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Meet the Experts series

Interview Transcript: Gabriela Uro

Part I: Implementing the Common Core

Council of Great City Schools

The Council of the Great City Schools is a national organization. We're headquartered in Washington, D.C., a membership organization, and we represent now actually 67 of the largest urban school districts in the country. And by that, it means member districts decide to join our organization. We have a fairly narrow eligibility, if you will, because of the issues that we focus on and the kids that we are advocating on behalf.

So we have districts like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas. The most recent one was Santa Ana out of Orange County in California. So it's a very unique group of school districts that, a lot of times, have more in common with each other. Anchorage has more in common with St. Paul than, in Minneapolis for example, than they might have with any of the surrounding areas.

And so the networking that goes on between those districts is critical and for us in terms of what we do. We do representation, so legislative work, whether it be on reauthorization of any education bills, primarily ESEA. However, we also work on their behalf in negotiating or just navigating the Department of Education, various administration proposals, and all of it is with a very sort of dogged focus, if you will, on urban education.

The makeup of our student body is very unique. We are, again, only 67 school districts, so if you look at the entirety of school districts, we have, what, about 16,000. You know, you think, "Well, what does 67 do?" Well, when you look at the kids, we have 30 percent ELLs. We have 26 percent of the nation's Hispanic students. We have close to 20 percent, and maybe even higher, of the students that are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

So in terms of who we represent, they're usually the most vulnerable of populations. They're also the populations that hold most promise for us as a country. However, we find ourselves constantly having to bring this to the table.

ELL population

The Council of the Great City Schools membership enrolls about 30 percent of the nation's English language learners, so it's a sizeable percentage of the nation's ELLs. And for that matter, it really is helpful for us to really help each other as districts provide the services at those, that that student population needs. It's a student population that is not homogeneous most in any of the districts and likewise neither in ours.

We might have English language learners that are third generations, you know, generation. They've been born here. Their grand, their parents have been born here. Maybe the grandparents came as immigrants. However, the bulk of them are U.S. citizens, so what we find is in a lot of our districts, we have a presence of those English language learners, but we also have a lot of newcomers. We are ports of entry, and historically, your major urban centers have been ports of entry.

And so we also receive a lot of newcomers that really are new to the English language. Some are new to schooling, especially with the conflicts around the world and a number of refugee camps and the policy of the U.S. to take a number of refugees. It is something that, for us, it's a challenge, but it's a challenge that people are very much embracing. A number of districts have started newcomer centers or contemplating how to serve these students, whether it be in a newcomer center or in a center within a school.

And you see, for example, Anchorage working with St. Paul, working with Seattle, working with New York to see what they're doing and building from there.

The other piece is, just in terms of the diversity, languages. We collectively have maybe 180 languages, but in the school districts, some districts might have 90. Some might have 50. The percentage distribution is different. In some districts, it's 80 percent Spanish speaking. In others, it might be 40 percent Hmong and then number two is Spanish. So that presents an entirely different approach to how you're going to provide services.

Higher standards

The Council's work around the Common Core actually goes much farther back because the Council has been so focused on raising standards in our urban districts. We know we have challenges, but we've also been very up front about that. For example, it goes back even to when President Clinton wanted to do a voluntary mathematics exam and our districts volunteered.

You know, we were the first ones to say, "Sure, we'll do it," knowing full well that maybe we're not going to come out, you know, with flying colors. But we were willing to look at ourselves and really have a, you know, a barometer that really everybody can look at. It's sort of like the NAEP if you will. But, you know, we wanted to do that.

An extension of that was later the TUDA, which is the Trial Urban District Assessment. That was something that we initiated, worked it through Congress with the Department of Education, and so now you have, we are now at 18 school districts that voluntarily participate in TUDA. And so these districts are looked at from across the country, you know, as a subset, if you will, but looking at NAEP scores.

So we've always been very good and pretty much on target with pushing for higher standards, knowing that we would much rather know what we're shooting for, it helps guide our work.

So when the Common Core work began, you know, with the leadership of the National Governors Association as well as the Chiefs, we were very much there working with them, providing feedback, making sure that as the deliberation process went out with the public, we sent it out to our folks so they had the urban voice in the mix.

So it was really powerful to do that one because then we felt that the Common Core Standards were reflective of the entire nation and not of a subset. But in that process, it also allowed buy-in because we were keeping our superintendents, our board members, and then all the senior staff and it would trickle down abreast of the developments, and they felt they were having voice that came either directly to them, but also as we also helped craft the voice, you know, in a single voice as opposed to 67 district opinions.

