English-language learners make the front pages – but that’s not enough

the grade hed

The recent surge in attention and coverage hasn’t gone as deep or or as far as it should.

By Conor P. Williams

Here in the tornado of what passes for political discourse in 2017 it can be especially hard to comprehend — let alone cover — the debates over U.S. public education. How can reporters write about ESSA, or teacher preparation, or expanding pre-K programs at a moment when white supremacists are marching in our streets and mass deportations are looming? Long-running debates over the purpose(s) of schools have been almost entirely subsumed by our national battles over what makes America “great.”

But if the searing heat of national discourse has buried a host of education topics, it has, perhaps perversely, raised awareness of English learners (ELs) and immigrant children in U.S. schools. And so, the horrors of today’s politics offer education journalists some new opportunities: From coverage of the detainment of parent Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez outside a school by LA School Report to reporters from EdWeek and the New York Times seeking out DACA-mented teachers, there are clearly new stories for journalists to tell at the intersection of immigration and public education.

nyt daca

New York Times article on DACA teachers.

Hats off to the journalists who are attempting to use this difficult time to shed light on the lives of EL kids and the policies that shape their chances. But we need the topic to be richer than “Trump Administration immigration decision affects school(s).” Your sources can’t just be educators lamenting those decisions. You can’t just use EL kids as predictable characters in that narrative. Schools are where real-world EL kids learn — immigrant and U.S.-born — with their non-EL peers — to be Americans. Why not use the present state of our immigration politics to tell the country about that process?

Stories like the ones cited above all fall one step short. They take a news hook — stepped-up deportation efforts, the looming changes to DACA — without discussing the rarity of bilingual teachers, the teacher diversity issue and its effects on nonwhite kids, or any other number of issues. Education and immigration intersect at so many points — our changing school demographics, new cultural and linguistic instructional opportunities, deepened conversations in U.S. civic education, and more — and education reporters ought to dig right in.

npr daca

NPR story about proposed DACA rollback.

The recent surge in coverage of EL kids is rare; immigrant kids (many of whom learn English at school) and English learners (a majority of whom are U.S. born) historically garner limited attention in the education press, even though more than one out of five kids speaks a non-English language at home.

In the past, for every serious article on the approximately 12 million children (22 percent of kids!) who speak a non-English language at home, we get a couple dozen stories covering issues like universal pre-K or charter schools or etc. As the founder of the Dual Language Learners National Work Groupat the New America Foundation, I’ve spent years spilling ink and burning pixels to get them more public attention.

It’s always been an uphill battle. Reporters and editors generally aren’t familiar with the turf and tend to see EL students’ education as a niche issue. They often try to swing articles about ELs’ education into the world of immigration. “Is there any way to make this article about DREAMers?” they ask. “Is there any way that this story about English language development in pre-K programs could be tied to comprehensive immigration reform?”

Hats off to the journalists who are attempting to use this difficult time to shed light on the lives of EL kids and the policies that shape their chances. But we need the topic to be richer than “Trump Administration immigration decision affects school(s).”

Until recently, my answer to their questions was usually “no,” which meant that their interest in covering ELs and immigrant children was usually limited. In general, I — and others researching these issues — have been reticent to link policies and practices related to these children’s educational opportunities to the ugly state of immigration politics in the United States. Most ELs and children of immigrants are native-born US citizens — why should we have to expose them to the heat of xenophobia simply to shed more light on how they’re being educated?

Times have changed. Now, there’s no serious way of maintaining that distance. The president’s persistent, aggressive, and wholly negative attention to a wide range of U.S. immigration issues has changed the dynamics surrounding these kids. Since the election, there have been hundreds of headlines amounting to something like “Children of immigrants are traumatized” (and sure, I’ve written a few of these). Most of these stories quote educators to confirm the angle. A few quote children.

storm lake ELL

Des Moines Register story about schools struggling to serve EL kids.

On the whole, however, journalists are using this new public interest to generate stories that use schools as little more than stages. Few articles engage with schools’ actual work beyond immediate trauma responses. As with this recent NPR piece, they primarily write about kids or campuses suffering from the Trump Administration’s immigration decisions, and then move on — instead of taking advantage of our current politics to go deeper.

