- A recently released New America report says that English learners (ELs) with disabilities are not well understood and are an underserved subgroup caught between underfunded federal programs and educators on the ground with little training.
- The report outlines steps administrators, leaders, and policymakers can take to better serve ELs that also have a disability. These include integrating students with disabilities in regular classrooms as much as possible, providing clear policy guidelines and best practice manuals, expanding developmental screenings in a child's native language and offering ongoing training that addresses issues of culture, language and disability.
- Lack of sufficient federal support has led to state and local leaders cutting special education services, which has, in turn, limited the number of teachers hired and has even led to schools capping special education identification rates. In some cases, this leads to EL students and their families being denied access to special education, the report says.
The number of ELs in U.S. schools has continued to increase over the years, from 3.8 million students (8.1% of the total student population) in 2000 to nearly 5 million students (9.6%) in 2016. Within this group, about 15 percent also qualify for special education services.
Schools and districts are required by federal law to provide these students with special education as well as services for ELs English learner and special education services. But educators sometimes struggle to identify if students are falling behind because of a the language barrier, the child's disability, or both, according to the report.
Students are at risk for being both under- and over-identified for special education services, the authors write. Sometimes, educators will overlook or discount the presence of a disability, attributing its signs as a result of the student’s limited English proficiency. Other times, educators may misidentify students’ limited English skills as a learning disability.
The key to better serving this dual-identified population is to first correctly assess and identify students who may need additional services, they write, saying that clear policies and guidelines are needed at the state or district level, as well as training for educators on the ground. According to a 2017 Council of Chief State School Officers guide, professional development in this area for teachers should focus on how to weave support for students into both instruction and assessment.
District leaders may also be able to make it easier for general education teachers to collaborate with special education teachers and those who work with ELs. Because states and districts often have a shortage of personnel qualified to serve both ELs and students with special needs, schools can also benefit from working with higher education institutions and outside organizations.