Written by Aída Walqui, Director of the IES-funded National Research and Development Center for Improving the Education of English Learners in Secondary Schools. This article first appeared on the Center’s blog and is posted here with permission.
My colleagues and I are excited to launch the website for the new National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for English Learners in Secondary Schools. The occasion builds on more than a year of preparation, beginning in July 2019 when researchers and educators joined together to design a portfolio of work aimed at providing important answers to the complex question of how to offer adolescent English Learners quality opportunities to learn. Partners from the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, UCLA’s CRESST Center, and WestEd collaborated to envision an actionable and powerful portfolio of work.
To develop our plans, we drew on sociocultural and ecological theories focusing on the nested and interlinked systems in need of improvement or reinvention. The studies we plan to carry out represent many of the relationships of the organism education in society. At the meso-system level, classrooms are embedded in schools that have patterns of student placement and of providing support through programs and course types.
Focusing on this level, we will carry out research on student course offerings, placement decisions, and trajectories that serve English Learners well and those that increasingly segregate them (Study 1). We also plan to research the model of Co-Teaching at the national level and the features that make it optimal (Study 2). Lessons from these two studies should inform both policy and practice in course-taking for English Learners in secondary schools. The micro-system level is represented by the classroom, where learning takes place, and includes patterns that English Learners encounter, including learning opportunities, pedagogies, and curricula. We plan to iteratively develop and test educative curricula aimed at strengthening classroom learning opportunities for middle school English Learners in English Language Arts and Math (Studies 3 and 4). You can read detailed descriptions of these studies in the Our Studies section of the Center’s website.
We are very thankful to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) for having granted the opportunity to carry out the proposed research for the next five years. We are also grateful to our IES project officer, Dr. Helyn Kim, for the support she has offered from the onset of our grant in July 2020. Additionally, we are very pleased that IES also funded a sister Center to ours, housed at the University of Texas, Houston, under David Francis’s direction. Its portfolio of proposed work and ours are very complementary, so we welcome the opportunity to jointly be able to make a major impact in a field that needs actionable ideas and improvement.
One of the activities that we’ve already begun came up in response to COVID-19, which made distance learning a must — not only for K–12 teachers, but also for professors in institutions of higher education, professional development providers, and others. All of us were sent into seclusion when the pandemic struck, leaving us cautiously working from home. Interactions with colleagues had to be online and tended to focus on the urgency of specific tasks at hand, which often meant that rich, intellectual conversations were put aside or postponed.
In that context, I realized how wonderful it would be to have time, even just an hour, for a conversation with an admired scholar about the themes that we passionately care about: the education of English Learners and how to promote their deep and generative language and academic development. And if other colleagues could be privy to the conversation as well, that would be lovely. So, I invited a number of scholars for just that purpose — to have open conversations with me in a series of webinars about the topics that we care most about in our work.
My teammates in the Quality Teaching for English Learners Initiative and I were amazed by the results. All of the scholars who were invited accepted immediately and the resulting conversations were immensely popular. Attendance to each conversation fluctuated between 1,100 and 650 participants. That interest was immensely gratifying; it reiterated our notion that educators are committed to enhancing their understanding and getting better at supporting their students. The feedback of viewers and listeners clearly said so. We received many versions of the following comment: “What a pleasure it was to be stimulated intellectually and grow professionally in fun ways. The hour went by so fast.”
Invited scholars included colleagues in the field of learning English as an additional language; learning academic subject matter in English; the contexts and policies within which these practices operate; and resulting social and educational dynamics. Each conversation brought a different perspective on approaches and emphases — usually a complementary perspective, though at other times varying perspectives.
Guests came from Australia, Canada, England, and the United States. I hosted from Lima, Perú, where I have been since early March when the pandemic triggered border closings. Conversation guests were: Guadalupe Valdés from Stanford University; Ofelia García from the City University of New York; Kenji Hakuta from Stanford University; Joel Westheimer from the University of Ottawa; George Bunch from the University of California, Santa Cruz; Alice Stott from Voice 21 in London; Jenny Hammond from the University of Technology, Sydney; Beverly Derewianka from Wollongong University in Australia; Magaly Lavadenz from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Amanda Kibler from the Oregon State University; Meg Gebhard from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Diane Larsen-Freeman from the University of Michigan. View the recordings of all the conversations.
We will also build teacher education and teacher professional learning modules that educators and professional developers may be able to use in whole or partially. I will be blogging about the main content of each conversation and highlighting points of relevance to the field, cross-cutting themes, and unresolved questions. Keep tuned, as my colleagues and I continue to discuss the conversations and other issues of relevance to the education of secondary English Learners in rich detail in the future.