• 23 million US adults with Limited English Proficiency — 2.9 million are native-born.
• Immigrants are often highly-motivated to learn English.
• Available government data suggests the adult English as a Second Language system is failing, with only 40% of participants advancing in proficiency each year.
• Non-profits including charter schools and private sector organizations are developing best practices in ESL which government providers should adopt.
Over 23 million U.S. adults lack adequate English proficiency. This will prove a severe hindrance for both the economic mobility and assimilation of these immigrants and some native-born Americans, who are trapped in generational linguistic isolation. Although many are highly motivated to learn English, the current system of adult education in English as a Second Language (ESL) is serving adult English Language Learners (ELLs) especially poorly – with high drop-out rates, low proficiency gains, and rigid barriers to participation and rapid language acquisition.
Federal and state grant programs that fund adult ESL collect little data on these learners and the efficacy of programs designed to promote English proficiency, as the Government Accountability Office reported in 2009. Evidence available suggests that these programs are not working effectively or efficiently – with only 40% of learners improving their proficiency level. The poor accountability for results, and general scarcity of demonstrable outcomes in these programs, is reminiscent of elementary and secondary education programs funded under the Bilingual Education Act prior to 2001. Including K-12 English learners under the same school accountability provisions as other students has proven valuable to improving results nationally, and the success of charter schools serving adult ELL populations suggests a similar outcome can be achieved serving their needs as well.
The design of the programs themselves is also a factor. Largely administered and run by government agencies, adult ESL programs are generally not tailored to the needs of the specific learner and maintain few accountability metrics. Most states, like Illinois, administer the lion’s share of adult ESL courses through local community colleges and school district adult education programs, using a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction and course design.
In contrast, community-based organizations, adult charter schools and private sector employers are developing strategies for adult English Language Learners that promote English proficiency more effectively by meeting the learner where he or she is, and designing flexible course times and curriculum that accommodate personal and workforce needs. For example, Los Angeles-based PUENTE Learning Center uses blended learning to individualize instruction and track student progress toward proficiency. The result is consistently lower drop-out rates and proficiency improvements than the national average. In one year (2005), fully 85% of learners advanced in proficiency compared to the national average of 40%. Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington, DC is another example of a community-based program achieving strong results.
This report suggests that federal, state and local policymakers should re-assess adult ESL programs by adopting community-based organization, charter school and private sector innovations including more rigorous and useful data collection, the implementation of flexible and effective learning strategies and financially incentivize programs to accelerate the pace of language acquisition.
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