And so there was buy-in. There was buy-in. There was also less of a "Oh, my gosh. How am I going to do this?" because you already started seeing what were the, what were going to be the standards, the level of rigor, the level of expectation of the Common Core. And so that's just like the background in terms of where we are.

Common Core initiative

What we have done at the Council of the Great City Schools to support the implementation of the Common Core has been sort of standing, if you will, in the background, but in a very supportive role for our urban districts. We actually were able to get some money from the Gates Foundation to support some planning efforts with six pilot districts. But when we started that work and we presented this information at our conferences, all the other districts wanted to do it, too.

So what we did is even though the seed money went to some of these particular districts that were the first, if you will, in the queue to say, "We want to do Common Core," we really opened up our support and our efforts to all of our member districts. And it really is about the planning. One of the things that we've been really focused on is saying, "Look, this is not just the latest fad. This is not 'let's go buy the latest textbook or do the instructional strategies.'"

This is really about shifting expectations, shifting instruction, and it's going to take a lot more than just, you know, a one-year training, for example. So we realized that we really need to support the leadership of our districts in mapping out how they were going to proceed, and that's what we've been doing.

So how do we do that? The first thing we've been focusing on has been awareness and understanding, so we've been working with the writers of the Common Core Standards. They've been coming to a number of retreats that we've put together focused on content, so English language arts or math.

But we've also been doing it at our conferences where we have superintendents, board members, and then senior leaders from the school districts, as well as your instructional leaders in content area, including English language learners, directors of special education, to really understand what the shifts are in instruction. To really unpack, if you will, what is meant by these standards because people need to understand the shifts because the investment that needs to be made to really make the shifts real are going to be grand.

The perseverance is going to be critical. The patience, too, of understanding that when we finally take those assessments several years down the road, we might not do that well, but it will be our baseline. And from there, you start growing. So that's been a very important part of what we did and, if you will, you know, it might beg the question, "Well, how come you didn't start with instruction right away?"

Well, because unless you understand truly what instruction needs to look like, you can't then start delivering instruction. And if you push that prematurely, teachers are going to be very frustrated after going through all this PD and all the big hoopla about this, and two years down the road it doesn't give them the results that they wanted, which has some serious implications, too, because right now there's all these new teacher evaluation systems going, you know, that are being set up in states. So there are some real high stakes even for teachers.

Common Core survey

One of the things that we did at the Council to support the rollout or the understanding of the Common Core Standards was a survey. We surveyed our instructional staff in the school districts, so by that, I mean teachers, English language learner teachers, general ed. teachers, in math, in English language arts. I mean, we really hit everybody. Also central office staff, so your instructional leaders in the content areas as well as English language learner area and student disabilities.

To ask them what was it about the standards that needed further explication, examples, samples, what were their concerns in terms of the instructional shifts, what were the implications for the various subgroups in our school districts that are not small in number. So we really needed to understand that if the implications were significant for English language learners or for students that come from households where, you know, there's a low income and therefore there's other challenges.

We needed to be really clear about that. We surveyed about 700 people, so that's how many responses we got, and that was very helpful for the districts themselves to sort of see, "Okay. This is what we have. This is what we have in front of us. This is where the staff is saying they will need help, right?" Because a lot of this is how you're going to support the instruction. It's not just, "Okay, raise the bar," but how you support teachers to provide the instruction.

So it was a very good exercise not only for the Council to be able to say, "Okay. This is what our folks are saying," but for the districts themselves to do that self-reflection and for teachers to understand, "Okay. At least they're asking us what are going to be the expectations and the concerns and the need for support from teachers." And that was a, that was a critical component of what we've been doing.

So as we move forward, the farther along in the understanding of the standards, the next phase of what we're doing is certain products and resources that we're trying to put out there, some related to this process of understanding. For example, developing some parent guides. In fact, I think the PTA, the National PTA created some very nice booklets, and we've been using those and sort of tweaking them for our own districts.

And what we're going to do, part of this effort, is collectively use the resources of our districts. So try to translate them at least in the top five languages. We might take it further, but we know which are the top languages by each school district and use their translation resources. So that instead of every district having to translate five language, they might do one, and some districts might not even have to translate it because once the other ones did it, we will put this on our website.

Common Core collaboration

The other things that we're doing with regard to implementation is to be a voice in any of the other work related to Common Core. So for example, the consortia that are look, the two consortia that are looking at developing the assessments, they are constantly putting out information about frameworks and draft frameworks, principles, whatever it is that they put out for public comment. We make sure that we send this out to our membership to get their voice, but also then we then submit our own comments culling from what our members are saying. So we continue to feed into the processes.

