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English Language Learners Growing in Numbers In the Nation’s Great Cities

April 11, 2019

Tonya Harris at 202-393-2427

English Language Learners Growing in Numbers

In the Nation’s Great Cities

WASHINGTON, April 11 -- English language learners are increasing their share of the overall enrollment in many large urban school districts, according to a new report by the Council of the Great City Schools.

English Language Learners in America’s Great City Schools presents the results of a two year-long study to gather data on the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation’s schools. It updates most of the data presented in the Council’s first-ever study on English language learner (ELL) programs that was released in 2013 and incorporates new data from the Council’s Academic Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

The new report is based on an extensive survey of Council member-districts in 2017 and examines data on ELL enrollment, languages spoken, student achievement, staffing and professional development.  

There are approximately five million ELLs enrolled in the nation’s K-12 public schools and approximately 25 percent of these students attend school in one of the Council’s 74 school districts. ELLs are also among the fastest growing groups in big-city school districts, comprising 17 percent of the total urban school enrollment. In addition, Council member districts often enroll a large majority of the ELLs in their given state. For example, Clark County School District in Las Vegas enrolls more than 70 percent of Nevada’s ELLs, while Providence Public Schools enrolls half of the ELLs in Rhode Island. For 17 other states, Council member districts were responsible for educating more than one-quarter of all ELLs in their respective states.

ELLs are increasing not only in number, but also in diversity. The number of languages that appear in the lists of the top five most frequently spoken across the Council membership has increased from 38 languages in 2013 to 50 in 2017. And approximately, 92.4 percent of all ELLs in Council districts speak Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, or Vietnamese.

State teacher credentialing requirements have not kept up pace with the growing number of ELLs, according to the new report. Half of reporting districts indicated that their respective state had no requirements for general education and for special education teachers of ELLs and 29 percent reported having no state requirements for content-area teachers of ELLs, despite that ELLs spend the majority of the school day with general education teachers.

The report also includes new data on the number of ELLs who remain in English learner programs for a long period of time. The majority of Council districts (35), had more than 10 percent of their ELLs in language acquisition programs for six years or more.

Because state assessments vary, the report used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and found gaps in reading and mathematics between ELLs and non-ELLs. However, the report provides a more nuanced analysis of ELL achievement gaps--English learners on free and reduced-price lunch scored at lower levels--while former ELLs often performed above students who had never been English learners.  

Using data from the Council’s Academic KPI Project to compare ELLs and non-ELLs, the report showed that ELLs were more likely to have failed one or more courses in Grade 9 but were just as likely as non-ELLs to complete Algebra I by ninth grade.

According to the report, big-city school districts are using a variety of efforts to recruit qualified teachers of English learners, including partnering with higher education institutions and “grow-your-own” programs. However, the most commonly used strategy to fill ELL teacher vacancies was the use of alternative certification programs.

The study also surveyed districts on how they allocated their Title III funds and on the professional development provided to staff, with more urban school districts offering professional development to principals, from 22 districts in 2009-2010 to 39 districts in 2015-2016.

“This report is one of the most comprehensive data-collection efforts on English language learners and goes even further than our 2013 report to provide an in-depth look into how the nation’s urban school districts are educating ELLs,” said Council Executive Director Michael Casserly. “We applaud big-city school districts for offering more innovative programs to improve the achievement of ELLs.”

The report can be accessed on the Council’s website at: