Historically, schools in the United States have upheld – even exacerbated – racial, cultural, and linguistic social inequalities. The historical segregation of Black students is well-known, but U.S. schools have unequally structured education for other groups as well. For instance, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Native American children were compelled to attend boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their home languages.

Mexican Americans in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were often excluded from school or isolated into separate, inferiorly-resourced classrooms. Asian Americans faced similar school segregation, or, at times, new Asian immigrant students who spoke little or no English were placed into mainstream classrooms in which they could not understand the instruction.

In response, Chinese immigrant families sued the San Francisco school district in Lau v. Nichols, a case that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1973, the court ruled that students who do not speak or understand English “are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education” when placed into an all-English classroom without accommodation or support. That case is the backbone of current federal law for immigrant and multilingual students.

Today, students who do not speak English fluently have specific rights and schools have specific responsibilities. Students have the right to receive (1) instruction to gain full English proficiency and (2) instruction in grade-appropriate content presented in a way they can understand. Schools have the responsibility to serve these students in programs based on sound theory, effectively implemented, and regularly evaluated.

“If English-learning students are placed in separate classrooms or periodically pulled out of their mainstream classrooms for special instruction, this can exclude them from the academic content their peers receive.”

To accomplish this, schools must determine which students are acquiring English, support those students’ basic rights, and determine when they no longer need support. A student who does not score at or above a state’s predetermined English proficiency threshold is classified as an “English learner” (EL).

All EL students should then be placed into services to support both English acquisition and understandable core academic content. Schools must test EL students’ English proficiency annually to determine which students have reached the threshold for removal of the EL classification and the specialized services.

The policy’s strengths

A key strength of U.S. policies on EL education is that they shine a light on historically marginalized students, compelling schools to identify them and track their progress. Thus, these students are far less likely to be overlooked or mistreated. Second, U.S. policies underscore these students’ dual needs for language acquisition and academic content instruction—needs that differ from English fluent students’ and that cannot go unmet.

As a result, many schools support EL students in powerful ways, such as dual language immersion programs that are growing across the U.S. These programs serve both EL and English-proficient students with the goal of developing full bilingualism and biliteracy for both groups. Similarly, school and classroom efforts to enact practices that acknowledge, value and build upon students’ varied cultural and personal identities are also increasing.

The policy’s weaknesses

On the other hand, U.S. federal education policies for immigrant and multilingual students have weaknesses. First, the formal EL classification by definition labels students according to a perceived deficiency (in English proficiency) compared with the majority. With this deficit- or deviance-oriented classification, students may suffer social and educational stigmatization.

Also, the label can influence teachers’ academic perceptions of these students and negatively affect EL students’ opportunities, experiences, and outcomes in school. Yet these students come to school with enormous assets, such as multilingualism and multiculturalism, that are highly prized and valued in other social contexts.

“We should foster a schooling system that recognizes English-learning students’ needs and their assets and provides them with supportive services without stigmatization or isolation from peers and opportunities.”

In addition, specialized service provision can separate EL students from valuable academic opportunities and interactions with English-proficient peers. Placement in separate classrooms or periodically being pulled out of their mainstream classrooms for special instruction can exclude EL students from the academic content their peers receive. In such cases, specialized services intended to meet EL students’ dual needs can perpetuate patterns of segregation and inferior opportunities to learn.


U.S. education policies for immigrant and multilingual students deserve both preservation and improvement. In addition to the two basic rights of English instruction and accessible core content instruction, I believe two additional rights should be granted to EL students:

  • The right to have their linguistic, social, and cultural strengths and skills recognized and supported in school
  • The right to full educational integration and opportunity equivalent to their English-fluent peers

By adding these two rights, we could foster a schooling system that recognizes these students’ needs and their assets and provides them with supportive services without stigmatization or isolation from peers and opportunities.

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