English learners (ELs) can be a tricky student population to study. In some ways, these students who are learning English as part of their education are a homogenous population. For example, more than 75% of them speak Spanish, and more than half of the nation's 4.8 million EL students are concentrated in grades K – 3. On the other hand, EL education can be very context-driven. For example, districts and states vary considerably both in the composition of their particular EL population, and in the specific policies, assessments, and instructional supports they use to guide ELs’ education.
In response to this latter point, some NCER grantees have figured out that one good way to study and support EL education is by working in close partnership with a specific education agency. In other words, don’t fight the place-based nature of EL education – rather, use it as an asset to make your research even more relevant.
There are several examples of IES-funded projects that have successfully worked using this approach. The most obvious are eight Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships we have funded that explicitly focused on ELs. These projects have tackled a range of EL-related issues including science education and trajectories through middle and high school, and have taken place in states like Utah and Oregon, and districts like Saint Paul, MN and Cleveland, OH. As intended for RPP projects, these partners have leveraged their mutual interests to complete rigorous analyses and create products with immediate value for practitioners (read more about one example here).
Partnerships and collaborations are not limited to the RPP competition, however. Some EL researchers have found ways to collaborate closely with agency partners even in the context of a more “typical” research project. One example of this is work done by Peggy Estrada with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Dr. Estrada’s Goal 1 grant focused on longitudinal patterns in EL performance before and after reclassification, or the point at which a student is deemed to no longer need the services and supports associated with EL status.
In LAUSD, reclassification decisions were made based on three criteria, and Dr. Estrada found that many students who are not reclassified miss only one of the three. She also observed that there are only eight different profiles that can describe a student’s status on the three criteria. She reasoned, further, that if teachers knew a student’s profile, they could tailor their supports to help the student meet the criterion on which he or she fell short.
To share these findings with LAUSD, Dr. Estrada created a number of actionable data visualization tools. These proved key in what happened next: LAUSD staff members Kathy Hayes and Hilda Maldonado immediately saw the value in Dr. Estrada’s findings and visualizations, and worked with their colleagues to create an English Learner Dashboard that incorporated both. The Dashboard is an interactive data tool that provides summary information about student reclassification profiles and allows staff to design reports tailored to their needs. LAUSD staff can download the names of students in each profile and generate reports with student names and detailed assessment results for each reclassification criteria.
Creation of this Dashboard is another great example of the value created through collaborations between researchers and practitioners – particularly for EL research. LAUSD staff cited the value of working with an external partner who provided objectivity and helped them to think more critically and deeply about an issue they found important. Dr. Estrada found that working with LAUSD enhanced both the validity and the utility of her research. In the end, both parties win – as do, more importantly, the EL students themselves.
Written by Molly Faulkner-Bond, Program Officer, NCER and Karen Douglas, former Program Officer, NCER