How to Prepare All Educators to Teach English Learners

Dr. John Nelson is the former Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services for Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD). Under his leadership, students made significant strides in increasing achievement, including English learners.

According to the Brookings Institute, the number of English learners (ELs) in U.S. public schools has grown by roughly 60 percent over the last decade. While the level of diversity they have brought us holds plenty of potential value for all students, we are not yet able to capitalize on that, as many English learners are not enrolled in schools with teachers that have been given the sufficient preparation and training to teach them. In 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that only a third of teachers with English learners in their classrooms had nearly sufficient training to support them. In total, my former district, Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD) in southern California, educates over 30,000 students in 47 K-6 schools. More than 70 percent of our students identify as Latino or Hispanic, 50 percent receive free and reduced lunch, and more than a third of students are classified as English learners. When I look back at how we have been addressing the challenge of preparing educators for meeting the needs of ELs and non-ELs all at once, I feel that our efforts to implement a district-wide approach to professional development and support structures for school-level leaders and educators have been the key to our success. The district provides dual immersion instruction in half of the schools, and all remaining classrooms are taught by teachers with certification for cross-cultural language and academic development.

Collaborative Academic Planning

CVESD facilitates a collaborative approach to lesson planning, so teachers have enough time to connect around weekly goals, student needs, and recent performance outcomes. Grade level colleagues attend two-and-a-half-hour academic planning sessions every two weeks. During these meetings, teacher teams analyze student work from the previous lessons to identify areas to focus on in the new lessons. They review the upcoming texts assigned via Achieve3000’s PRO literacy platform for differentiated instruction by reading the texts at various Lexile levels, reviewing key concepts that are communicated explicitly and implicitly in the texts, and identifying key vocabulary words and idioms for native English-speaking students as well as English learners. Each meeting is concluded by making plans for student assessment and determining student evaluation criteria.

Ongoing Professional Development with English Learner Emphasis

District leaders and site principals are engaged in a professional learning cycle model that supports sustained change in practice by all teachers. This is accomplished through repeated cycles of high-quality learning, opportunities for teachers to safely practice new strategies in a supportive environment, observations by and feedback from principals and colleagues, and ongoing professional reading and discussions about effective strategies for English learners designed to deepen teachers’ understanding. Teachers then examine the impact of these strategies by analyzing student work and reviewing student performance data on an ongoing basis. Data collected from students, classroom observations, reports in Achieve3000 PRO’s Leadership and Teacher editions, and input from our instructional leadership team guides our plans for future professional development.

Principal Support and Understanding of English Learners’ Language Development Needs

It’s essential for school-level leadership to be engaged in a continual learning cycle as well, so they can effectively provide guidance for their teachers while maintaining an eye on student performance. As a result of CVESD’s commitment to professional learning for administrators, our principals have become leaders capable of creating systemic change within their schools. Principals attend monthly learning sessions that focus on various student profiles, including English learners. In addition, principals are assigned a senior cabinet member who meets with them during one-on-one monthly coaching sessions.

During these coaching visits, the cabinet member reviews the site’s professional development focus, the strategies that have been identified for implementation across all grade levels, and performance data as evidenced by assessments, including student work samples. Additionally, the coach and principal conduct learning-walks to validate the implementation of strategies in support of English learners.

Clear next steps are defined for the principal to implement during the next month. Building this support and professional learning into the educational ecosystem has been a primary contributor to CVESD’s continually improved outcomes for English learners with a nine percent increase in the number of ELs meeting or exceeding standards on the ELA California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years. We are one of the higher-performing districts in the state with 63 percent of all students meeting or exceeding standards for ELA, versus 46 percent of students across the state and 51 percent doing so for math, versus 39 percent statewide. With the continual increase in the number of English learners nationwide, schools and districts will be well-served by implementing their own systemic approach to giving educators and leaders the necessary support to provide effective instruction to all students.

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