Summer Reading with the CERES Institute: Exploring English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education

Dr. Yasuko Kanno’s new book, English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education: Neither College Nor Career Ready, was released last fall. We had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Kanno about her new publication, an ethnography of one public high school in Pennsylvania and seven of its English learners as they tried to make their transition from secondary to postsecondary education.

What inspired you to pursue research that deeply documents the student experiences of English Learners, and ultimately to write this book?

As a bilingual speaker and a former English Learner (EL), I’ve always been fascinated by how being a nonnative speaker of English has such a profound and negative impact on one’s educational opportunities in this country. What language you are born into is not something that any of us can control, and being bilingual or multilingual is considered an asset in many parts of the world.

And yet, in the United States, bilingual and multilingual students classified as ELs in public schools experience such limited educational opportunities. This marginalization results in a clear difference in their college-going rates: While nearly 50% of native-speaking students enroll in four-year colleges upon high school graduation, only 20% of ELs do. As I wrote in my book, “The laws of this land guarantee ELs’ rights to equal educational opportunities” (p. 1), but if that’s the case, why is such a disparity allowed to happen? By going into a public high school that is typical of the kinds of high schools that many ELs attend, and working closely with individual ELs and the educators surrounding them, I wanted to answer that question.

 I want to tell stories of bilingual and multilingual students of color, so that more people will begin to think of these students as “one of us” rather than “them.”

This was an ethnographic project. Describe what that means exactly.

The fundamental motivation for documenting any minoritized students’ experience in depth is always to put faces to a group of students who have been discounted and treated as a statistic. In other words, it is an effort to humanize their experiences and share what the world looks like from their point of view. Once you learn ELs’ rich stories of lived experience, treating them as numbers in education statistics would be much harder. As Richard Rorty once argued, “[The] process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like,”[i]and ethnography does just that. Although I also dabble in secondary data analysis every now and then, this is why I always come back to ethnographic case studies: I want to tell stories of bilingual and multilingual students of color, so that more people will begin to think of these students as “one of us” rather than “them.”

What most surprised you about capturing the stories of students like Carlos and Eddie? I was surprised by the gap between the stories teachers and guidance counselors told about Carlos and Eddie and the stories the students told about themselves. As far as the educators were concerned, Eddie was “limited,” and Carlos was “lazy,” and the best they could hope for was a high school diploma. One of the teachers, Mr. McGrath, once said about Carlos, “I dearly hope that he will graduate, but if he doesn’t, he is another dropout.”[ii] But when you listened to Carlos and Eddie, you could tell that they had dreams and talents: Eddie wanted to be a car mechanic—of the seven students, he probably had the most explicit career choice—and Carlos was an artist. As someone who also enjoys painting, it was a joy to watch Carlos draw crisp lines effortlessly. It made me wonder, “Why hasn’t anyone suggested to him that he could become a graphic designer?” But the deficit discourse surrounding them was so powerful that it drowned out any possibility of the school connecting their strengths with viable career pathways.

You mention that for English Learners at the high school in which you conducted your observations, attending community college is often the peak of what English Learners can hope to accomplish after graduation. What do you think needs to be done to change this?

It is not just at this one high school that this was the case; rather, this is a national trend. For ELs who go onto postsecondary education, the community college is the most common port of entry. Twice as many ELs attend community colleges as four-year colleges upon high school graduation. Don’t get me wrong: The community college can be an excellent educational opportunity. It is much more affordable than a four-year college; students can complete their general education requirements in the first two years of college and transfer to a four-year college. That is indeed a smart and economical way to earn a bachelor’s degree. It is this ideal scenario that guidance counselors present to EL high school students.

However, for this ideal scenario to happen, a couple of critical conditions must be met: (a) students must be academically well prepared, so that they can enter community college and start taking college-level courses right away, and (b) they have enough college knowledge to figure out the most efficient course-taking strategies and navigate the transfer process once in the community college. Unfortunately, high schools most often do not equip ELs with either skill.

In my view, rather than treating community colleges as an extension of high school—grade 13—U.S. high schools must take responsibility for preparing ELs for the rigor of college by the end of 12th grade. That way, ELs will not be saddled with a huge amount of remedial education when they enroll in college. Also, ELs need more explicit guidance on navigating college: differences between community colleges and four-year colleges, the transfer process, and how to finance a college education. In short, they need both the academic preparation and college knowledge that would equip them for a four-year college education. With that level of college readiness, if students elect to attend a community college to save money, that would be a viable pathway to a bachelor’s degree.

Based on your research, what do you think is the biggest challenge in secondary education for English learners?

The low expectations for ELs. The high school profiled in the book had differential expectations for ELs and non-EL students. As I wrote in the book, “If [high school] educators recommended state colleges for high achievers and LCC [Local Community College] for mid to low achievers for non-ELs, they lowered the expectations for ELs by one notch: they recommended LCC for high-and mid-achieving ELs and focused on high school graduation for low achievers.”[iii]

When multilingual students come into high school classified as ELs, the label itself creates lower expectations for the students’ capabilities and, therefore, their postsecondary prospects. That sets in motion a series of limited opportunities to learn through the rest of high school—e.g., lower levels of coursework, insufficient guidance on four-year-college-college planning—ultimately resulting in ELs not being college- and career-ready by the end of high school. Once again, why do students’ language backgrounds have to dictate their educational opportunities?

What’s next for you and your research?

I think that English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education provides a powerful portrait of how one public high school graduated ELs without preparing them for college and career readiness. At the same time, I am perfectly aware that this is a case study of one high school and that there’s only so much you can generalize from one school. Also, this was about a school in Pennsylvania, and I am now in Massachusetts. So building on this study, my research team has been exploring how Massachusetts high schools support ELs’ access to college. We have so far conducted fieldwork at three schools, and the results indicate that different schools indeed have different ways of educating ELs. Frankly, I was not expecting to see so much variation among the schools, and it has been fascinating to witness that.

This study has also made me want to learn more about ELs at community colleges because so many students do enroll in community colleges. What happens to students like Erica and Josephine once they enroll in a community college? What are their experiences like? Do they persist and manage to transfer to a four-year college? Or do they encounter too many barriers to achieve their dreams? I would like to further explore the connection between ELs’ academic preparation in high school and their community college retention and success.

Dr. Kanno serves as an associate professor of language education at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, where she is also chair of the Language and Literacy Education Department and a CERES Institute faculty fellow. Follow along with Dr. Kanno’s research, as well as that of her colleagues at BU Wheelock, at @BUWheelock on Twitter.


[i] Rorty, Richard M. “Introduction.” Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge U.P, Cambridge, 1989, pp. xvi-xvi.

[ii] Kanno, Yasuko. English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education: Neither College nor Career Ready, Multilingual Matters, Bristol, United Kingdom, 2021, p. 136.

[iii] Kanno, Yasuko. English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education: Neither College nor Career Ready, Multilingual Matters, Bristol, United Kingdom, 2021, p. 150.



We’re hiring!

We're hiring! The CERES Institute for Children & Youth is excited to announce one opening on...

read more