Sara Kangas Provides Insight into High Percentages of English Learners with Disabilities in Schools

Tuesday, June 16, 2020 - 4:45pm

Kangas examines through multiple studies how state and federal policies and structural issues in schools can be barriers to learning.

In the middle schools and high schools that she visited for her research and studies, applied linguist Sara Kangas noticed a disturbing trend: high percentages of English learners (ELs) with learning disabilities.  

What is going on here? Kangas, an assistant professor of special education, wondered. Why do so many of the English learners in that school or any secondary school have learning disabilities? 

“That was something that was bothering me,” she says, “and it was bothering me because I feel like [it was] very disproportionately high.” 

Kangas’ concerns are at the heart of a recent study, “Reclassification of Emergent Bilinguals with Disabilities: The Intersectionality of Improbabilities,”published in the journal Language Policy. In the study, Kangas and co-author Jamie L. Schissel of the University of North Carolina analyzed federal and state policies that govern procedures for reclassifying ELs as fluent in English, along with the standardized assessments that the reclassification policies rely on and that impact students’ educational paths. 

“My work focuses on policies and structural issues in schools, and how those are barriers [to learning],” Kangas says. “That’s my lens in a lot of the work I do.” 

Research Focus: 
English Learners
Field of Expertise: 
Education Policy
Language and Literacy
Special Education