A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

School Reform and Student Diversity - September 1995

F. Summary Review of Literature

The student population in U.S. schools is now more diverse--both culturally and linguistically--than it has been at any time since the early decades of this century. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 1 more than one-fifth of school-age children and youth come from language minority families--homes in which languages other than English are spoken. English is not the first language of many of these students and they enter school with limited English proficiency (LEP).

The proportion of language minority students who are not fluent in English is estimated by various sources to be one-fourth, 2 one-third, 3 or as large as one-half to three-fourths of the student body, 4 constituting between one out of twenty and one out of seven of the nation’s five- to 17-year-olds. No matter which estimate is most accurate, U.S. Census figures indicate that linguistic diversity among students will persist and increase.5 Already, during the 1980s, the number of LEP students grew two-and-a-half times faster than regular school enrollment.6

About 43 percent of students with limited English proficiency are immigrants (i.e., foreign-born themselves or with mothers who immigrated to the U.S. within the past 10 years). Thus more than half of LEP students come from families who have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.7 Although LEP students represent more than 100 different language backgrounds, Spanish is the native language of 65 to 70 percent of all LEP students, while ten percent to 15 percent speak one of several Asian languages.8 When they first enter American schools, LEP students vary greatly in age, mastery of English, literacy in their native language, academic preparation, and familiarity with American culture. Some immigrant students have had excellent education in their home country, while the schooling of others has been of poor quality, sporadic, or interrupted by war or other social crises.

Although students with limited English proficiency attend schools throughout the United States,9 they are heavily concentrated in large urban areas in a few states--California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey--and in the rural areas of the Southwest.10

Nearly all LEP and other language minority students are members of ethnic and racial minority groups and nearly all are poor. Their neighborhoods are likely to be segregated and beset with multiple problems--inadequate health, social, and cultural services; insufficient employment opportunities; crime, drugs, and gang activity. Their families are likely to suffer the stresses of poverty, to worry about their children’s safety in a dangerous environment, and to fear for their future, given their few positive prospects.

LEP and other language minority students also swim against the tide of discrimination. The prejudices of society and some school personnel toward poor people, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and those who do not speak English may limit students’ opportunities and discourage them from working hard at academic pursuits. Because most teachers have seen relatively few of these students succeed in school, some may doubt that LEP students are capable of serious academic work.

The academic achievement of LEP students is difficult to ascertain directly, since they are often exempted from testing because of their limited mastery of English. But language minority students in general take fewer academic courses, 11 lag significantly behind grade level in writing, science, and mathematics, 12 and have much higher dropout rates 13 than white, native-English-speaking students. At the secondary school level, LEP students are unlikely to have access to a full academic program taught in their native language or with special language assistance.14

Education Reform

Improving the academic achievement of all students, including groups who have not fared well in the past, is a major goal of the current education reform movement. The impetus for education reform can be traced to several other sources as well: concerns about the achievement of even the most advantaged American students relative to that of students from other countries; calls from the business community to better equip students for a changing job market; questions about the quality of the teaching force; criticisms of an overly bureaucratic education system; and recent cognitive research on the actual processes of learning. Reforms have been recommended to address the roles and responsibilities of education professionals, the way in which schools are managed, and how and what teachers are expected to teach and students expected to learn.15

Much reform activity has centered around the first two areas, producing changes in the organization and governance structures of schools and in the redesign of work for principals, teachers, and district personnel. But better teaching and learning are at the heart of education reform, and have begun to transform the classroom. Recommendations for improving school curricula include increasing interdisciplinary connections, emphasizing depth of coverage, using more original source material, enhancing the focus on higher order thinking skills, expanding methods of assessment, and giving teachers more choice.16 Underlying these changes is the conviction that a common, core curriculum should be provided to all students in lieu of current practice, in which substantially different curricula are offered to different groups of students. "There is an emerging consensus that what need to be varied are not curricula but rather instructional strategies....Thus the focus in schools that are restructuring teaching and learning is on helping all students master similar content using whatever pedagogical approaches seem most appropriate to different individuals and groups."17

