Testimony before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives State Government Committee
An effective policy focus supporting English language use would have strong potential to benefit Pennsylvania educationally and economically. If implemented soundly, it can benefit the state’s economy by reversing a wage penalty effect against earnings by those with poor English skills. It can also be implemented with revenue-neutral strategies to narrow growing language gaps and produce measurably stronger academic results, ultimately providing for more sustained earning power with fewer dropouts and higher educational attainment.
Using Census 2000 data, I estimated in a 2009 paper that limited English language skills among American adults cost the U.S. economy $65 billion annually. Observing the growth in English learner populations throughout the last decade, one strongly suspects that an estimate based on Census 2010 data would be substantially higher.
There were 24.9 million Americans speaking English less than “very well,” and 13.5 million Americans speaking English less than “well,” as measured by the 2007 American Community Survey. There were 197,000 people living in Pennsylvania who speak English “less than well.” Approximately one-fourth of these, 44,000, speak no English at all (an increase from 31,000 in 2000). Additionally, there are 222,000 who speak English “well,” but not “very well,” while speaking another language at home. The Census Bureau determined that these populations increased approximately 21 percent nationally from 2000-2007.
English learner populations generally face specific, additional challenges as they tend to trail the rest of the population both educationally and economically. Households headed by English learners have median incomes that are sixty percent lower on average, and are twice as likely to be living in poverty as other households.
A sizeable body of research demonstrates significant economic costs associated with poor English language skills. Much of this research focuses on the foreign born population. Perhaps most notably, economists Barry Chiswick and Paul Miller have documented many important observations relating to language and earning power. Among their conclusions (Journal of Population Economics, 2002):
• Immigrants from non-English speaking countries who were fluent in English earned 14 percent more annually than whose who were not.
• Immigrants living in communities with strong populations of non-English speakers earn less than those who do not. This was especially true for immigrants who were fluent in English themselves.
Living in a linguistically-isolated environment has been strongly linked with lower earnings for non-English speakers. The Census Bureau defines a linguistically-isolated household as one in which all members 14 years old and over have at least some difficulty with English. Not only do poor English skills produce lower nominal earnings, but those living in linguistically-isolated enclaves frequently have less information about jobs offered by employers operating in the mainstream economy, who generally offer higher wages. For these and other reasons, earnings are generally lower where the intensity of linguistic isolation is greatest.
Linguistic isolation tends to be concentrated in metropolitan areas, and Philadelphia fits that model soundly. In Philadelphia County, 6.5 percent of households were linguistically isolated according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, more than three times the state average. Metropolitan Philadelphia currently has the nation’s fourth largest concentration of speakers of Italian, Greek and Gujarati (spoken mostly in India).
Children are generally more likely to live in linguistically-isolated households than adults. In Pennsylvania, 19 percent of children in immigrant families live in linguistic isolation, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count program.
This presents growing and often new challenges for schools, such as typically higher mobility rates, which are often related to employment. Adhering to transitional bilingual education models is proving widely problematic in the midst of regional shortages in qualified and effective teachers. Segregated bilingual education classrooms are still widely found in many urban school districts with large English learner populations, where minimal progress learning English or content areas often coincide with minimal accountability for results at the school and school district levels.
Pennsylvania’s English Learner Population
Among those who speak English less than “very well” in Pennsylvania, the vast majority, 175,000, speak Spanish. Chinese languages are a distant second, at 33,000, followed by Vietnamese, Russian, Korean, Italian and German.
Of Pennsylvania’s English learners, Spanish speakers are also the youngest population, with one in four below the age of 18, compared with one in six among speakers of the Asian or other Indo-European languages.
This places increased importance on the academic performance Pennsylvania schools are making with Spanish-speaking English learners. On the standardized test known as the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Pennsylvania’s fourth-grade English learners have among the nation’s lowest average scores in English reading. In fact, in 2009 only three of the lower 48 United States had lower average scale scores in fourth grade English reading: Arizona, New Mexico and Iowa.
But by the eighth grade, they were scoring substantially better. Pennsylvania’s eighth grade English learners had among the nation’s highest average scores on NAEP’s English reading test (although 23 states had eighth-grade English learner populations that were too small to be included, a function largely of their learning English and moving out of the category).
Nonetheless, even after this noteworthy improvement, 55 percent of Pennsylvania’s eighth grade English learners scored at the test’s woeful “below basic” level. On NAEP, the “basic” achievement level, “denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge.” Research tells us that students who score “below basic” in eighth grade reading are at extreme risk of dropping out during high school, and it is at that grade level where English learners often begin to disappear from school attendance roles.
A strong body of research exists documenting the benefits of earning a high school diploma in economic terms, but evidence also indicates this is especially true for Latinos. One prominent study, by Jennifer Day and Eric Newburger, noted that American Latinos graduating high school with a standard diploma have annual earnings 34 percent higher than their peers who are not graduates. That difference rises to 58 percent higher upon completion of some postsecondary education, without earning an associates’ degree.
It is important to note that the wage penalty estimates were derived from economic models produced by studying data for Spanish speakers only, and particularly American Latinos between the ages of 16-64. They therefore do not apply to English learners who are speakers of languages other than Spanish.
But of the 2 percent of Pennsylvania households living in linguistic isolation, 32 percent speak Asian languages, compared with 22 percent speaking Spanish. This and other factors present considerable complication in producing a reasonably reliable estimate of the effects of poor English skills on Pennsylvania’s economy.
It is also important to note that most English learners in the United States are not immigrants. According to 2000 Census data, three out of five U.S. elementary schoolchildren who are English learners were born in this country to immigrant parents. Another one out of five are third-generation Americans. This means that only one-fourth of English learners in U.S. public elementary schools are foreign born. It also means that most of the 11 million English learners who speak English “less than well” living in the United States are adults.
This also points to the crucial challenges of teaching English to adults. While many of the most effective such programs around the nation are offered by faith-based providers supported by government funding streams, there is far from the culture of accountability for results we have gotten used to seeing in elementary and secondary education.
The National Institute for Literacy noted that approximately 20 percent of the nation’s adult English learners had enrolled in federally-funded English as a Second Language programs between 2004 -2007. But an analysis of these programs by the Government Accountability Office observed that only 2 of the 25 federal programs that fund adult English instruction collect any data on their effectiveness. Of the 1.1 million adults enrolled in programs supported by the largest of these, the Adult Education State Grant Program, which has supported programs in Pennsylvania, only 39 percent of participants increased their English skills by one level or more (the program uses a six-level system to measure mastery of English skills).
In conclusion, pursuing policies that effectively support English would likely offer important educational and economic benefits for Pennsylvania. While Pennsylvania does not have a large English learner population by the standards of most other states, it is a steadily growing population, a dynamic which creates new challenges for new communities, and particularly for schools. And in those areas, like Philadelphia, with higher concentrations of English learners and households living in linguistic isolation, the economic effects would likely effect the entire community and region, and not just those who are themselves struggling with their English skills.
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