Background: Educational outcomes for language minority (LM) children are of great concern across the nation because these students have lower grades, are rated by their teachers as having lower skills, perform worse on standardized tests, and are more likely to drop out than are non-LM students. Given this context of underperformance, there is a need for educators to better understand the factors that are associated with their academic outcomes.
Purpose: This national study examines demographic and school contexts of LM students as compared to their non-LM peers to highlight the disparities between them that extend beyond language differences. A nationally representative sample of LM students and their peers participated in this study, along with their parents and teachers, beginning with kindergarten in fall 1998 and continuing in first, third, and fifth grades. In particular, data on key student variables (race, gender, etc.) and the characteristics of their teachers were examined. Teacher characteristics included: years of experience, certification status, highest educational level achieved, and specialized coursework (reading methodology and ESL). By comparing descriptive statistics for LM students and their non-LM peers, the authors hoped to identify possible factors that may contribute to the achievement gap between these two groups.
Research Design: For this descriptive and comparative study using secondary data, the authors analyzed a full sample of kindergarten students, including both LM and non-LM students (n = 15,026), in order to describe key demographic variables (i.e., gender, race, SES, etc.) for the two subgroups. Proportions for each subgroup variable and Fisher’s exact test results were reported, in order to determine statistically significant differences between groups for categorical variables. The analytic subsample was then restricted to students from homes in the two lowest SES quintiles to compare mean values, associated t-tests, and histograms for five dimensions of teacher background to identify differences related to LM status.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This study demonstrated some of the great disparities that exist between LM and non-LM students that go beyond language differences including: 70% of LM students come from the lowest SES group versus 37% of their non-LM peers. Also, teachers of LM students had fewer years of experience and lower rates of certification than teachers of non-LM students. Finally, many teachers of LM students (as much as 50% in first grade) reported feeling inadequately prepared to teach LEP (limited English proficient) students. These findings suggest the need for careful attention in the form of educational policies that acknowledge the disproportionate effect of poverty and low SES on LM students. The negative effects of limited resources and inadequate social capital overshadow limited English proficiency and their ability to overcome academic challenges. Furthermore, it is important for education decision-makers to recognize the role that inexperienced, uncertified teachers may play in the educational outcomes of LM students.