Tools, the, you know, there are a number of outfits, a number of very positive efforts underway to develop resources and tools, whether they be called lesson plans, lesson units, exemplars, you know, there's all sorts of stuff out there, working with complex texts very explicitly. We're making sure that we can provide input to those. Bring it back to our folks, create the modifications that need to happen, and that again is going to be put on the website. It's actually something that will be available to any district that would find it helpful.

Stanford's ELL group

Other tools, for example, are the Stanford Group that's led by Kenji Hakuta, Understanding Language. We are on that steering committee. I'm a member on that steering committee, and again it's so that we bridge the research world and the practitioner world, and it's been very exciting, very good conversations.

The practitioner world feels very good about the level of research backing that they are receiving that will be critical for them to then explain to their chief academic officer, to the board, "This is where we need to go." At the same time, the researchers like the feedback they're getting from districts and saying, "Okay. We get it. We understand what needs to happen for ELLs, but how are we going to do this?"

And so then you have a very different conversation that's taking place. It's very productive. And in that regard, the Stanford Group, led by Kenji, are planning to develop some tools that will help, whether they be exemplars or criteria for how you would modify an exemplar, principles. And this is where we are partnering with them to make sure that our work and their work sort of dovetails where we can provide feedback to what they're doing. We're glad to do that, and we're creating very good synergy there around these efforts.

Part II: Preparing for New Standards

Including ELLS in implementation plans

Part of the work of the Council of the Great City Schools in supporting school districts and implementing Common Core is also very specific to English language learners. We're trying to model what we want districts to do. When we invite our district staff to come to any of our retreats, we really encourage them to bring teams. We had a great retreat on English language arts, and we had like, 30 districts, about 30 districts, 25, 30 districts that brought teams.

So they had the person responsible for English language arts, but they also had their special ed. director and their ELL director. Sometimes they also had somebody that was specifically responsible for implementation of Common Core as a member of that team. And that made for very rich discussion. We actually, together, looked at some of the exemplars of complex text.

And you had conversations of these individuals that sometimes honestly don't have time to talk to each other in our districts, whether because they're so busy working in their specific areas or unfortunately whether, it could also be because of the siloed nature of many of our districts, and we're really working hard to try to break those down, the silos. And this is where it's been very promising to bring teams.

We're doing another professional development around Common Core, but again, we stress bringing teams together. And in that vein, part of what we're doing also is supporting deliberate work around English language learners, so we've been working with Lily Wong Fillmore and Mary Anne Kukiara in trying to set up lab sites that would really start looking at how do you bring Common Core for ELLs, but do it to scale. We have great examples across the country of particular schools sometimes. Sometimes it's only a classroom.

But there are very good things happening and what we're trying to do is glean from that "How do you make that happen?" You know, methodically and systemically, how do you really create that level of instruction for ELLs? One of the places we're working is in Albuquerque where they have a significantly large percentage of English language learners, many of them third generation.

They have a significant achievement gap. And so implementing Common Core and doing it right for these students is going to be critical. And in that regard, what we're trying to work is not only again the planning, but what are the specific things that teachers need to know to implement the Common Core? The instructional shifts that are called for in the Common Core are vast, and teachers have not been prepared. You know, if you look at the pre-service or the Colleges of Education, they have not trained teachers to do this.

And so we're very cognizant of that and saying, "Okay. Let's be clear about what we want teachers to know, and then let's provide that." And then provide a way of monitoring or even looking at what instruction, what we expect instruction to be, letting them see that, and then emulate that and then support it. And if it needs to be tweaked, then we do that. So it's, we really know we're building the plane as we fly it.

And part of what's important is that we're trying to create the feedback loops to allow us to do the course correction before you get too far down the path. And those are just, with regard to English language learners, we're being very deliberate, always connected to the larger work of Common Core, but also recognizing that we need to go a little bit deeper with ELLs.

District approaches

The Council of the Great City Schools has six pilot districts, but we quickly expanded and now it's everybody, so we just invite everybody. And what we saw in the very first meetings and even subsequent to that, but in the very first meetings was an incredible array of approaches. And I did bring a very extensive flow chart that I'll be happy to walk you through later, but what we saw is districts are starting in very different places.

Some are starting with developing assessment items. Some are starting with K through second. Some are starting fourth grade and eighth grade. Some are only doing English language arts and not math. And so when we met with all of our folks, we're like, "How are we going to provide support when people are starting in different places because of their own choice at the district level, but also because of what the state does?"

