Administrators in Action: Four Steps for Strengthening Your EL Program

The end of the school year is an ideal time for administrators and leaders of English Learner (EL) programs to self-assess and revise initial instructional goals with a focus on improving outcomes for ELs. This period offers an opportunity to revisit initial plans and revise them for next year according to and considering student needs, assessment data, program evaluations and teacher feedback, as well as to plan professional development for the upcoming year.

For those administrators working alongside teacher leaders to ensure full and thorough implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other college- and career-ready standards, the changes brought about by the new standards offer an additional opportunity to make EL programming more effective and bring ESOL specialists into a more intentional planning and leadership role. This blog post features four recommended steps for administrators to strengthen their English language programs in the greater context of more rigorous academic standards.

Four First Steps for Administrators to Strengthen Their English Language Programs

These steps can help administrators fill in gaps and strengthen areas of their English language programs. As administrators plan for next year's instruction and professional development, here are some questions they can use for reflection:

  1. Know your EL and teacher population – both collectively and individually: What do administrators need to know about their EL population, staff members who provide instruction for ELs, and model(s) of EL instruction provided in their buildings?
  2. Know the curriculum: What are some ways teachers can collect evidence of student progress, both content knowledge and English language development, and articulate that progress to administrators, parents and other stakeholders?
  3. Include all data: What actions can administrators take to assure success of English learners? If performance data is collected and analyzed, is English language proficiency data being included? Are both informal and formal language assessments being evaluated and discussed? In not, what's needed to include them?
  4. Clearly define best practice for ELs: What considerations should administrators be more aware of when evaluating teachers of ELs? What support do administrators need to recognize and look for best practices for ELs at various levels of English development?

The following information offers more detail on these steps and where administrators can begin their own reflections.

1. Know your EL and teacher population – both collectively and individually

Your students: "I have 60 students identified as English learners," one principal told me recently. Knowing the number of ELs in the building is a start, but being able to delve deeper into the initial question of "tell me about your EL population" is crucial. I recommend administrators not only know the number of students identified as English learners but also know:

  • the process of how those students are identified and screened for language proficiency
  • how students are offered support and how parents and families are part of that process.
  • the number of ELs across all grade levels in their buildings
  • the number of monitored students (those who have reached proficiency)
  • home languages spoken by ELs
  • if the ELs are immigrants, refugees, or long-term ELs
  • the number of students dually identified as an EL and with a disability.

Getting to know students and their families individually is equally as important. Knowing if students have obligations outside of school such as work or family responsibilities can also shed light on a student's academic performance. The numbers of ELs are continuously changing as students move in or out of communities; therefore, it is important to regularly ask for and be notified of updates. The ESL teacher is a good resource for collecting and updating demographic and student achievement data.

Your staff: In addition, knowing the staff members in your building who are already endorsed or licensed to teach English as a Second Language is crucial to assure those students have access to knowledgeable teachers. In some cases the teachers with coursework in teaching ELs or second language acquisition do not have ELs assigned to them. This can be very detrimental to students and can also be frustrating for teachers; unfortunately it happens across all grade levels and content areas inadvertently. Knowledge of your teaching staff's interest in becoming endorsed or licensed to teach ELs is important for short and long term planning.

Reaching out to institutes of higher education and community organizations to express interest in partnering to develop teachers' expertise in ESL is also encouraged. There may be grant funds available to schools with linguistically diverse and/or high poverty populations that would financially support in-service teacher education. For example, the Braitmayer Foundation recently awarded TESOL International Association funding to develop pilot professional development to assist schools in implementing the CCSS for ELs. By having a better understanding of your EL population, more strategic outreach and beneficial partnerships can be established and maintained.

2. Know the curriculum

Being well-versed in curriculum, curriculum maps, curriculum guides, and assessments (including any rubrics) for all grade levels is imperative, as is having knowledge of what is expected to be taught and assessed by teachers and mastered by all students, including ELs. By having a deep familiarity with what students are expected to learn, administrators have the opportunity to support all teachers and support personnel who work closely with linguistically diverse learners by creating a school community in which ELs' language, culture and differentiated instruction are valued.

For example, in a recent professional development session I facilitated, teachers compared and contrasted their district writing rubrics with the WIDA writing rubric. The goal was to create more support for the district's writing initiative by increasing awareness of effectively assessing the writing of ELs. Teachers being able to see where overlap existed on these two sets of writing rubrics and also distinct differences was an enlightening experience. In this case, the area of focus was related to an area emphasized in the Common Core, which made it even more relevant to teachers to include time to evaluate how writing is taught and assessed and the implications of writing instruction for ELs.

