What Are We Doing to Middle School English Learners
Methodologies: Case Study, Descriptive, Survey Research
William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation
With the collaboration of school districts and middle schools across California, WestEd's Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) recently completed a Hewlett Foundation-funded study of programs for middle school English language learners. The study, What Are We Doing to Middle School English Learners: Findings and Recommendations for Change from a Study of California EL Programs, is available in a Narrative Summary and as the full Research Report.
In this two-phase study of practices in the instruction of English learners (ELs), QTEL first surveyed selected California districts and middle schools to gather data about the following questions:
- What is the broad picture of the education of English learners in California middle schools?
- How do districts translate state mandates for the education of English learners into policies and practices?
- How do schools reinterpret district guidelines for site implementation?
- How consonant or dissonant are these practices with current knowledge on instructed second language acquisition?
Recruitment of Districts and Schools
Thirteen California school districts agreed to participate in providing data about their English learner programs and populations for Phase 1 of the study, including 9 of the 13 districts that have the greatest number of English learners in the state. Sixty-four of the 116 middle schools in these 13 districts also agreed to participate.
The recruitment of Phase 2 case-study schools began with a pool of 12 schools that were either nominated by their district or had better achievement data than schools with similar socioeconomic characteristics. Visits to the 12 schools narrowed the pool to 7 schools that were selected for further visits and in-depth analyses of their programs for English learners. Case studies were fully developed for five schools.
Phase 1 data collection included a pre-interview survey and an interview with the person identified as "most knowledgeable about instructional practices for ELs" in each participating district and school.
Phase 2 data were collected during two-day visits to each of a pool of 12 schools and a follow-up three-day visit to each of 7 schools selected from the pool for further study. During these visits, QTEL staff members observed in classrooms and interviewed faculty, EL coordinators, and administrators.
In addition to school demographics and achievement data, the case studies addressed five categories:
- School culture and resources to support English learners
- English learner identification, classification, and reclassification
- Academic trajectories
- Teaching and learning
- A summary of particular strengths or concerns a school's practices might present
Cross-Case Analyses and Recommendations
A final step was to look across the cases to identify key policies and educational practices for English learners in California middle schools and to relate them to best knowledge on the education of adolescent second language learners.
Phase 1 Findings
Three major findings emerge from analysis of Phase 1 surveys and interviews, all identifying gaps at various levels of the California education system between what was prescribed for the success of English learners and what was implemented:
Gaps between state EL policies and districts' implementation of them. The study found a lack of coherence in how districts across California interpret and implement state policies for English learners.
Gaps between districts' EL policies and supports and schools' implementation of them. Schools were found to understand and implement their district policies to considerably varying degrees. In addition, schools and districts rarely agreed when rating how adequately district policies were implemented.
Gaps between the EL supports that schools provide and the EL needs that they identify. School-level instructional supports for English learners often failed to address challenges perceived by the schools themselves.
Phase 2 Findings
Findings from Phase 2 of the study were developed from observations and interviews at the school level. They include key findings related to how responsibility for English learners was perceived, variations in the quality of EL-related professional development, whether instruction focused on access to grade-level content or mastery aimed at reclassification, and targeted instructional practices.
Responsibility for the success of English learners. In most of the case-study schools, the success of English learners was not seen as a schoolwide imperative. Instead, most staff members viewed English learners as someone else's responsibility and did not share a commitment to their academic success.
Professional development related to English learners. The quality of schools' professional development helped to explain the commitment to or lack of responsibility for the success of English learners. At one end of the spectrum, middle schools in the study had sustained, coherent, EL-focused professional development that provided opportunities for growth to all teachers and administrators. At the other end of the spectrum, schools offered limited or disconnected professional development and targeted only the teachers who served the highest concentrations of ELs; in those schools, many — if not most — teachers received no support for working with the English learners who turned up in their classrooms.
Accelerated access to grade-level content versus mastery of below-grade-level content and remediation. Instructional philosophy was related to the success of English learners in the case-study schools. On a continuum, the case-study schools emphasized providing ELs with supported access to grade-level content or they focused on students' incremental mastery of below-grade content, what schools viewed as a focus on reclassification.
At the access-end of the continuum, students were challenged and supported to move quickly through the English Language Development (ELD) program and into grade-level courses; instructional practices were in place to provide extra support as needed.
At the mastery-end of the continuum, English learners were often hobbled by slow pacing through ELD content and were more likely to be enrolled in remedial interventions.
Contingent, targeted instructional support. The study identified contingent, targeted support as an instructional strategy with high utility for ELs. Such practices in the case-study schools included extra periods before and after school for "seminars" or tutoring dictated by the students' progress and specific areas of need in core content, as well as focused content area classes to bolster students' access to "gateway" courses. For example, the "AM Boost" class and after-school mathematics tutoring at one case-study school are examples of sessions that resulted from analyzing students' most urgent needs and providing ways to support and accelerate development in those areas.
Likewise, the algebra-readiness course at another school was a two-hour, gender-segregated block for the schools' lowest math students (both EL and non-EL students), taught by some of the school's best teachers. These teachers adapted the district's pacing calendar, emphasizing depth rather than breadth. Thirty-four percent of English learners in these classes achieved scores at proficient or above on the California Standards Test, in comparison with a state average for ELs of 14 percent.