Recommendations for reforming education in this way reflect a major shift in thinking about the way in which people learn, the purpose of education, the definition of knowledge, and the objectives for students. Embodied in what might be called a new paradigm in education are the notions that all students can learn complex material, that students come to school with already-formed beliefs and construct new understanding from interactions with information and with people, and that students learn from printed, visual, auditory, and interpersonal sources. The implication is that students can be guided into deep and critical thinking if topics are made relevant to their lives and integrated with related topics, if students are allowed some initiative in pursuing knowledge, and if they are encouraged to regard other students as resources for learning.

The Challenge. Recommendations for transforming education for poor students, ethnic minority students, language minority students, and "all" students have been strikingly similar. However, the connection between the inadequacies of traditional practice and the academic difficulties of LEP students has not yet registered in many places. Currently there is a large gap between education reform efforts for native-English-speaking students and the kinds of programs generally available to LEP students. The perception is that language is a barrier to realizing the new vision of education for LEP students. In some cases, schools undergoing restructuring fail to include LEP students in their attempts to reform the educational program.18

Recent reports have documented the need to include LEP and other language minority students more centrally in reform efforts,19 have argued for a systemic approach to reform that measures the resources available to poor schools as well as their academic outcomes,20 and have urged the development of specific curricular and assessment standards appropriate for the LEP population.21 The challenge is to develop research, policy, and practice guidelines that integrate the tenets of education reform with knowledge about learning in a second language and cultural environment. Reform of education for LEP students means first of all providing them with access to challenging curricula in language arts, mathematics, science, and other academic subjects. The successful delivery of a high quality academic program depends on selecting appropriate instructional methods and redesigning the school structure to enhance the achievement of LEP students.

Providing Access

Two basic approaches have been used by schools to provide LEP students access to the regular school curriculum.22 In bilingual programs, both English and the students’ native language are used as mediums of instruction; students receive instruction in reading, writing, and other academic subjects in both languages. In English-medium programs, such as English as a Second Language (ESL), sheltered English, and structured immersion, instruction in English reading and writing as well as in other academic subjects is delivered in English, though sometimes by a teacher who understands the students’ native language. Bilingual and sheltered approaches allow students to learn English and other subjects simultaneously, while the focus of ESL programs is to help students become quickly proficient in English so they can attend regular classes. Bilingual and English-medium programs are not mutually exclusive; in practice, schools may employ both strategies, either for students with different native languages or to address different instructional goals for students with the same native language.

Instruction in their home language has several benefits for students: It gives them access to grade level material in history, math, science, and other subjects in the regular curriculum. It enables them to develop their native language competence so they can continue to communicate with their parents, and so they can build a foundation for adult fluency in two languages. And significantly, it does not retard their acquisition of English.23 On the contrary, evidence suggests that native language instruction has a positive effect on English competence and on achievement in other subjects;24 the more academic support students receive in their native language (in addition to high quality instruction in English), the higher their overall achievement as measured in English. 25 Although some schools have students from many language backgrounds, making it difficult to mount a bilingual program, about three-fourths of LEP students are in school situations where a bilingual approach would be feasible.26

Bilingual programs vary in the extent to which they facilitate native language development--from oral skills to basic literacy to equal proficiency with English. Early-exit programs--by far the most common--provide initial instruction in the students’ home language with rapid transition into English-only classes by the end of the first or second grade of elementary school. Late-exit programs use the students’ native language more frequently and for a longer period--40 percent or more of the time throughout the elementary school years, even sometimes for formerly LEP students who have been reclassified as fluent in English. Two-way (or developmental) bilingual programs teach both language and other subjects in two languages; classes are composed of approximately half language-minority students from a single language background and half language-majority (English-speaking) students. Both groups of students develop their native language skills while acquiring proficiency in a second language.27

Different English-medium programs also have different emphases. While ESL classes are designed to teach English to LEP students, structured immersion and sheltered English classes are designed to teach them other academic subjects, using simplified English and other techniques to compensate for gaps in English proficiency. A combination of English-medium programs can assist students in learning English while ensuring that they also learn other academic subjects. English-medium programs can be used in classrooms comprised of LEP students from several different language backgrounds.