3. Include all data

I've been in schools that have had elaborate data walls including color-coded bar and line graphs, pictographs etc. – but any data related to the EL population was missing (see 1. Know your students). Although it could be assumed that the ELs are included with the general population, having a display of EL proficiency data and student progress towards meeting proficiency and meeting other state mandated assessments would be extremely beneficial. This inclusion of data unique to ELs also aids in the sense of a shared responsibility to teach ELs. This data can then be used to identify areas of student strength as well as areas that need attention, come up with a list of professional development topics, and look for patterns that might not be immediately apparently. For example, I recently learned of a school in Baltimore with a high number of Mexican families that noticed that a disproportionate number of EL students were being placed in special education classes after taking an assessment administered in Spanish. The numbers were suspiciously high, so after some further digging, the school learned that many students and families spoke a third language – Mixtec – more frequently than Spanish and that the Spanish-language assessment wasn't an appropriate tool to be using.  Their data not only helped them catch that error but also enabled them to learn more about Mixtec and how it shaped students' language patterns.

Another facet of sharing EL data is to be aware of and be able to communicate your district's Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives (AMAO) data. Don't assume that you school community understands these calculations and how their work with ELs contributes to meeting these objectives. As part of professional learning communities focused on ELs, including time to learn about AMAOs is recommended.

4. Clearly Define Best Practice for ELs

This may not be as easy as it sounds, but it is important for the school to speak a shared language when it comes to how ELs are being taught and how all staff members fit into that picture. Be prepared to articulate what you understand best practices to be, and include your staff in these discussions. You may wish to ask your EL teachers for guidance, training, and professional development on this topic. Being able to agree upon what these practices are and how they'll be clearly demonstrated and communicated across school communities is important.

For example, informal observations have typically been used to capture instructional practice across all learning environments. Teams of educators that usually include administrators and teachers participate in what have been referred to as focus walks, learning walks, data walks, walk-throughs etc. Yet if the individuals doing the observations are not well-versed in what best practices for special populations such as ELs or students with disabilities look like, they may not understand what they are seeing and whether or not it's effective. Consider revising these visits to include best practices for ELs and including everyone who will be handling observations in conversations about what those best practices look like. When reviewing the criteria used to informally assess the instruction of ELs, it is important to be specific enough to capture evidence of what is happening.

Another example is the the term "engagement" as it applies to ELs. One question administrators and teachers can ask is, "How do we identify engagement of ELs"? Teachers and administrators should examine the multiple facets of this question to reflect on its three sample components as they pertain to ELs.

  • Do we notice when ELs are actively engaged and participating in their classroom communities?
  • If ELs are talking to other students, how do we rate or note the inclusion of academic language in their discussions?
  • Are ELs answering questions using complex language orally and in writing? If not, how can their engagement be encouraged and supported?

Why It Matters

These four steps are not exhaustive, but they provide a starting point to self-assess your EL program from an administrative/program manager perspective.  Once you have a better understanding of your population, staff, curriculum, and approaches to assessment and instruction, your will be able to make sure that your instructional planning, implementation and sustainability meet the needs of teachers and students alike, particularly in aligning it to new systems such as the CCSS.

Remember the ESL team at the school and/or district level is not only valuable in providing the above data and demographics but in helping you target your planning – they will have a strong sense of what students need as well as ideas on how to collaborate more effectively with colleagues that provide instructional support to ELs.  ESL professionals are often an under-utilized resource who would welcome the opportunity to be afforded more leadership roles – think of them as your secret weapon!

Closing Thoughts

Leaders of programs serving English language learners must take a reflective approach to improving outcomes for ELs in order to see their students succeed. Taking time to assess what works, what doesn't and how to revise existing plans is an essential component of being an effective leader. Now is the time to refocus teams and highlight student and teacher successes so that your EL program will continue to improve by supporting the academic achievement of ELs.

Related Resources

For related guidance, see the U.S. Department of Education English Learner Toolkit's Chapter 3: Tools and Resources for Supporting an English Learner Program.

For More Information

For more on this topic take a look at WIDA's Essential Actions Handbook, Action 13 Putting Action Into Practice, as well as this Colorín Colorado article by Bright Ideas author Kristina Robertson offering an overview of WIDA's Essential Actions handbook and a step-by-step process for using this tool as part of a professional learning community focused on meeting ELLs' academic language needs.

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