Because remember, that's our context. I mean, the feds provide limited amount of money and limited amount of guidance, but by and large, districts have to follow what the state is doing and fit within that context. And so it's, there's great diversity, which is a little daunting in terms of how you provide support. On the other hand, it's also positive because we can build on each other. So if somebody already tackled fourth and eighth grade, another district can use whatever was developed for those grade levels when they get to tackling fourth and eighth grade.

So it's not too, too scary, but it is a little daunting. However, it really pointed out to us some of the key areas where we need to provide support. And it was voiced by the staff of our own districts, but it was also based on our own observations of some of the areas where educators are having challenges. I don't want to say troubles, but just challenges that they really need to tackle.

District challenges

Some of the key challenges of districts, I think, are grappling with, some better than others, and they play out differently and they're not all present in every single district. But I think they're key, and in our work one of the things we're also focusing on is the whole notion of change management and how do you manage change. So that is very much to support the leadership in districts. And I'm glad we're doing that because that's one of the areas where educators and district leaders are indicating that there is a struggle or a challenge.

There is a dire need for strong leadership to move this forward. If you think about it, Common Core's game-changing, so the community is not going to necessarily like that now you're going to have a different test, different way of teaching. You know, "What is this math? I don't understand this math." You know, you have the community that you have to grapple with. So you need to help the community understand this is a good change.

You know, yes, we're not going to do that great in that first assessment, but we are getting there and we know where we want to go and we are change, we are changing our practices to get there. So you need strong leaders that are able to communicate that, but also strong leaders that are able to convince people to stick with the program. It's not going to be in a year. It might not be in two years. But what are the other benchmarks? What are the other indicators that tells the community, "Look, we are on the right track. I know you're not happy with the numbers yet, but we are on the right track."? So there's a need for leaders that can send that message.

There's also a need at the leadership level, and by that I mean not only like, superintendent and your cabinet folks, but even your boards of education, to have the leaders all singing off the same page where you're looking at data. It has to be driven by data and achievement. For our districts in particular, it also has to be about disaggregation of data so that you have to have strong leadership that has the courage to continue to look at the data and the data are not going to look beautiful, are not going to look pretty.

However, you continue looking at it to tell you, "Okay. We're on the right track. Well, we need to really shore up this other area," you know, at a maybe macro level for the district to say, "Where is it that we really need to hone in on to really make sure we're on the right track?" And that takes courage. You know, sharing data with the public is not an easy thing to do, but if you're convincing the public and they are with you in moving in the right direction to close the gaps, you know, that will be an enormous, an enormous support.

Professional development

The other key area is professional development, and professional development has been an issue forever with all the districts. There are a number of factors that limit how much you can do with professional development. One, the budget. Right now, people are suffering, and a lot of times one of the first things to go is professional development.

We also have contractual limitations. You know, we have our teacher-negotiated contracts, and there are a certain number of days and we have to abide by that. You also have a number of initiatives, and not just Common Core, but textbook adoption, initiatives that are coming through Title I because of school improvement, initiatives that a district might adopt on their own. The state might have their own initiatives.

The competing initiatives that always want professional development really makes this difficult. In fact, when we had a joint meeting with the Understanding the Language group and our district members, we had a couple, like five districts there, there was incredible consensus around what needs to happen for the instruction to be what we need it to be for English language learners. But invariably, all the researchers called, "Well, we need to have this type of professional development."

And it was interesting to see the interaction because district folks are saying, "Well, how are we going to do that? I mean, you know, we have all these other competing requirements for professional development. How are we going to provide a week worth, a week's worth of professional development solely to focus on ELLs?" You know, everybody wants to do that, but the reality is we need to find the ways to provide much better coordinated professional development so that, for example, if you're going to do professional development on the shifts in English language arts given the Common Core, we have to find ways to embed into that, the ELL issues, the issues related to student disabilities, or any other differentiation of instruction.

And that way, it doesn't become, "Okay. Now here's the professional development for ELLs. And now we're going to do another one for students with disabilities." That's going to be one of the huge challenges, and at the same time, it's one of the most important aspects of getting this right.

Examining what districts have in place

Districts have some great models in place. Some of them, they can build on. Some, they can't. When I walk you through the flow chart, you'll see that one of the steps is districts actually have to take stock in what they have. Unfortunately, when you look at professional development, very few districts and states, for that matter, evaluate the impact of professional development.

One of the things that we keep raising and we raise it again here as being one of the critical aspects of implementing Common Core is you need to take stock of what you have, what you're going to offer in terms of professional development, and then actually look at whether or not it makes a difference because if not, it's frustrating for the teacher to sit there and go through this professional development and then it doesn't have the impact that it was supposed to have.