Second Language Acquisition Research. Recent research into the language learning process has informed the development of the program models described above. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have discovered 28 that young children do not learn a second language effortlessly, that they do not learn faster with more exposure to the new language, that their oral fluency outstrips their academic competence, and that they require many years to reach grade-level academic ability in the new language. Like tourists who can converse with the locals in a foreign land but cannot comprehend a newspaper article or write a letter, many language minority students who speak English fluently and understand spoken English may still have great difficulty reading and writing proficiently in English.

Students of different ages and with different levels of native language literacy also learn a second language differently and at varying rates of speed. For example immigrant students under age 12 who have had at least two years of education in their native country reach average achievement levels in five to seven years, but young children with no native language schooling and students older than 12 facing academically challenging subject matter in a second language may take as long as ten years to catch up. 29

Acquiring a second language is not only cognitively challenging, it also has emotional, social, and political implications.30 Language is a hallmark of personal, ethnic, and cultural identity; learning a second language involves alterations in one’s identity. 31 In any society, some groups have higher social status and wield greater political power than other groups. These differences among social groups also adhere to the languages they speak, so that some languages are accorded a higher social status than others. While bilingualism is the socially accepted norm in many countries, the U.S. has traditionally pressured language minority groups to replace their native language over time with English.32 Even though native-English-speaking students are encouraged to study foreign languages in school, language minority students are seldom supported in maintaining their native language while learning English.33

The Challenge. The complexity of tailoring language development programs for LEP students of different ages and academic backgrounds and with a myriad of native languages, often in the same classroom, is compounded by a shortage of qualified bilingual and ESL teachers and by political dissension over the use of non-English languages in school. Another difficulty is that most bilingual programs are predicated on the assumption that students enter in kindergarten and are able to move into English-only classes by the end of elementary school at the latest. 34

The reality, however, is that in many cases, only children who speak no English at all are given any instruction in their native language. 35 Many LEP students receive no extra language assistance, either in bilingual or in ESL programs. Thus, because the majority of LEP students are unlikely to receive either instruction in their native language or from trained bilingual or ESL teachers, the quality of the education they receive depends on mainstream classroom teachers. Both supporters36 and opponents 37 of bilingual education in California now recommend that all teachers become knowledgeable about the processes of second language acquisition so that they can better understand and assist the LEP students in their classes.

Language Arts Curriculum

Traditionally, language development for LEP students has been equated with English language acquisition. Thus discussions about their language arts education have focused simply on whether and for how long to use the students’ native language for instruction. Language arts programs for LEP students have been dominated by basic skills approaches to literacy, which have been the normal methods for native-English-speaking students as well.

Recommendations for reforming the language arts curriculum for all students, however, have stressed the use of authentic language and literature rather than basal readers, and the learning of language skills in context rather than discretely. Underlying these recommendations is a concept of literacy that goes far beyond the ability to decode written text and construct grammatical sentences. It is grounded in the notion that literacy involves grappling with and communicating about the human truths found in literature in a way that is meaningful to students’ own lives. Nor is developing a sophisticated level of literacy an end in itself; language is viewed rather as a "tool of discovery" for learning not only about literature but about all subjects in the curriculum. Becoming literate means not only learning to read and write but also learning to think. As one scholar in the field puts it, "Reading is crucial to the ability to write and systematic reading and writing instruction in many different modes of discourse is central to children’s intellectual development." 38

The Challenge. Improving language arts education for LEP students in light of these enhanced understandings of literacy therefore involves several challenges. The first is distinguishing two theoretically separate goals--English language acquisition and the development of high level literacy skills and understanding. With regard to the first goal, the state of the art in second language acquisition research and practice is that we know more about how children learn a second language than about how to translate that knowledge into programs available to all LEP students.