What’s going on? This is the opening journalists have been waiting for! This is their chance to write about how immigrant families approach public education, how these students are segregated or integrated in their schools, how teachers think about language development, how issues of racial and socioeconomic equity intersect with linguistic diversity in schools, which instructional models best serve ELs, and so much more. The country is interested and there’s an enormous range of stories available to tell.

Journalists are using this new public interest to generate stories that use schools as little more than stages. Few articles engage with schools’ actual work beyond immediate trauma responses.

There’s a second problem with coverage of EL kids. Too often, local coverage doesn’t connect EL stories to the national debate, and national coverage doesn’t get very far in covering the lives of EL kids.

For example, back in May, the Des Moines Register covered the challenges of aligning state school spending supporting language acquisition for ELs with the timeline that it actually takes for many students to learn English.

The piece, written by Mackenzie Ryan, is pegged to Storm Lake, Iowa, a small town that’s seen rapid growth in its immigrant and EL student populations in recent years. It covers a lot of turf, tackling related issues like the state’s shortage of teachers trained to work with ELs.

The piece quotes Storm Lake Superintendent Carl Turner, who says, “What we need to do is help kids make the transition to being an American.” The work of EL education is profoundly connected to that process! But, as might be expected from a local piece, there’s nothing serious about how the national political firestorm over questions of language, culture, and identity might be related.

That same month, the New York Times was in Storm Lake to wrestle with those very questions. As befits an article by a national publication, Times reporter Patricia Cohen’s piece primarily wrestles with questions of diversity, changing demographics, revitalization of the Rust Belt’s economy, and the American Dream. But other than an arresting picture of the town high school’s diverse soccer team standing for the national anthem, there’s no significant engagement with the role education plays in any of those questions.

Oddly enough, one of the best exceptions to this rule was a Politico story, “Teaching English in the Age of Trump,” written by intern Kara Voght. It’s not about ELs, but it shows how reporters can take a national political opening (the stability of facts in democratic debate) and use it to drive attention to educational details (how to combine that energy with literary instruction).

trump ELL politico

Politico story connecting news events with education of EL kids.

To get another perspective, I reached out to my friend Mario Koran, an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego who frequently writes about immigration, schools, and ELs. “When we think about the kids themselves, they’re pawns in this political game,” he said, “They’re just being tossed to the wind, tossed around in these forces outside of anything related to learning or teaching, or what they contribute to our schools or our economy.”

“Some of it gets back to the fact that it’s complicated to explain,” he says, “but that shouldn’t be the whole answer. Education reporters explain lots of complicated things.”

Also, let’s be honest. It certainly doesn’t help that most education reporters are white, monolingual, and don’t get much training in language and culture issues.

The lack of sophisticated EL and immigrant children coverage today is a real shame. The president’s rise incarnated a furious debate over the American National Idea, which, of course, calls in a host of smaller, related arguments. Who are we, as a country? What race or races are we? What color or colors? What culture? What languages? What does the American Dream mean now, and for whom?


Voice of San Diego piece about educating EL kids with English-speaking ones.

Koran already found this area fascinating. “What I found it coming back to, quite often, when I was writing about [English Learners] over the last couple years, was this concept that to be American means to speak English.”

And now, the hook’s as easy as it’s ever going to get! Schools are at the center of raising up Americans! They’re where most children get their sustained training in our common life. They’re where I — like many native-born public school kids — first encountered all of those big pieces of American common life, all the sins and triumphs of our national project.

Schools with EL kids are a stage for reporting the Trump Administration’s impact.. They’re places full of kids — some with immigrant parents, some without — who are learning to be American adults.

CONOR P. WILLIAMS is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and the founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams.


The Grade: Careful about that dual-language coverage!

Columbia Journalism Review: Three narratives to avoid in coverage of unauthorized immigration

Migration Policy Institute: How state ESSA plans address the needs of EL students


ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.


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