There is one aspect of many international schools that elicits a passionate response from administrators, teachers, parents, and even students, the English as an additional language (EAL) fee. International schools are among the most innovative and most expensive private schools in the world. In addition to application fees and regular tuition, many schools also charge an EAL fee. This article will consider why some schools justify this fee, highlight some problems, and hopefully make a case for changing or eliminating the fee to create more equitable and effective learning environments.
A brief note on terminology: I intentionally use the terms “EAL” and “multilingual learners” with an asset-based lens to recognize that students are already multilingual and already learners, and they are adding English to a rich linguistic repertoire that is a resource for learning. For more about this distinction, read Saying is Believing: Why Names Matter.
Why an EAL Fee?
Many international schools around the world charge an extra EAL fee, usually charged to parents each semester or year that their child receives EAL support. How do schools justify this extra charge? Even though we may not agree with these rationales, it is helpful to understand the history of the fee. If a school uses English as its medium of instruction and begins to admit students who are not yet proficient in English, they need to hire EAL teachers or support training for classroom teachers. In some cases, EAL teachers are seen as an “extra” service offered to some students, so a fee may be imposed to offset the cost of these teachers. As tuition-based private schools with competitive admissions, some leaders might consider a supply-and-demand argument to justify charging extra fees for EAL support since there is a long waiting list.
What’s the Problem?
If schools aspire to educate truly global citizens, then multilingual and transnational families should be welcomed into the school, not taxed upon entry. Many schools around the world have observed a demographic shift, integrating more closely with the host country. Whereas students receiving EAL support may have accounted for a small percentage of the school population in the past, today’s school communities have become much more multilingual (for a further discussion of this shift, see Glocal Network Shifts: Exploring Language Policies and Practices in International Schools). At the same time, many schools have embarked on a decades-overdue conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ), and it is becoming increasingly clear that charging a fee for EAL does not promote diversity, equity, inclusion, or justice. While an EAL fee might seem financially convenient, school leaders need to understand that it has significant programmatic implications, adding unnecessary stress for both students and teachers. If a school is committed to DEIJ, it's hard to reconcile a fee structure that upholds barriers and perpetuates discrimination for how the school community views some of its members.
International schools provide a rich variety of different services to benefit students. These programs and resources are in place because they serve all students but are based on individual needs. Consider professionals such as security guards, nurses, counselors, librarians, and information technology technicians. All are considered essential for a high-functioning, 21st-century school. However, families are not charged extra for these services. Would it make sense to send parents a bill whenever a student visits the nurse? Do principals worry about parents complaining that their tuition supports the school counselor’s salary if their child rarely visits the counselor? Could a school justify charging students for using the library more often? On top of restrictive or exclusionary English-only language policies which ask students to leave their multilingual identities at the school gate, an EAL fee discriminates against students for not yet being fluent in English and communicates the idea that they are not full members of the school community.
Multilingual learners, students who are navigating school in more than one language, may already feel stress just coming to a new school, trying to make friends, struggling to understand their teachers, attempting to convey their understanding about a particular topic. Charging families an EAL fee unnecessarily and unfairly increases anxiety for students. Many students are well aware of this extra fee and feel pressure from parents to exit the EAL program. We know that language learning is developmental, and it takes time for students to become proficient in English; charging families extra fees and increasing pressure on students won’t necessarily speed up this process.
Other similar services are offered to families without additional costs. Most schools provide learning support for students who need extra help or who have a diagnosed learning disability, with no extra fee. And most leaders would never consider a literacy tax. If students are reading below grade level, would a school punish them by making them pay an extra fee for literacy interventions? Imagine the anxiety students would feel taking a reading test each semester to see if they can read well enough that their parents can stop paying extra money. This is not a recipe for boosting self-esteem, student engagement, or love of learning. EAL fees segregate a program that is essentially meeting a student's academic needs.
An EAL fee also places unnecessary pressure on teachers. Teaching has always been a challenging profession, but teachers in today’s schools are particularly exhausted from transitioning back to in-person learning, maintaining professional momentum, and helping students recover from two years of navigating a global pandemic. An EAL fee attaches a price tag to what should be a data-based educational decision. An EAL fee requires teachers to make a professional judgment about students, knowing that it will have a significant financial impact on families.
Linking a fee for EAL support also communicates that to “exit” from EAL is a binary decision, either you get support or you don’t. We know this is a much more complex and nuanced issue, better described with a continuum or roadmap with multiple pathways rather than an on/off switch. While schools provide teachers with valid assessments and helpful criteria, we know learning is a developmental process and highly context-dependent. A multilingual student might thrive with a third-grade teacher who creates a language-rich and literacy-rich classroom, but the same student might struggle the following year if placed with a fourth-grade teacher who provides little scaffolding. EAL teachers should be able to provide flexible and dynamic support for students that responds over time. Ultimately the EAL fee forces teachers to make a binary decision that can’t be easily undone.
As international school populations have become more diverse and the field of language education has evolved, many schools have reconsidered pullout EAL classes. Program design has shifted from segregation, fragmentation, and isolation towards a more collaborative and integrated model of serving multilingual learners. When EAL teachers collaborate through co-planning and co-teaching, classrooms become language-rich and literacy-rich; these classrooms benefit all students. EAL specialists have the opportunity to support the entire class by universally designing instruction in these classrooms. However, if only some students are paying for EAL support, then should teachers withhold valuable scaffolding, such as graphic organizers or vocabulary mini-lessons, from non-paying students? Attaching a fee to EAL support creates unnecessary barriers to teaching and learning.
Improving the System
While many international schools have already made the decision to eliminate the EAL fee, others are considering just how to do this. One intermediate step is to transition first to a one-time EAL fee. While not ideal, a one-time fee reduces the “exit pressure” on students and families and allows teachers to serve students flexibly as needs may change over time. Another possibility is to include EAL testing fees as part of admissions. If extra time is taken to administer tests to screen for English proficiency, reading, or math levels, schools can include a general assessment fee as part of the cost of applying to the school, without discriminating against any particular group of students. Ideally, schools will recognize there may be additional costs to the school budget to provide EAL resources but because the school is committed to DEIJ, they will absorb the cost into the school fees and tuition for all students.
Ultimately, the intention of this article is to start a conversation with teachers, leaders, board members, and school communities. Hopefully, this conversation will help shed light on the implications of charging an extra fee for EAL service, and hopefully, this inquiry will help schools develop the courage and conviction to eliminate this legacy barrier to more equitable and effective classrooms.
Jon Nordmeyer is the international program director at WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment), University of Wisconsin-Madison. He guides the research and development of resources across a global network of over 500 schools. He believes that as educators we must also be learners, and in international learning communities, teacher collaboration can not only ignite student learning but also fuel professional growth. Jon has taught graduate seminars at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Tibet University. He co-edited the book Integrating Language and Content and has written for the Journal of Staff Development, International Schools Journal, Educational Leadership, and Global Education Review.