Newark Star-Ledger (NJ)
Lost amid the din of the immigration debate are 23 million U.S. adults who cannot speak English adequately. Although most of these adults — 20 million — are foreign-born, the other 3 million are U.S.-born citizens who are classified as Limited English Proficiency. Nearly 1 million live in New Jersey.
For these adults, English matters. For Latinos, limited English contributes directly to dropping out of school and $3,000 in lost wages each year — costing the U.S. economy $38 billion annually. But English proficiency can be as vital and basic as parents communicating with teachers and doctors about their child’s well-being. And despite the rhetoric on both sides, immigrants are highly motivated to learn English. They know English is a crucial key to the American Dream, upward mobility and assimilation.
The problem: Government-run programs for adult English learners are broken.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 2007 and 2010, only 40 percent of those enrolled in a government-funded or -administered course improved their English proficiency. The remaining 60 percent dropped out or failed to advance. Furthermore, many government programs don’t collect data on effectiveness and where federal and state funds go.
Some states, including New Jersey, are failing to advance the vast majority of students enrolled in ESL courses. Only 27 percent of New Jersey adults enrolled in ESL programs tracked by the Department of Education demonstrated progress toward English proficiency. Furthermore, those programs only enrolled a small fraction of the total need — 21,081 students of the nearly 1 million adults requiring greater proficiency in English, barely 2 percent of eligible adults.
In 2009, a Government Accountability Office study found there is no evidenced-based approach to teaching English to adults. According to the GAO, the lack of accountability in these programs leads to failure — a failure that costs taxpayers and adult learners, especially immigrants, a great deal.
Why aren’t the programs working? The blame falls primarily on the government programs designed to teach English, which don’t meet the needs of adult English learners. Because government dollars flow regardless of outcomes, if they are even tracked, the programs have no incentive to adapt and adopt best practices.
If lawmakers want to assimilate immigrants, they should look to best practices being pioneered in the nonprofit and private sectors. Unlike government programs, community-based organizations are held accountable by students and donors. Well-implemented accountability systems, especially reliant on data, have produced impressive results for many of these organizations.
Community-based nonprofit groups such as Los Angeles’ Puente Learning Center have made accommodating students the center of their approach. In 2005 alone, 85 percent of Puente’s adult English learners advanced in proficiency, compared with the government average of 40 percent that year.
Before further entrenching the government-run ESL system with more funding and mandates, policymakers must reform the broken system. Tax dollars should flow to community-based organizations that are achieving success.
All Americans, especially English learners and immigrant communities, would be better off.
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