Today, more than five million English language learners, or ELLs, are enrolled in this nation’s public schools. That’s up from just two million a decade ago.

The first language of the vast majority of these students is Spanish. In fact, the 2000 U.S. Census reported that 76 percent of all ELLs in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade and 72 percent in sixth to 12th grade are native Spanish-speakers.

In coming decades, these students and those who follow them will have an enormous impact on the fortunes of the country as a whole.

Right now they are struggling. While only about a third of all eighth-grade students comprehend the vocabulary and content of their grade-level materials, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the figure drops to 4 percent for ELLs.

In other words, just one in 25 enter high school reading well enough to handle a rigorous course of study designed to prepare them for college or a good job.

To provide help for these students, the Alliance for Excellent Education joined Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Applied Linguistics to convene some of the country’s leading experts in English language and literacy instruction for secondary school students. Their recommendations, published in the Alliance report Double the Work, were unanimous and urgent.

For starters, states need to define more clearly who is or is not an ELL. Currently, the same student could be put in regular classes in one school, enrolled in an English language program in another, and determined to have reached English proficiency in a third.

Such inconsistency makes it impossible to track student progress. It excludes many students from special services they should receive and leaves others stuck indefinitely in dead-end programs.

Second, because ELLs have diverse educational backgrounds, schools must take special care to assess all students’ academic skills when they enter the system.

For instance, some arrive here with a solid record of academic achievement in their native language but limited English; others come with little to no formal schooling and weak literacy skills in their native language; and others enroll in a new school having been in the U.S. system for years without learning much of anything.

It doesn’t make sense to lump them in the same program. Their teachers should be given ways to find out what they already know and can do – both in English and in their native languages.

Finally, states must do much more to prepare middle and high school teachers to work with ELLs. Presently, just three states – Arizona, California and Florida – require every teacher to complete some pre-service training in English language instruction.

That’s a good start, but, particularly in schools and districts that enroll large numbers of ELLs, teachers also need ongoing, high-quality professional development to gain true expertise in teaching all students.

The country’s ELL population is growing more rapidly in secondary schools (64 percent in the 1990s) than in elementary schools (46 percent). Yet most of education policymakers’ attention and available financial resources have flowed to the elementary school level.

We must provide better, targeted support to address their needs in the older grades, redesigning and refocusing our schools to deliver the quality, individualized instruction these students deserve as they do “double the work” of their native English-speaking peers, simultaneously developing English language and subject area competence.

For the sake of the students, their communities and the nation as a whole, the U.S. educational system has no option but to improve the academic outcomes of our five million ELL students if we are to remain globally competitive.