This post, written by Pamela Fong of The Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning at WestEd, first appeared on the REL West blog and is reposted here with permission.

Ask Questions, Gather Data, Apply Findings…Repeat

By 2030, 72 percent of Arizona’s third grade students will be reading with proficiency, according to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE)’s early literacy goal. Already, the state has shown progress — third grade reading proficiency has grown from 41 percent to 46 percent between 2016 and 2019.[1] To further its progress, ADE has been building the capacity of its leaders and staff to collect and analyze data to inform how best to provide the right support to advance literacy for Arizona’s youngest students, especially its English learner (EL) students.

The Arizona Literacy Partnership

Since 2017, ADE has partnered with Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West, forming the Arizona Literacy Partnership (AZL) to help them move towards the state’s early literacy goal. Through REL West coaching and support in the partnership, ADE is learning to implement new data collection methods and to use reliable data to inform policy and practice around improving instructional services for English learners (EL) in Arizona.

Early in the partnership, ADE wanted to understand the progress of its EL students toward English proficiency in the early grades, so REL West engaged in a study to gather and examine data of one cohort of students from their entry at kindergarten through the end of grade 3. REL West presented the study findings and suggested recommendations, which with REL West coaching, ADE used to inform its policy and practices to best identify and serve EL students in the early grades. The study also helped ADE identify additional inquiry questions and priorities they wanted to pursue. AZL partnership lead, Dr. Lenay Dunn, noted, “ADE is motivated to support educators and to equip them with the tools they need to confidently deliver rigorous, engaging, inclusive instruction so EL students can thrive. Our REL West support has helped ADE use data and evidence to inform this support. Through this partnership, we have helped build ADE’s capacity to more regularly ask questions, gather data, and apply findings.”

A Statewide Pivot to Expand English Language Learning Models

In February 2019, Arizona legislated a significant policy change, increasing flexibility for Arizona LEAs to choose from multiple research-based models for integrating EL students into general education classrooms. This expansion of new models for providing EL services throughout the state accelerated ADE’s need to understand which services LEAs were planning, so that it could better provide the supports that the LEAs and teachers needed for successful implementation and integration.

Historically, EL students in Arizona schools received daily EL instruction in four-hour blocks in classrooms exclusively with other EL students. Called the “four-hour model,” it was the primary method LEAs could use to structure their EL services. Beginning in fall 2020, LEAs could choose from four research-based Structured English Immersion (SEI) models to best match their student needs and staffing capacity: Pull-Out, Two-Hour, Newcomer, and 50-50 Dual Language Immersion. This flexibility of options enables LEAs to provide EL instruction and support that are relevant for their local context and maximize EL students’ opportunities to engage in rigorous, grade-level learning alongside their non-EL peers. For EL students, it means they can experience more instructional time in English—immersed in speaking, listening, and discipline-related reading and writing—to support their progression in English language proficiency and academic content mastery.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for Arizona’s teachers and students,” says Dr. Dunn. “It is also an exciting opportunity for ADE to expand professional learning supports for educators so they can effectively make this shift.”

As many EL students were previously taught in separate classrooms by EL specialists, many classroom teachers are teaching EL students for the first time. And as more EL students are integrated into general education classrooms, teachers need additional pedagogical support in how to successfully teach a class that includes students who are developing English language proficiency alongside their English-speaking peers. Administrators (e.g., EL coordinators, principals, curriculum directors) also need additional support in understanding how to design, plan, and implement EL programs. In order to provide relevant professional learning to teachers and program support to LEAsADE needed more statewide information, reliable data to inform statewide planning, and a system for collecting and analyzing data about LEAs’ changes to their EL services.

Collecting and Analyzing Reliable Data

Through the partnership, REL West helped ADE develop a data plan that would yield information to answer questions such as: How many LEAs statewide plan to use each of the SEI models? Are LEAs planning to use more than one SEI model? What instructional support is needed for integrating EL students into mainstream classrooms? Who is involved in making these decisions and implementing the plans?

In partnership, ADE and REL West co-developed survey questions to understand LEAs’ SEI plans throughout the state and to inform ADE about the supports it needs to provide. This co-development process advanced the skills of ADE staff in survey design, and in particular, in knowing how to ask the right questions to yield meaningful and relevant information—a skill they could use in future work, as well. ADE, with REL West coaching, administered the survey to the state’s EL coordinators in fall 2019 and again in summer 2020. Following both rounds of data collection, REL West further coached ADE staff on methods for analyzing the survey data, including how to accurately interpret data in reports generated from the online survey platform used.

The first round of data collection and analysis proved to be helpful in providing a statewide picture. The second round of survey findings was also informative, especially with LEAs choosing from four new SEI models to implement for the first time. In preparing the second survey for spring 2020 administration, the ADE applied a few lessons learned from the first survey, including modifying survey questions and refining the distribution list of email contacts to better target the right people. Although COVID-19 delayed the survey administration timeline, ADE used the opportunity to add new questions related to COVID-19 and whether it impacted LEAs’ original SEI implementation plans.

What the Surveys Revealed

Based on survey results from rounds one and two, ADE learned several important findings to inform EL policy and practices for the state:

  • LEAs are offering limited differentiation of EL services based on English proficiency levels.
  • Some LEAs plan to implement multiple SEI models to serve diverse student and school needs.
  • Across LEAs and schools, there is variation in the role(s) of the person or persons overseeing SEI implementation.
  • Given the context of COVID-19, LEAs anticipated additional challenges in implementing the new SEI models.

Arizona Department of Education Gains New Assets

Dr. Melissa Castillo, ADE Associate Superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, noted the helpfulness of these survey data: “Feedback from those who share responsibility in making sure that EL students receive the services they are entitled to makes sure we plan and provide meaningful and relevant professional learning opportunities and technical support specific to their contexts.”

Through these partnership efforts to collect and analyze reliable data, ADE has gained new assets for data-informed decision-making. These new assets include:

  • Increased capacity at the state level to collect and use data to understand what is happening in the field and to inform decisions about policy and practice.
  • Reliable data to provide current updates to the Arizona State Education Board.
  • Access to more data about how LEAs plan to support EL instructional needs, which ADE will use to inform and improve professional learning, technical assistance to LEAs, and EL programming going forward.

REL West’s continued partnership supports ADE in broadening and strengthening its capacity to collect and use data to inform decision-making. In related but separate work, the Region 15 Comprehensive Center (R15 CC) was working with ADE to support their development and implementation of the SEI models. Once the models were in place, and data from early implementation was collected, ADE asked REL West and the R15 CC for additional support. In spring 2021, ADE convened focus groups of EL coordinators across the state to learn about their experiences and to dig deeper into the summer 2020 survey results together. REL West and the R15 CC collaborated to help ADE prepare for and use the results from the focus groups. ADE is planning to continue to collect survey data, engage EL coordinators in focus group discussions, and build its systems for collecting and using data to inform their work, with REL West and the Region 15 Comprehensive Center as partners in this work.

Related Resources

To learn more about this effort in Arizona, and for more information about English learner students and research-based supports for them, take a look at these REL resources:

[1] Arizona Department of Education, 2016, 2019.