And if you continue down that road, it's not going to serve anybody well. So I think the answer to whether or not districts can use what they have in place, it really is going to vary district by district. But once they know, "Okay. We can use this part of what we've been doing, but we're going to have to shed this other aspect that doesn't work."

One example, with English language learners, we have historically used a lot of simplified text, and that was just the nature of the field. That's what we got from a lot of textbook publishers. That is not going to get us to complex text. And so at that point, you say, "Okay. Shall we use simplified text for very low levels of English?" But at what point do you not use it and you start introducing complex text? Well, that's going to be an answer that has to be developed with a number of components. It's not just the textbook.

It's also are teachers trained and are they ready to do that? If they're trained with working, for working with simplified text, you can't just assume that they can quickly transfer over to working with complex text. So that's where it's an answer that has to do with resources, the actual instructional materials, but also the training.

Flowchart 1: Overview

We developed a flowchart of implementing the Common Core, and it's really a flow chart for planning for the implementation. This was done a couple years ago when we first started thinking about how can we support our districts? We have the fortunate benefit of having people on our staff that are veteran administrators from various school districts, so they're very, very aware of the multiple steps it takes to do any type of change.

And when you're trying to do a change that is not only affecting, you know, one area or another but every single thing you do in a school district from the materials you're using to how you do PD to how you monitor instruction, it really requires an inordinate amount of planning and understanding the organizational change theory.

So the chart that we have is pretty extensive, so it's going to be difficult to make reference to particular boxes, but I sort of broke it out into three. If you look at the entire chart, there's a left side that talks more about the communication aspect that I mentioned was very important, and even the data and the research part. The right side of the chart is much more focused on instruction.

And so if you look at the very top of the chart, if you break it into three levels, for example, the top level is about really working on developing a common understanding of what the standards are in your district. What are the implications? And that's for all educators, but also the community so everybody knows where you are moving and why.

The middle talks about, it's sort of understanding the implications. It's the self-reflection I mentioned. At that point, you need to look at your own standards, and these are the state standards. But what have you been doing, and looking at the materials. And you need to figure out are we way off the Common Core? Are we pretty close? Are we way off in math, but we're actually pretty close in English language arts? I think it's helpful for people to see the gaps.

It makes the job feel maybe less daunting because now you know, "Okay. We're not, everything isn't off." Or if a lot of the things are off, it also gives you a pathway to say, "Okay. We are going to prioritize what we are going to do," and that's the bottom level. At that point then, once you know what are the gaps, then you need to come around and decide, "Okay. What is the criteria we will use to start closing the gaps? What does it mean for instruction, which then what does it mean for PD? What does it mean in terms of instructional materials? You know, do we chuck everything? Do we get rid of all our materials that we just adopted last year, or do we supplement? And if we supplement, how do we do that?"

Vendors right now are appearing everywhere with aligned materials to the Common Core. Well, some might be, but some might not be. And so this is where there has to be that careful consideration and not just jump very quickly onto something if you're not sure it's going to really address the gaps that you and your district have.

Flowchart 2: Expectations

The final piece I want to mention, at the bottom right, there are two boxes that I think are critical. One is the monitoring and the walkthrough tools. If you're hoping to see changes in instruction, you need to be able to have consensus around what that looks like. So if I want a teacher to be instructing in a certain manner, I can't show up with a, I don't want to call it a checklist, but you know, a walkthrough tool as a principal that is vastly different than what I was expecting them to do.

It's not fair to the teacher, it's not fair to the kids, and it really doesn't inform instruction because then you are not really honing in on what still needs to happen for the necessary shifts in instruction that you want for Common Core. The last piece has to do with student work, and this is something that came up again and again for our educators related to English language learners.

With English language learners, you have student work that's going to look different, and teachers need to know what that is. So you might have a student that is great at explaining conceptual understanding of, for example, how electricity works and maybe they therefore meet the standard. Or let's say it's a mathematical concept. They understand it, they meet the standard.

However, if, as a teacher, you don't understand that it's okay to explain it with rudimentary English, you might all of a sudden think that the child didn't meet the standard because, well, he's not really using the right vocabulary. Correct, but he's at a level one or two of proficiency, so therefore he has met the standard. It's just that he needs additional work in language development.

The chart, the flowchart just really gave people pause to say, "Oh, wow. We have a lot of work to do." But it allows you also to see how you're going to deploy staff maybe in the district. And you have some really good folks that can help look through the walkthrough, too. You might have other folks that are really good at looking at what professional development might be warranted, and it gives you a little bit of a roadmap.

