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PIRLS of wisdom: At a glance

Language minority fourth-graders are currently a relatively small (under 10 percent) but growing segment of the student population in the U.S. But while their numbers are increasing, their scores still lag behind their native-language counterparts.

In response, teachers, principals, school board members, and others have developed policies, programs, and practices that attempt to meet the needs of language-minority students. While this is not solely an American challenge, in the U.S., school boards and others involved in education often don’t recognize that other countries struggle with this issue. Especially since comparisons of test results from international assessments are frequently in the news, often as a source of controversy.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Using an international dataset such as PIRLS (see The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS): a description) to compare U.S. language minority children with their counterparts in three other developed countries can provide insight into U.S. practices, the situation of language minority children across different countries, and several recommendations for U.S. school board members.

Read the full report, or view the PowerPoint presentation  for the highlights, which include the points below.

  • Everyone struggles, but the U.S. performs about the same as its counterparts. In every country examined, language minority fourth-graders produced average reading literacy scores that are significantly lower than their native speaking counterparts. 
  • School size and poverty level appear to be an issue. About two-thirds of U.S. language minority children come from low-income homes. Schools of U.S. language minority fourth-graders generally contain more low-income students and are larger than those attended by language minority students in the other countries in this report—even though they contain roughly similar percentages of language minority students. 
  • Nevertheless, U.S. schools have a better climate. Relatively large percentages of their schools in the United States, Canada, and England were judged to have schools with high levels of both good school climate and school safety. And greater percentages of the U.S. schools had a high level of home school involvement than was the case for schools in England or Germany. 
  • The U.S. prepares its teachers and students well. According to the principals surveyed, a greater percentage of U.S. language minority fourth-graders can perform basic reading literacy activities when they entered first grade than students in other countries. And greater percentages of U.S. reading teachers seem to be better trained to teach second language learners than their international peers (even though only 25 percent of the U.S. teachers have received concentrated training in second language learning, and overall they have fewer years of experience). 

Based on these findings, school boards should:

  • Support policies that employ more qualified, experienced, and better trained teachers, especially for language minority children.
  • Support programs calling for a more equal distribution of educational resources, particularly for their language minority students. School boards are clearly not responsible for disparities in student achievement that they did not create (Ready and Tindal 2006), and they cannot change the living situations of language minority children, but they can argue for better living conditions for all their students. 
  • Initiate international conversations to determine what educators and education policymakers in other countries are doing to enhance the reading literacy of their language minority students, since the problems and challenges that language minority children present are global in scale. 
  • Avoid searching for an education silver bullet—a narrow reform policy which may result in raising average scores of language minority students by a point or two. Exhaustive analysis of international mathematics and science data by Baker and LeTendre (2005) suggests that such an expedition would lead to folly, and the larger problem—one of inequality in the distribution of educational resources—would remain. 

This summary is based on a report by Laurence T. Ogle, who served as the PIRLS National Research Coordinator at the National Center for Education Statistics (US Department of Education) for approximately 6 years (2001 - 2007).  He now works as an independent researcher specializing in international education. 

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