In contrast to the basic skills approach that predominates in many programs for LEP students, studies show that effective programs use a developmental approach to language acquisition. An analysis of instructional practices in language and literacy for Latino students39 found that effective teachers had a tolerant attitude toward language usage. While teachers in the lower elementary grades used mostly Spanish and those in the upper grades used mostly English, students were allowed to use either language. Students progressed systematically, naturally, and on their own initiative from writing in Spanish in the lower grades to writing in English with grade level competency in the upper grades. Students’ transition to English was viewed as a gradual process that occurred over many years, rather than being designated as a separate stage of instruction, requiring different teaching strategies, at the end of elementary school.

We also know more about second language acquisition than about how to accomplish the second goal of guiding students into becoming competent and eager readers and writers with complex literacy skills--the objective of new language arts curricula. The challenge of including LEP students in language arts education reform efforts is to shift gears from focusing primarily on moving LEP students into English to applying knowledge about bilingualism and second language acquisition to developing high quality language arts programs for LEP students. Such programs at the elementary school level would have the dual objective of guiding students into full literacy while they learn English at the same time.

Mathematics and Science Curricula

Efforts to reform science and mathematics curricula, such as guidelines developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, emphasize the development of higher order thinking in all students.40 Teaching students to think rationally, analytically, critically, and deeply about a subject is seen as a major goal of mathematics and science education. This kind of thinking is "complex, not fully known in advance, often yielding multiple solutions, involving uncertainty, requiring nuanced judgments, and requires considerable mental effort."41

Instead of adhering to a hierarchical conception of thinking that stretches from basic skills upward to abstract reasoning, these curricula emphasize the fostering of higher order thinking in all students at all stages of intellectual development, and in the context of important content rather than in the abstract. The implication for mathematics and science curricula is that coverage of a broad range of information is less important than delving into a topic in depth. Mathematics and science curricula emerging from the reform movement de-emphasize memorizing basic facts in favor of understanding principles and processes and being able to explain them. They also advocate "doing" mathematics and science in the manner of professional mathematicians and scientists rather than "studying about" these subjects; hands-on, exploratory, and investigative activities are featured as learning tools.

A major impetus for reforming mathematics and science education is the recognition that students in the U.S. lag behind those of other industrialized countries. American students score near the bottom in mathematics and science achievement and their performance has slipped relative to that of their counterparts educated in the Sputnik era.42 Although there has been some improvement in proficiency in recent years, in 1990 less than 20 percent of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders demonstrated competency in math for their grade level.43

If the situation is bad for American students in general, it is worse for poor and minority students, including those with limited English proficiency. As Zucker notes, "Many of the worst features of American mathematics education (e.g., an overemphasis on arithmetic computation through grade eight) are intensified for disadvantaged students. In effect disadvantaged students show the most severe ill effects of a system of mathematics education that is badly flawed for all students."44

Disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority students are tracked into "slow" groups in elementary school, in which neither the content nor the pace of instruction match that of the "fast" groups. Thus many minority students enter secondary school with inadequate mathematical knowledge and skills, whereupon they are once again tracked into low-ability classes or non-college preparatory groups. Differences among schools also constitute a kind of tracking on a larger scale. Zucker notes that schools serving poor and minority students (schools attended by the majority of LEP students) provide low quality mathematics curriculum and instruction.45 Such schools "emphasize more computation and less instruction focusing on applications and concepts," "have less capable teachers and inadequate resources for mathematics education," and "have low expectations of disadvantaged students’ ability to learn mathematics."46

As with language arts, a disjuncture can be seen between recommendations for reform of mathematics and science curricula and what is generally available to LEP students. Most secondary schools require that students demonstrate proficiency in English before they are given access to grade level mathematics and science courses; students who are not fluent in English may be barred from regular classes or tracked into "remedial" or "compensatory" classes where instruction proceeds at a slower pace. Programs for LEP students are often guided by a less rigorous curriculum; few schools even offer a full academic program--at whatever level of difficulty--to LEP students. 47 Language minority students in general (with the exception of those from some Asian language backgrounds) take fewer advanced courses in mathematics and science 48 than native-English-speaking students.

