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Last Updated: 08/11/2009
Unmet Needs of Limited English Proficient Students in the United States
Julia Brock

It is a common observation that national school systems are better able to meet the needs of some students than others -- and that certain groups "fall through the cracks". In US schools, drop-out rates for Spanish speaking students are disproportionately high, reinforcing economic and social divides between Latin American communities and the broader US population.

Peace educator Julia Brock investigates these trends and argues that US schools should prioritize the needs of students with limited proficiency in the English language.

The face and voice of public schools in the United States has drastically changed in most of America in the last 30 years. Classroom dynamics, methods of teaching and pedagogy, have been evolving and changing in recent years and so has the student body. It has been my experience, after teaching in public schools in both Arizona and Colorado, that meeting the needs of immigrant and Limited English Proficient (LEP) students is an increasing focus in countless schools around the country. Students who are considered LEP require different techniques and methodology than what most teacher-preparation programs emphasize, and meeting the needs of these students is often viewed as a ‘problem’. At this point, many of the needs of LEP students are not being met, especially their linguistic needs, due to an unexpected high rate of immigration, unsubstantial funding, and teachers that are not properly trained to teach LEP students. These unmet needs of LEP students lead to an inability to assimilate socially, poor academic success and high drop out rates.

The problems regarding LEP students are frequently more prevalent and more detrimental in secondary schools. Immigrant or LEP students have less time to acclimate, if they are new to the community, or acquire the needed life skills before they are expected to be contributing members of society. The academic structure of short content-based classes in secondary schools has also proven to not be the best learning environment for LEP students. In addition to these issues, funding allocated for LEP programs has been disproportionately distributed to elementary schools.

Considering the United States’ long history of immigration, few mainstream institutions such as schools, the military, departments of transportation, or child welfare agencies have directly confronted the significance of immigration-driven demographic change for their policies and programs. In 1997 one in five school-age children in the US was the child of an immigrant, a ratio that had tripled since 1970. Debates over educational opportunity including vouchers, high stakes testing and standards of learning rarely take into account the needs of immigrant children (Ruis de Velasco, Fix, & Chu, 2001). Although the US has always had fluctuating percentages of immigrant and LEP students, policies regarding what they are entitled to frequently change, are not thoroughly understood by the students, parents, teachers or administration and they do not always represent the immediate needs of the LEP students.

There are many factors contributing to the ways American society and policy support the needs of immigrants and LEP students. Recent reforms aimed at toughening immigration controls have had the unexpected effect of separating some immigrant families, as non-citizens are deported for minor crimes committed years earlier. The imposition of new income requirements for sponsors are keeping some families apart (Fix, Zimmerman, & Clewell, 2001). Integration also has an unintended effect on immigrant families. From my experiences teaching immigrants and LEP students, I have noticed many emotional stresses and behavioral issues caused by broken families and families that have limited support systems. These situations may be caused by immigration laws, a lack of work opportunities, being new within a community, not being aware of the resources available and not being aware of their rights regardless of their legal status, especially within the public school system. Students within broken families, regardless of the reason, often have trouble acclimating to new environments or becoming comfortable in their new communities. Limited language ability restricts communication, putting additional strain on students and creating more obstacles for LEP students to overcome.

Annual immigration flows have tripled over the past generations with more immigrants entering the US during the 1990s than any other decade. Not only has the number of immigrants risen substantially, but the share of the total US population that the foreign born represent has almost doubled since 1970 (Fix et al., 2001). Nearly one in five school-age youths speaks a language other than English in the home. As of the 2002-2003 academic year, 10.2% of all US students were considered Limited English Proficient (LEP) students or English Language Learners (ELL). In Grades K-12, English Language Learner enrollment increased by more than 104% during the 1990s, while overall enrollment increased by only 13%. The bulk of the growth in the K-12 population can be attributed to students who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants (Callahan, 2005).