Flowchart 3: Integrating ELLs

The chart has some italicized text as well as color text, and it was meant to highlight some of the areas that we thought were critical where English language learner considerations need to be always present. It has to do, in some instances, because the language proficiency will lead you to where products looking different. It also means that professional development will have to also incorporate English language learner issues. It also means bringing folks to the table. When you're looking at this and looking at the gaps, you need to do it in a comprehensive fashion so that when you're tackling a gap and really closing that, are you doing it for all of your subgroups?

The importance of prioritizing

One of the key things is they need to prioritize. Like I mentioned, districts started in different places, and some might be because they were very deliberate and they prioritized, but others might be because that's what it was coming down from the state. If they had time to breathe, it'd be great for them to prioritize, because it's daunting. It's going to be long-term, and the better they prioritize, the better results they will see.

One of the key areas that they might want to prioritize is in areas where there's tangible progress, because you need to keep people motivated, and if you just start with doing very, very analytical type of work, like redoing your standards and a lot of paperwork and all that, it might not be enough of a motivator. So if what we're trying to do is change instruction, I think as a district they can say, "Okay, what can we do now to really start moving instruction to look different?"

And the traction might be different with different schools and different teachers; however, once there's traction with one or two teachers, that starts becoming contagious, and there can be a buzz that really helps you do the work because it is going to be arduous work. The prioritization of work is going to be important so it's tangible.

And also, evidence base, so that you're not just trying things because it sounds good. Really do the solid work, and even though we know this is new, so you're not going to find a lot of research, implementing Common Core because everybody's barely implementing it. But there are other research. In fact, in the Common Core document itself, they have a number of research articles that really allude to our support some of the own tenets of the standards. So it would be important to do evidence based, where you want to really have an impact on instruction, and in that way allows you to build support for that type of instruction.

Part III: ELL Considerations

ELA Challenges for ELLs

The challenges of implementing Common Core with ELLs, I think, are challenges that are not only for ELLs. And again, that's important because people can come together to find out how to best provide the instruction for students without ignoring the fact that for ELLs, there are some things that are very unique. The shift in, for example, English language arts. Before, it was very focused on literary, right? 80 percent of your English language arts curriculum was focused on using literary text. Well, now it's going to be 50/50. 50 percent literary, 50 percent informational text.

I honestly think it's a great idea. One, because that's what you need. I mean, you really need to be able to glean and understand what is meant in informational text. But I think for ELLs, there's an added benefit here where when you are learning a second language, literary text sometimes are more difficult to follow because the nuance is very much tied to certain cultures and certain background knowledge's that you might not know.

The shades of meaning of a word is much deeper in a literary text, and so if you don't even know the first word, you know, with for example, warm, and then as you, you know, there's other words in the text that are burning, for example, can you really understand that gradation? It's harder. In informational text, it's more concrete. You know, it's sort of like when you learn a language and you're learning very concrete things or even conversations that are more limited, I think it might be an easier bridge for English language learners.

And especially because you can still have complexity in informational text, but because it's more concrete, that all of a sudden becomes a scaffold for English language learners. So it's, the challenge there to me is more of an opportunity. I think the challenge will be for teachers that have been trained in teaching based on literary text, moving it to informational. But I'm hoping, I'm hoping that it's going to be a shift that can be done, that maybe it's not that difficult.

I think the literary texts, however, the challenge will be this whole notion of complex text. That's where it's going to be difficult, and that's why our work is really focusing on complex text because ELL students have, a lot of times, been given simplified text when it comes time to literary text, and we need to move them off of that, give them the right level of support, know when to start pulling back the support so they, themselves, can use the strategies to start deconstructing text and really understanding what's in there.

What is complex text?

One thing I want to add, too, is secondary. For the, you know, I talked about the shifts in elementary. It's 50/50. Well, in secondary, it's a three-way. It's informational text, it's literary text, and then it's also scientific. So again, I think that there's an opportunity, you know, where the more tangible text might give English language learners some of this sort of innate scaffolding there.

But complex text can also show itself in all of those genre and even all content areas. And one of the concerns we have is as we move to complex text and one of the things that a lot of folks are talking about are text-dependent questions is that we don't come up with sort of very procedural recipes of choosing complex text and how do you teach complex text? You know, you're doing one, two, three.

Complex text isn't just long sentences with commas or semicolons. It's much more than that. It's, you know, your noun phrases, it's the complexity, but it's also how you use language. It's also how language can communicate something much deeper than simply what you're reading. So it's knowing how to derive meaning from the imagery, you know, inferences. Really, the complexity is not just how you put words together, but it's about the meaning it's conveying.

