October 2, 2018

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Guest Blog Post: How Well Are Your English Learners Doing?

This guest post was written by Crystal Gonzales, the Executive Director of the English Learners Success Forum. 

If your district is like thousands of other districts across the nation, chances are that you’re seeing an increase in the enrollment of English Learner (EL) students. It doesn’t come as a surprise considering that nearly five million students comprise the EL student population in the United States, constituting 10% of the total student population. So the question looms: do you know how ELs are doing in your schools?

As ESSA state plans move into the implementation phase and as educational leaders refocus their efforts on narrowing achievement gaps, it has become even more critical that we self-assess our collective efforts in serving all students within our reach, particularly ELs. With a renewed emphasis on ESSA subgroup accountability, schools must ensure ELs are doing well consistently; if these students are not doing well, the state will flag those schools for targeted improvement.

Despite their linguistic, social, and cognitive potential, EL students struggle academically compared to their non-EL peers. In 2017, for example, there was a 31-point achievement gap between non-EL and EL students in fourth grade reading and a  26-point gap in fourth grade mathematics.Several factors contribute to these poor outcomes:

  •  ineffective teachers
  •  insufficient training on working with EL students
  •  limited or no access to appropriate instructional materials
  •  a lack of targeted linguistic support in general education classes

 More than 70% of teachers report that they’ve received inadequate preparation to teach ELs effectively. Furthermore, educators believe their instructional materials for core content are not designed to raise the academic performance of ELs. This is especially problematic when predictions indicate that ELs will comprise 25% of the total U.S. student population over the next decade, and there is an increased likelihood that most teachers in the U.S. public schools will have at least one EL student in their classroom.

Where do we go from here?

The good news is that there are practical, research-based steps that administrators can taketo support their educators and ensure that ELs receive grade-level content (as opposed to watered-down materials).

Evidence reveals curriculum choice has a significant impact on student learning. To be truly effective, the curriculum must align with your state’s academic standards, and it must meet the needs of the students in your classrooms.  The 2017 National Academies report,Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English, provides a thorough overview of how we must consider the needs of ELs at all levels, including specific instructional strategies for ELs to have access to grade-level learning.Curricular materials and professional development connected to the materials (particularly in core content areas of English language arts and mathematics) must include integrated language supports for ELs.

The English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) provides guidance, tools, and resources on how to provide integrated language support, as that kind of support is largely absent from most ELA and math curricular materials. Nationally-recognized EL researchers, experts, teacher educators, and practitioners developed a set of guidelines that outline key focus areas needed for ELs to participate fully in ELA and math mainstream classrooms.Following the development of these guidelines, an ELSF Review Team collaborated with curriculum developers whose materials are used in every state.  Together, the team worked to apply these guidelines, identify high-leverage changes, and provide feedback with the ultimate goal of enhancing their materials to better serve ELs.

ELSF’s goal is to work with curriculum developers who want to be more inclusive of the needs of ELs to create better materials.  We’ve learned what to look for when selecting curriculum inclusive of ELs. As we continue to extract more knowledge through research, we aim to share our resources freely.  To that end, ESLF makes available these free resources to experts in the EL field as well as educators and administrators who are developing or adapting their own materials.

Practical steps you can take:

1. Forward this article to your teams, particularly Chief Academic Officers. Are you curious how your instructional materials and teaching practices are working for your EL students? Invite your teams to take this ‘pulse check’here and set up follow-up conversations.

2. Reflect and share these resources.

Do my ELA and Math teachers feel supported in meeting the needs of ELs in their classrooms? Conduct focus groups and observations to get teacher input. Share ELSF’s guidelines, tools, and resources as a start. You may also consider the tools and resources from our colleagues at the Council for Great City Schools (CGCS).  

3. Bring internal EL experts to the table and utilize existing tools.

If you are conducting a materials selection process for ELA or math, ensure EL district leaders are involved on committees and create specific EL criteria relevant to your districts’ needs in making materials decisions. Utilize resources, such as the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) and EdReports’ rubrics for standards alignment, and for EL supports reference the ELSF Guidelines for Improving Materials for ELs and CGCS’ EL frameworks for ELA and mathematics

4. Engage with ELSF.

We are always looking for exceptional EL educators and leaders to get involved in our work as reviewers, coaches, resource writers, and advocates. Encourage them to join ELSF efforts. Additionally, ensure that vendors you use are familiar with ELSF guidance tools and aim to be inclusive of the needs of ELs.