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How to Evaluate the Effectiveness of an English Learner Program

As the population of English learners continues to grow nationwide, states and school districts need effective ways to determine whether programming for these students is meeting their social and academic needs.

A panel of experts explored best practices on this kind of evaluation in a June webinar co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition and office for civil rights.

Much of the advice stems from the federal English learner toolkit that offers various insights for all educators on how to best support this student population.

But there are also additional steps districts and state agencies can take to review and strengthen their programs. Here’s some advice from the experts.

Rethink what data needs to be collected

While national and state data collection requirements already exist related to English learner demographics and academic performance, there are additional steps districts and states can take to better break down what they collect and how they use the data.

In Oakland, Calif., district leaders don’t just break down academic progress data and graduation rates by English learner status. They go further by breaking the information down by language group, housing status, whether a student is a newcomer immigrant English learner, and more, said Nicole Knight, executive director of the office of English language learner multilingual achievement for the district.

They do this because English learners as a student population are not a monolith.

“By not disaggregating, we run the risk of making broad assumptions around our English learner performance and missing critical information that would help us provide targeted services,” Knight said.

In Massachusetts, student data are used to sort districts into four tiers to determine the effectiveness of yearly programs, and the level of assistance districts need from the state to better support English learners, said Sibel Hughes, assistant director of the office of language acquisition at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Some indicators the state reviews include student performance on English language acquisition tests from the WIDA consortium—which administers such tests in close to 40 states. They also look at how English learners fare on the state’s core content assessment; their graduation, dropout, and suspension rates; how many English learners are identified for special education services; and more.

If districts get flagged on these indicators, they can go one or two levels below.

“This approach gives us an opportunity to see the big picture before we even start a program review process with districts,” Hughes said.

However, data collection shouldn’t be limited to the students. Annela Teemant, a second language education professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, argued that districts should also pay attention to teachers’ competencies for working with multilingual students. That includes evaluating teachers’ knowledge of language, culture, pedagogy, and equity.

Significant steps to include in the evaluation process

In the Oakland district, an end-of-year analysis looks at student performance data to evaluate the effectiveness of its English learner program, but district leaders also look at the quality of classroom teaching practices, Knight said.

Specifically, district leaders look for five essential instructional practices: ensuring access and rigor; providing quality designated and integrated English language development; grounding decisions at the instructional and programmatic level in meaningful data; taking an asset-based approach; and addressing the whole child through social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices.

District schools conduct self-assessments, and district leaders also conduct site reviews that include classroom observations and interviews with students, families, teachers, and school leaders, Knight said.

Massachusetts also offers a self-assessment tool for districts that they must complete every six years, Hughes said. State-level staff use those assessments and other data including student records, classroom observations, and parent surveys to further evaluate program effectiveness.

In the evaluation process, an assessment of whether teachers are fully equipped to close any academic or linguistic gaps is also needed, Teemant said.

“It is important for us to think about what are the inputs to teacher learning? And how do they connect or meet the gaps we’ve identified in student outcomes? If there’s not a gap between that teacher learning and the student outcomes, then you’re doing PD for PD’s sake to look like you’re doing something without a clear outcome,” Teemant said.

Aim for continuous improvement in the evaluation process

While the significant evaluation process of an English learner program can take place at the end of the year, all three panelists spoke of the importance of additional check-ins throughout the year.

“We’re constantly assessing whether our intentions and our efforts are yielding the desired results, and we’re making adjustments along the way,” Knight, in Oakland, said.

Knight spoke of the value of qualitative data collected from classroom observations and focus groups with families to better understand the English learner student experience.

The Massachusetts self-assessment tool has district leaders asking introspective questions meant to ensure continuous improvement, Hughes said. For instance, when asked whether their chosen program is considering the needs of the population they have, district leaders must ensure they first understand their demographic data. When asked if a given district has the ability to implement its chosen programming, leaders must evaluate if they indeed have the appropriate resources for the implementation.

Teemant also spoke of the need to ensure that a district’s vision for its English learner program should be so embedded throughout that it can continue even after a star leader who got it off the ground departs.

“We’re doing lots of incremental change, but not radical or systemic change that would actually change the trajectory of our students’ learning,” Teemant said. “And that takes a different kind of vision of leadership and carrying it on so every teacher is living these commitments not just the leaders.”

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