OPINION: Students who began as English Learners at CPS have relatively strong attainment rates — and it means we should up our investments.

By May Malone

To&Through Project Op-Eds: In the spirit of dialogue, To&Through Op-Eds provide our team members opportunities to raise critical issues, context, and questions that arise in their explorations of educational equity for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students.

For the first time, my colleagues and I at the To&Through Project and UChicago Consortium published high school graduation and immediate college enrollment rates for students who began as English Learners (ELs)[1] in our most recent annual report on the educational attainment of CPS students. Analyses showed that, among students in the 2016–17 CPS ninth-grade cohort, those who began as ELs graduated from high school at a rate slightly higher than those who were never classified as ELs, and high school graduates from both groups immediately enrolled in college at about the same rate.

Our research followed up on a study from the UChicago Consortium that found that students who began as ELs in CPS and demonstrated English proficiency by eighth grade had stronger attendance rates, math test scores, and core course grades than their never-EL peers. The study also found that students who began as ELs at CPS in kindergarten and did not achieve English proficiency by eighth grade struggled with declining attendance, considerably lower GPAs, and lower Freshman OnTrack rates than their peers who did achieve English proficiency by this time.

The accomplishments of students who began as ELs at CPS are worthy of celebration — as is the work of their educators and families who supported them along the way — particularly because students attained these milestones despite the state of bilingual education services in the district. In 2015, the district’s failure to meet state-mandated requirements for supporting English Learners was publicized after CPS announced a plan to audit bilingual services district-wide.

The results showed that more than seven in 10 schools that were audited seriously violated state law in 2015–2016, the year before the students in our study entered high school. About the same proportion of audited schools continued to be cited between 2017 and 2020 for issues in areas like serving students with disabilities who are English Learners and staff credentials.

In considering the implications of these data, one must ask: If students who began as ELs at CPS hadn’t gone without legally required and expert-recommended services, would we be seeing hundreds more CPS graduates each year immediately enrolling in college — a crucial milestone in obtaining a bachelor’s degree? That students who began as ELs at CPS demonstrated rates of attainment on par with the district average in 2020, despite the state of bilingual education programs in CPS over the past decade, suggests that they could further drive the district’s progress with the right investments.

Remedying these issues is a non-negotiable given that the pandemic disproportionately impacted English Learners’ academic growth, and they comprise an increasingly large proportion of the district’s student body. The number of English Learners in CPS grew by 32 percent between 2010 and 2019,[2] and students who began as ELs at CPS comprised one-third of the district’s high school graduates in spring 2020.[3] Chicago needs to bet on its English Learners sooner rather than later, and make bolder investments to tackle the areas in which CPS’s bilingual education services remain the most inadequate.

There remains a significant shortage of teachers in the district with bilingual and/or English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement relative to the number of English Learners in the district. In 2019, CPS agreed to pay half of teachers’ tuition costs for bilingual and ESL endorsement programs, thanks to a Chicago Teachers Union contract. Yet even with that agreement, half of this financial burden — which is required to fill these roles — still fell upon the shoulders of current teachers. Fortunately, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recently announced a $4 million commitment to paying tuition for current teachers to obtain bilingual endorsement or professional licensure, providing a stronger model for addressing this area of need.

Still, many other investments must be made for CPS to effectively serve its English Learners. Inadequate staffing of teachers with both bilingual and special education credentials, for example, has led to English Learners’ IEPs being violated on a weekly basis at some schools, as a singular bilingual special education teacher must attempt to simultaneously render services to students from a range of grade levels with varying requirements for instruction in English versus their native language. In situations like these, English Learners receive only a small fraction of the direct instructional time their IEP mandates.

The district’s FY2021 and FY2022 budgets did allocate extra funds to support English Learners, providing schools with funding to hire 250 supplemental bilingual education teachers and offer after-school and summer programming for English Learners at about 150 schools. To fill these roles, the district must also invest in creating conditions that adequately support and resource teachers serving English Learners, not only to attract and retain this specialized workforce, but also to ensure that the students who could become the profession’s next generation can envision themselves having a sustainable career in the field. The ultimate success of the district’s initiative to build pipelines from CPS schools to these professions depends on it.

Students who began as ELs at CPS have relatively strong attainment rates — a cause for celebration of their achievements and the work of their educators and families who supported them — but hundreds more could likely be attaining key milestones on the path to and through high school and college each year, if they were to receive the supports they deserve.

[1] ‘Students who began as ELs’ includes both former and active English Learners in order to assess the performance of the district in supporting English Learners across their educational trajectories.

[2] de la Torre, M., Blanchard, A., Allensworth, E.M., & Freire, S. (2019). English Learners in CPS: A new perspective. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

[3] Malone, M., Mahaffie, S., Hernandez, G., Usher, A., & Nagaoka, J. (2021). The educational attainment of Chicago Public Schools students: 2020. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

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The To&Through Project

The To&Through Project

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The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.