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The Educational Quandary: ELL & Special Education

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 12/27/2013

The educational system in the United States faces a huge quandary due to the mis-assignment of English language learners to special education classrooms. The policy to place students who are unable to speak English into special education programs is unfair and unwise.

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    Mandating English Only

    With the federal mandate for schools to teach English only came the dilemma of how to deal with English language learners in the classroom classroom. Many English language students know little to no English. Some students have limited language skills in their primary language. Financially overtaxed school systems struggled to find a solution. Unfortunately, the solution many schools systems struck upon is not fair to students, teacher or citizens.

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    I Do Not Understand

    Within many of the public schools around the country, the number of non-English speaking students rose dramatically within the recent past. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students who speak a language other than English at home more than doubled over the last 30 years. This number continues to climb.

    Teachers, especially in urban settings, face mainstream classrooms in which nearly half the students have difficulty speaking English. A formula for failure develops when the high number of non-English speaking students becomes embroiled with mandatory standardized testing. Classroom teachers barely have time to assist English-speaking students who do not understand subject matter, let alone have the ability, time or resources to explain concepts adequately to non-English speakers.

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    Questionable Solution

    Many school systems place the burden of educating non-English speaking students on the special education program. This is unwise and unfair on several levels.

    1. Most non-English speaking students do not have organic learning disabilities (i.e., dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, etc.).
    2. Special education teachers are not trained to teach English as a second language.
    3. Placement in special education for non-English speaking students who do not understand is fearful, confusing and frustrating.

    In addition, non-English speaking students placed unfairly into special education classrooms often become discipline problems. Most English language learners do not have learning disabilities; they simply cannot communicate in English, yet. Parents of these students usually speak less English than the students. Placement of their child unfairly into special education creates great fear, confusion and in some instances danger for the child.

    Rather than face the humiliation of attending special education classes, students become truant. This is especially common among older students. Out on the streets, these students become victims of gangs, drug use and crime.

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    Education's Mission

    The United States Department of Education's mission statement proclaims that, "The ED's mission is to strengthen the federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual." The English Only mandate makes this directive impossible to fulfill.

    In order to provide English language learners with an education that is equal to all, school systems must have resources that provide for the support of second language students, their classroom teachers and their community.

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    Creative Solutions

    In some school districts across the country, there is a large, involved volunteer program. Most of these programs receive funding from grants. As part of the program, bilingual volunteers assist in the classroom. The ability for intelligent and engaged second language learners to clarify questions in their own language enables the student to develop the skills necessary to become an active participant within the classroom as well as within his or her school and community.

    School systems fortunate enough to afford hiring bilingual para-professional teaching assistants also provide classroom teachers with the resources to teach all the children without sending the second language learners off to the special education resource room, unless, of course, the student actually needs that assistance due to learning disabilities.

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    Federal and State Funding

    The bottom line in this education dilemma comes down to funding. Schools cannot provide students with an adequate education if the funding for qualified teachers, rich resources and high-tech equipment is not available.

    Districts in which income is high often do not have the issues of urban schools, because there is a small number of English language learners attending the schools. Urban, suburban and rural public schools in low and middle-income areas suffer from lack of state funding.

    The inequity of the situation becomes a topic of discussion, a political platform, each election season with little to no results. Raising taxes to provide further education is not publicly pleasing. Re-allocating funds from one department of the government to another is not an option.

    Solutions by educators appear to be ignored. Educational think tanks and organizations continue to offer ideas for teaching English language learners in nurturing, accepting and productive environments, however, they never seem to leave the boardroom. Congress must heed these creative solutions if our nation is to live up to the commitment of an equal education for all.

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    Sad Truth

    Why are so many ELL students referred to special education? The sad truth is that in many cases this is the only solution available to school officials who are desperately trying to keep their schools above the ever-increasing tide of mandates created by politicians and administrators who lack the experience of teaching in classrooms in which students and educators lack the resources for rich, well-rounded and pertinent education for all.