistics (US Department of Education) for approximately 6 years (2001 - 2007). He now works as an independent researcher specializing in international education.
1 For all comparisons in this paper, we have employed independent t tests, and comparisons have been tested for statistical significance at the .05 level. These data were analyzed with AM software developed by the American Institutes for Research (Cohen et al., 2003).
2 One goal of this report is to situate language minority students in a variety of settings: Home, school, and classroom. This approach is based on the work of Bronfenbrenner (1979) who showed that interactions among different settings or “ecological systems” can affect student outcomes.
3 Unlike the United States, which participated in the PIRLS 2006 survey as one country, Canada took part as five separate provinces. Thus, “Canada” in this report represents an aggregation of the five Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia) that participated in PIRLS 2006. However, the population of these five provinces, according to Statistics Canada (2005), comprises approximately 86 percent of the total Canadian population. Second, England, of course, is a part of the United Kingdom, not a separate country. However, the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined) did not participate in the PIRLS survey, while England, separately, did. Although England comprises roughly 84 percent of the United Kingdom’s population (Census 2001), in this report we will not, except in one instance (Figure 3), allow England to be equated with the larger United Kingdom. However, for convenience we will typically refer to England as a country.
4 In England, children begin primary school at age 5, and therefore, these countries assessed students in the fifth year of schooling, but for convenience, we refer to language minority students in all countries as fourth-graders.
5 PIRLS also includes a survey of the fourth-graders’ parents. However, since the United States did not participate in that parent background questionnaire, data from that survey cannot be included in this report.
6 The PIRLS 2006 instruments were prepared in English so no translation was required for American students. PIRLS orchestrates a rigorous translation, translation verification, and layout verification process. Readers interested in detailed information on the PIRLS translation process should see Chapter 5 of the PIRLS Technical Report (Martin, Mullis, and Kennedy, 2007): http://timss.bc.edu/pirls2006/tech_rpt.html.
7 Capps et al. defines “low income” children as those who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price meals to those students with a family income below 185 percent of the federal povery level. See Capps et al., page 23.
8 Except where noted, this information comes directly from the PIRLS 2001 and 2006 Encyclopedias (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, and Flaherty, 2002; Kennedy, Mullis, Martin, and Trong, 2007). These Encyclopedias contain broad descriptions of the countries, students, and education systems which participated in PIRLS, and were written by citizens of that country who were either the PIRLS national research coordinator or other researchers from that country. Readers who are interested in additional information about reading instruction and the education systems of the countries in this report should turn to the electronic copy of the PIRLS Encyclopedia: http://timss.bc.edu/pirls2006/encyclopedia.html.
9 Those readers interested in pursuing an informed discussion of the issue might want to see Bracey (1996, 2000), Baker (1997), Rotberg (2008), and Baker and LeTendre (2005).
10 Here poverty is defined as families with incomes below one-half of the median income for that country, which is a traditional poverty measure for international comparisons.
11 UNICEF poverty rates for England were not available, so we used those of the United Kingdom. As noted in the introduction, England makes up approximately 84 percent of the population of Great Britain.
12 For the definition of “low income” see footnote 7.
13 Organization for Economic and Development countries are among the most developed in the world and include the four countries in this report.
14 The Pew study reports on adolescents, not fourth-graders, and examines computer use and game playing inside and outside the home.
15 One prominent example: Since 1999 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Small Schools has awarded over $1 billion dollar in small schools grants (Hoff, 2008, May 21).
16 This index does not ask the principal to directly evaluate home-school involvement in his or her school. Rather individual responses to a number of questions about their school and parents were asked of the principal. These items were then combined statistically to produce the HSI index. The intent was to determine the frequency of communication from school to home and the percentage of students with parents who participated in the life of the school. The HSI Index is based on principals’ responses to seven questions, including four questions about frequency of communication from the school to the home (teacher-parent conferences; communications sent home; written reports of child’s performance; events at school to which parents are invited) and three questions about the percentage of students with parents who participate in the life of the school (volunteer regularly to help in the classroom or school; attend teacher-parent conferences; attend cultural, sporting, or social events at the school).
17 Like the home-school involvement index reported in Figure 10, data for this index come from an aggregation of responses from principals of language minority fourth-graders in the four countries in this report. Principals were not asked directly to describe the climate in their schools. Rather their responses to a number of questions about their schools were combined to create an “index” of school climate for each school in the PIRLS survey. Items that comprised this index included questions about teachers’ job satisfaction, teachers’ expectations for student achievement, parental support for student achievement, students’ regard for school property, students’ desire to do well in school, and students’ regard for each other’s welfare.
18 The index of school safety is based on principals’ reports about the degree to which each of the following was a problem in their school: Classroom disturbances, cheating, profanity, vandalism, theft, intimidation or verbal abuse of other students, and physical conflicts among students.