It is widely recognized that the national origins of immigration flows have changed dramatically in the last thirty years, shifting from primarily Canadian and European to Asian and Latin American. The Mexican population in the United States has almost doubled in the past decade; it has quadrupled since 1980; and has grown ten-fold since 1970 (Fix et al., 2001).

According to the National Education Association, Spanish and Asian languages are the most common, based on ELL student data reported by states for 2000-2001. In 2000-2001, states reported over 400 languages spoken by English language learners nationwide. The data submitted indicate that the great majority of ELL students claimed Spanish (79 percent) as their native language, followed by Vietnamese (2.0 percent), Hmong (1.6 percent), Cantonese (1.0 percent), Korean (1.0 percent), and other (15.4 percent) (National Education Association, 2005).

Previous studies have found that most children of immigrants fare as well as or better than their native peers in schools, but certain subpopulations have lagged, most notably Mexican and Central American students. Limited English Proficient students may not have had adequate schooling in their native country and are not literate in their native language. Some may have never been exposed to English. These students could also be native to the US and attend US schools, but have been raised in a language other than English; although they may be orally proficient in English, their reading and writing skills lag behind those of their classmates. Theses students are referred to as long-term LEPs (Ruiz de Velasco et al., 2000).

There are many challenges facing U.S. public schools regarding the instruction of LEP students. One challenge of schools with a high percentage of LEP students is the lack of teachers specifically trained to instruct these learners and another challenge is the limited number of content teachers (such as math, science, or social studies) who can communicate effectively with LEP students. Additionally, funding is disproportionately allocated between elementary schools and secondary schools. Elementary schools get the bulk of funding for LEP programming and secondary schools frequently lack appropriate resources to meet the needs of their Limited English Proficient students.

More than 90 percent of all LEP students in the United States are served in special programs supported by federal targeted assistance such as Title I through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (Ruis-de-Velasco et al., 2000). The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that all children (elementary and secondary) have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education (US Department of Education, 2009). To qualify as a Title I school, a school typically has 40% or more of its students come from families that qualify under the United States Census's definitions as low-income. Schools receiving Title I funding are regulated by federal legislation, including the No Child Left Behind Act (US Department of Education, 2009).

Programs such as Title I are critical to LEP/immigrant education but are not typically found in secondary schools because elementary schools are more likely to receive Title I funds. Secondary schools accounted for about one-third of all Title I–eligible poverty students in 1997–98, but they received only 15 percent of Title I funds and constituted only 11 percent of Title I schools. When secondary schools did participate in Title I, they tended to receive smaller allocations—averaging $372 per Title I–eligible student, compared with $495 in elementary schools (US Department of Education, 2003).

A break down of allocations via grade level done through a joint project of Public Education Network and National Coalition for Parent Involvement In Education in 2004 shows that; 12 percent are in kindergarten and preschool, 64 percent are in the first- through sixth-grade, 16 percent are seventh-through-ninth graders, 7 percent are in high school, and 1 percent are in private schools (Public Education Network, 2007).

As stated previously, LEP and immigrant students are frequently found in high-poverty schools. Because of a lack of funds, the schools often have a low capacity to educate either LEP or native English speakers. Ironically, under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools lose funding when minimum scores are not met on standardized tests, and as the tests are created for English-speaking students, LEP students have a significant disadvantage. Thus, programs that might raise the scores cannot be funded because the low scores eliminate the funding (Ruiz-de-Velasco 2000). Many states conduct tests such as the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessments that are state-aligned, computerized adaptive tests that accurately reflect the instructional level of each student and measure (language) growth over time (NWEA, 2009) but they are not affiliated with No Child Left Behind standards or benchmarks.