The kinds of academic opportunities available to students in the intermediate grades have a lifelong effect. Students who do not begin a college preparatory sequence of mathematics, science, and other academic courses in the seventh or eighth grade will not be able to complete college entrance requirements by the end of high school.49 Those who do not take a full complement of science and mathematics courses will be effectively precluded from pursuing those majors in college and from entering scientific and technical occupations after graduation.50 In many cases, LEP students cannot even accumulate enough science and math course credits to graduate from high school.51

The Challenge. The challenge for mathematics and science educators of LEP students at the secondary school level is to figure out how to offer a full academic program of the type recommended in science and mathematics reform documents to students who are not yet proficient in English, while simultaneously addressing their need to learn advanced-level English. To do this, educators will need to overcome the "English first, then academic content" mentality that pervades secondary school programs for LEP students. They will also need to overcome the legacy of the tracking system and embrace the concept of a common core curriculum for all students.

Such educators are working in uncharted territory in many respects; they have less of a research base to work from and fewer models of effective practice than their colleagues in language arts. Research on mathematics and science instruction for LEP students is slim, and most has focused on whether to use English or the students’ native language. Beyond the issue of language of instruction, there has been little attempt to integrate research on language and culture with that on mathematics and science education in general.52 In addition to the paucity of research, there are few time-tested models of practice to guide program developers.

Practical as well as conceptual considerations contribute to the difficulty of developing reformed science and mathematics curricula for LEP students. The departmental structure of secondary schools necessitates both a greater effort by faculty to collaborate and a school-wide commitment to developing a comprehensive plan that addresses both language acquisition and subject matter education for LEP students.


1Numbers and Needs, March 1993; July 1994.

2GAO/HEHS, 1994.

3Stanford Working Group, 1993.

4Numbers and Needs, March 1993.

5Numbers and Needs, December 1991.

6Chavez, 1991.

7GAO/HEHS, 1994.

8Chavez, 1991.

9National Forum, 1990.

10Numbers and Needs, May 1992; McDonnell & Hill, 1993.

11CCSSO, 1990.

12De La Rosa & Maw, 1990.

13CCSSO, 1990; National Center for Education Statistics, 1992; NASBE, 1991.

14Minicucci & Olsen, 1992

15Murphy, 1991.

16Murphy, 1991.

17ibid., p. 53.

18Olsen et al., 1994.

19Olsen et al., 1994; McDonnell & Hill, 1993.

20O?Day & Smith, 1993.

21Stanford Working Group, 1993.

22 Rennie, 1993.

23Ramirez et al., 1991.

24 Hakuta, 1990.

25 Collier, 1992.

26La Fontaine, 1988, cited in CCSSO, 1990.

27Rennie, 1993.

28Summarized in McLaughlin, 1992.

29Collier, 1989.

30Snow, 1992.

31Brown, 1992; Lambert, 1967; Farr, 1986.

32Grosjean, 1982.

33Gandara, 1994.

34Lucas, 1993.

35McDonnell & Hill, 1993.

36e.g., Olsen et al., 1994.

37e.g., Little Hoover Commission, 1993.

38Honig, 1992, pp. 6-7.

39Garcia, 1991.

40Anderson et al., 1994.

41ibid., p. 2.

42NASBE, 1991.

43Blank & Engler, 1992.

441990, p. VIII-4.

451990.

46p. VIII-9.

47Minicucci & Olsen, 1992.

48Numbers and Needs, December, 1991.

49McDonnell & Hill, 1993.

50 Oakes, 1990.

51Minicucci & Olsen, 1992

52Secada, 1992.


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[Executive Summary] [Table of Contents] [Summary Review of the Literature (part 2 of 2]