English Learners: Charting Their Experiences and Mapping Their Futures in California Schools

California is home to more English learner (EL) students (1.3 million) than any other state, and the state also has the highest proportion of ELs (21%). In total, 38 percent of California’s students enter the school system as English learners. As a group, ELs in California perform well below average based on state test results and high school graduation rates.

Reflected in many statistics is a tendency to think about English learners as a monolithic group. Such thinking masks the dramatic variation in background, academic needs, and educational outcomes found among these students. What all English learners do share, however, is additional learning needs in school, as they are called upon to master both academic content and the English language.

To support California educators’ abilities to effectively teach this large and diverse population of students, the State Board of Education adopted the California English Learner Roadmap in 2017. This roadmap came on the heels of voters’ passage of Proposition 58, which repealed previous limitations on the use of bilingual education programs. In addition, in 2015, the state adopted an integrated English language arts/English language development framework for EL instruction.

Within the context of those major policy actions, this brief explores the needs of these students, current strategies for providing them with both English proficiency and content mastery, educators’ capacity for teaching them successfully, and some barriers within the larger educational system that may be impeding their success. The brief also takes a look at the variation found in school districts related to their EL student outcomes and the revenues they have available to support English learners.


  • EL students in California have diverse, individual educational assets and needs that California policy is just beginning to take into account.
  • Interpreting EL outcomes from data can be complex, and at times misleading, because students continuously move in and out of the English learner subgroup.
  • K-12 education, early childhood education, and postsecondary education are not well aligned to address the needs of English learners.
  • Many ELs in California do not have equitable access to grade-level core content instruction, and the English language development (ELD) instruction they receive may fall short of state standards.
  • California has increased bilingual and dual immersion programs, which on average benefit English learners’ academic, linguistic, social, and life outcomes.
  • Reclassification policies, which are highly consequential for students, are currently in flux in California.
  • English learners are likely to be taught by early-career teachers whose preparation may not be sufficient.
  • Mechanisms are weak for ensuring that funds targeted for English learners are reaching them and being used in effective ways.