How much does it cost to provide English Learners an excellent education?


Such a difficult question, fraught with problems, points of view, and plenty of room for improvement!  English Language Learners (ELLs) - 11% of all public school students (US Dept of Education, 2010) - are protected by federal legislation and court cases that should ensure their equal access to education and educational resources.  However, as we know, ELLs often do not receive the support they need to succeed- let alone an excellent education.  

Part of the problem is inadequate funding.  As Jimenez-Castellanos and Topper describe in the June 2012 issue of Review of Educational Research, a number of court cases have spurred states to look at their funding of students.  States are trying to find out how much it costs to provide students an adequate education (note, adequate, not excellent...).  However, as the authors describe in their review of 70 cost studies, ELLs are often not mentioned, seen as a homogeneous population, or are lumped together with other special populations.  Some of the problems that Jimenez-Castellanos and Topper identify in the studies are:

  • What exactly is an "adequate education"?  (Most of the studies simply use standardized test scores or do not explicitly define this.)
  • Which costing out methodologies are valid and reliable?  (Of the 70 studies, the authors identify 4 different methods and a combination of methods - all with flaws and benefits.)
  • How much does it cost to adequately educate ELLs? (The studies give wildly different numbers or no number at all.)

The authors conclude that ELLs are understudied.  Additionally, they reveal some patterns across the cost study literature:

  1. States do not allocate sufficient funds to the general K-12 population.
  2. ELLs are inconsistently addressed across this body of literature.
  3. We need cost studies that will consider the diversity within the population of ELLs.

What does it all mean?  There is a lot of work to be done to support the needs of K-12 students at the funding and policy level.  Educators need at ask questions about the research that is used to support policy and funding.  And, most importantly, we need to continually question what an "excellent" education looks like, more-so than an "adequate" one - then, we need to strive for it! 


Reference: Jimenez-Castellanos, O. & Topper, A.M. (2012). The cost of providing an adequate education to English Language Learners: A review of the literature.  Review of Educational Research, 82(2), 179-232.

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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