As of 2002, nationwide, only 2.5 percent of teachers with English Language Learners in their classes have had any special preparation to work with them. Only 84 percent of the states offer English as a Second Language or ESL certification or endorsement; only 50 percent offer bilingual/dual language certification or endorsement (National Education Association 2005). Of the 41 percent of teachers nationwide with LEP students in their classrooms, only 12.5 percent participated in eight or more hours of professional development related to LEP students in the past three years. Fewer than eight percent of teachers reported eight or more hours of LEP-specific professional development in seven states where more than one third (41 percent) of teachers were teaching LEP studnets. In fact, according to a report from the US Department of Education, "addressing the needs of limited English proficient students" is the professional development area in which teachers are least likely to participate (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009).

Major challenges to secondary LEP students are created by the isolation of language development teachers and the division of the day into 50-minute periods, both of which militate against individualized instruction by creating barriers to integrating language and content. The short periods often prove too discontinuous to promote the kind of sustained, interactive and comprehensible instruction LEP secondary students need, and without curriculum standards for these students, individual content-area teachers are frequently left on their own to determine what instructional methods they use and what content they cover (Ruiz-de-Velasco et al., 2000).

It is obvious that LEP students are not getting the funding or the attention they need in order to be successful in school; this is demonstrated by the high drop-out rates of LEP students in secondary schools. The dropout rates for high-school students ages 16 to 24 vary by immigration status. Foreign-born students had a dropout rate of 24 percent in 2005, compared with 16 percent for children born in the U.S. to foreign-born parents, both of which are higher than the national average. While foreign-born students make up 11 percent of the total population of students in this age group, they make up 29 percent of the dropout population (Child Trends Data Bank, 2003).

One interesting aspect of the high drop-out rate among immigrant students is that the drop-out rate was 23% for Hispanic immigrants compared to 3% for Asian immigrants (Callahan, 2005). As of 1995, Mexican drop-out rates for each of the first, second, and third generations were also roughly double the national average, but first generation Asians drop out at a rate that is less than a quarter of the average for all foreign-born immigrants (Rumbaut, 1995). The reasons for these disparities between the Hispanic and Asian drop-out rates and immigration trends are complex and include political, cultural and social factors. I will leave further inquiry into those reasons for another researcher; however, it is clear that the Hispanic students, for whatever reason, are having fewer of their needs met.

Limited English Proficient students are not having their needs met in American public schools because of a multiplicity of interrelated causes, including educational policy, limited funds and resources, inadequate teacher training, and lack of preparedness for LEP students within schools. These students are entering society unprepared and ill-equipped. Programs to meet the needs of these students are inconsistent, poorly designed, and ineffective. There is a clear need for a total restructuring of public education for Limited English Proficient students at every level.

Works Cited

Callahan, Rebecca, M. (2005) American Educational Research Journal Summer 2005, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 305

Child Trends Data Bank (2003) High School Drop Out Rates. Retrieved May 13, 2009 from

Fix, M., & Zimmerman, W., & Chu W. (2001). The Integration of Immigrant Families in the United States. The Urban Institute.

Northwest Evaluation Association. (2009). Assessment. retrieved May 12, 2009 from

National Educators Association. (2005) Research Talking Points on English Language Learners. Retrieved April 10, 2009 from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). U.S. Department of Education

Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved April 10, 2009 from

Public Education Network and National Coalition for Parent Involvement In Education. (2007) NCBL Action Brief Title I Overview. Retrieved April 30, 2009 from

Ruiz-de-Velasco, J. & Fix, M., & Chu C. (2000). Overlooked and Underserved; Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools. The Urban Institute.

Rumbaut, Rubén G. 1995. “The New Californians: Comparative Research Findings on the Educational Progress of Immigrant Children.” In California’s Immigrant Children: Theory, Research, and Implications for Educational Policy, edited by Rubén G.

Rumbaut and Wayne Cornelius, (17–70). La Jolla: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego.

US Department of Education. (2004). English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act. retrieved May 10, 2009 from

US Department of Education. (2003). Targeting Schools Study within Title I within School Districts. Retrieved May 10 2009 from

US Department of Education. (2009). Title I Part A Program US Department of Education. Retrieved May 1, 2009 from

Julia Brock is a Alumna of the University for Peace and peace educator.