And for students, nobody comes to school knowing how to do that. It's academic language. Nobody is a native academic language speaker. You learn that in school. And so one of the things that we're really stressing is how do you teach teachers to then turn around and teach students how to deconstruct the text and really derive meaning? And even one of the things we're looking at is how do teachers select complex text? Because we have textbooks, but that's not the same thing. If you start looking at authentic literature, you're going to have a range. And so what would be the appropriate level of complexity for a second grader? And what would be an appropriate level of complexity for a seventh grader?

Complext text and Huckleberry Finn

An example of complex text that goes well beyond the words is Mark Twain. I've been listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on my ride to work and with my nine-year-old in the car sometimes, so we have discussions about this. And I love it because it's a whole other language in many ways. But also, the richness of the conversation is one level of the text complexity and what is going on there. And for me, it's almost like learning about and relearning about a whole era and what the human relations were like at that time.

But then you have the narrator, right, or the voice of the narrator, which is a whole other complexity in that that person is bringing certain interpretations and inferences to the conversations that are taking place inside the text. So it's layered, and I think being able to see those layers is something that won't come naturally. I mean, it has to be taught. And I really think that this whole discussion about complex text, even in my own life, I think I've been applying it more and sort of looking at text in a different light. And it'll be great to see kids do that.

Writing and the Common Core

One of the key differences or new things, if you will, that is coming with the Common Core is writing. There's a huge difference in terms of the writing that we've been expecting from students to do in K-12, which hasn't really been linked to the text as much. And it's also been very much about opinions, you know? And now it's going to be, "No, you need to write about the text and write about what you're learning and being able to explain this." Making the connections, the inferences, doing the research, and then being able to articulate the knowledge. This is an area that is huge. Teachers are going to have to get a lot more training in that, a better understanding, feel comfortable with it.

But also when it comes to English language learners, when we did the survey, that was one of the things that everybody talked about as being a huge shift. If you look at the stages of language acquisition, writing is one of the most difficult stages. If you've learned another language yourself, you'll find out, yeah, you can get the talking and the listening and even the reading, you know. You can get it down and you can slow it or go faster and be able to do it. But writing, the productive aspect of language is going to be very difficult, and not only for ELLs, for all students. So that's going to be critical.

Math challenges for ELLs

In math, for example, the challenge I think there might be, well, there's two challenges, but again I think it might be more for teachers. One will be the shift that now math, it's not about mile wide, it's not about coverage. There are some key areas and key concepts that need to be taught and they are linked. You know, there's a progression, right, of what you learn. Teachers need to feel comfortable with that, and if they haven't been well-grounded in math, explaining for meaning, it's going to be a challenge.

And then if you add to that, if there's a language barrier and, for example, the content teacher doesn't really have maybe some of the strategies to sort of overcome the language barrier, how are you going to get to actually just, you know, explaining meaning? That, I think, is going to be a challenge, and that's where we're really thinking that we need to provide the right level of knowledge, development capacity building for teachers to do that.

The other piece in terms of math is going to be time. One of the things that we hear constantly is in working with English language learners, they need more time because not only are they learning the content, they're also learning the language many times in which the content is being delivered. If they're in a class that is primarily taught in English, you need to additional time. And for that, we're really working hard, and that's why it's so critical to have the chief academic officer there, the people that do curriculum and that develop the pacing guides for the whole district.

For them to build into those guides, those pacing guides, enough time for a teacher to not feel they have to move onto the next topic. Even though they still see the children sort of, you know, glassy-eyed and like, "Yeah, I don't think they really got this, right?" but there's no time built in for them to go back to it or to further explore that. So those are going to be some challenges, but what's nice is that people are talking about them, and so the chances of them being addressed, I'm hopeful, will be greater.

Raising expectations of ELLs

I must say, I'm excited about the Common Core. It's about expectations, for me. I know that when the Common Core Standards were being developed, the ELL field and even myself, you know, we raised the issue like, "How come we're not talking about what are the implications for English language learners?" And the consensus was, and I think it was good the way they developed the standards that it allowed that space to have that discourse, was to say, "You know, this is not where we're going to talk about the implications for ELLs. That will be addressed in implementation. What we want to make sure is that the standards are for all students."

And I know that all, we've used "all" many times in different legislation and what does it really mean? But I really think that in this case, the ELL community, the research community, the instructional community, those of us that advocate on behalf of ELLs, we need to keep on saying, "It means ELLs as well. We cannot assume it doesn't mean ELL," because it really sort of renews the whole discussion about equity and expectations that I think has been a little dormant for a while.

And that, to me, is where I want to hitch all the, you know, likens to that because it really is going to propel us to have the high expectations for English language learners. Now that's not where it ends. How do you deliver high expectations? And again, this is where I was saying if you look at the programs for English language learners, and part of what the Council does, we actually do provide technical assistance where we come into our districts and we take a really hard look at their English language learner programs.

And unfortunately, we know that, and it's not just in our districts, a lot of districts have programs that don't really deliver the same level of rigor to English language learners. And it's not by design, you know, malevolent design. It's sometimes benevolent. It's just benign approach to "Well, we really don't want to give them something that they're not ready to handle." Well, give it to them, but give them the supports. Teach them how to handle that level of complexity in language.

They're not going to do it on their own. They have to be taught explicitly. And I think there's a real danger that we run in not pushing English language learners because if you look at the achievement gap, you have to accelerate their learning. And I think Common Core accelerates the learning.

ELL teacher collaboration

The other piece that I think is really exciting I think for the field is it's allowing a conversation that maybe before was very difficult to have between your general ed. teachers and ELL teachers.

Well, ELL teachers, all their career have been thinking about language and how does language affect learning content, and how do you do it, and how do you build background knowledge to support language development? I mean, language is central to the pedagogue, right? Well, now with Common Core, language has become central not just to the ELL world. It has become now central to all students.

It's not just about vocabulary. It's about knowing how to speak the language of mathematics, the language of science once we get those standards, the complexity of language, and it's what I know Lily calls a registrar, you know, when you speak one way at home and you speak another way at, in the classroom. And I think even for professionals, you speak one way in your office sometimes a little bit different than you might at home.

And that acknowledgement, I think, is going to be key because now the math teacher, for example, in secondary, typically, you know, there's been this whole concept of "Well, I don't teach literacy. I don't teach reading. I'm a math teacher." Okay. Well, if you look at now the Common Core, this math teacher is going to have to infuse some language development. Guess what? There is an ESL teacher in the neighboring classroom. Maybe they have a coach. That person understands, if they have the deep understanding about language development and language acquisition, becomes a resource that before maybe wasn't really acknowledged because it, they were dealing with the ELLs, right?

Well, now guess what? Some of those strategies can help me with my monolingual English speakers because it's about language development. So I think it's exciting again because of the shift in instruction, the shift in how you conceptualize language to be part of learning, and it gives us really good opportunities for professionals to work together to really bring ELLs where they need to be. And some of those same strategies will help the non-ELLs.

Role of ELL educators in Common Core planning

The role of the ELL teacher, and I would even expand it to ELL educator, ELL leader, instructional leader, because if you look at a district's, there's a whole set of staff. They might be called tutors, TAs, teachers, coaches, and administrators, and it goes along a continuum. I think it's important that they become much more aware of opportunities to work together, so whether it be at the classroom level with other colleagues, whether it be with coaches, maybe working with the math coach to start infusing some of the strategies that work for ELLs, but also their understanding. So for example, ESL coach is going to also need to learn about the instructional shifts for math.

So I think the ELL instructional staff need to become a lot more savvy and knowledgeable about the content areas so we can actually provide the type of support the content areas need. At a more administrative and planning level, there has to be opportunities to come to the table, to work with the curriculum and instruction folks, to work with the ELA folks, with special education directors and really find that commonality where they can actually use the knowledge that each one brings to the table to then help the schools.

And finally, that's something that we tell our own leadership. We need for superintendents and senior staff to make sure that they reach out and have English Language Learner staff be part of those discussions -- not as an afterthought, because then you've actually maybe wasted time, energy and resources. If you do it at the outset, you raise those issues right off the bat. It's one of the things that actually has come up with a lot of the school improvement efforts underway. If you look at schools that are in school improvement, many of other have large percentages of students that are English learners, but sometimes the approaches and the interventions that take place in the school are not really all that receptive or all that well-defined in terms of addressing EL needs.

Arriving on the world stage

For me, the Common Core actually is something that I think is something to be proud of in terms of the U.S. I think we finally arrived on the world stage. You know, we were one of the few countries that really didn't have a common set of standards of where we wanted to be as a nation. And I know this, because I've actually gone to school in at least three different countries, and so as I went through different schooling experiences it was always interesting to me to see how different it was here. And the expectations that all students can achieve to this I think are critical. For me it's exciting, because I've been to places where the expectation was that all children should achieve the highest of levels, regardless of income, of language they speak, and the kids that studied at candlelight were the ones that were outshining everybody else. Why? Because the expectation was there. So I'm hopeful. I think it's a good development for us.