School & District Management Opinion

An ‘On California’ Design Competition: Build a Better ELL System

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 16, 2014 2 min read
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Can you design a better learning system? A quarter of California’s students are English Language Learners. When they gain fluency they do well, but too many students struggle for too long. The state recognizes that these kids need extra help, and the new Local Control Funding Formula provides an extra appropriation. The tricky design question is how best to deliver assistance and assure that these students are learning.

The design problem is tricky because English language development policy tries to chase contradictory ends at the same time. English learners are a special category of students: they are counted, their progress is tracked, and when they are successful they are “redesignated” as fluent. School districts and watchful civil rights organizations track their progress.

But at the same time these students are, for the most part, integrated into regular classrooms and courses of study. They are expected to take the same tests and, sooner rather than later, perform at the same level as native speakers.

As the recent D.J. lawsuit illustrates, the State of California has a direct responsibility to see that these students get quality instruction. Yet, at the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown’s guiding principle of subsidiarity and the shear practicality educating 1.4-million English learners means that most of the decisions about what specific treatment these kids get will be made by classroom teachers as they diagnose a student’s specific problem’s.

All teachers face this problem. The artistry of teaching is in situational and contextual diagnosis and response, not enacting a prepackaged curriculum. This aspect of teaching is heightened for teachers of English learners. They are told to build scaffolding that will give their students a cognitive platform as they learn math, science, and dive into literature that contains words and idioms they do not yet understand. But often teachers and students don’t have ready access to the on-demand resources they need.

Given these contradictions, how should the State use its limited resources to best create a learning infrastructure for these students? You are invited to try your hand at designing a system that would help them.

Begin with these design principles:

  1. Think of the student as the end user, the worker in the system, and to the extent possible create learning tools that they can access directly.
  2. Build an open source system that is expandable, fixable, tweakable by students and teachers. To the extent possible, build on or incorporate existing applications.
  3. Build systems plural, modular not monolithic, scalable not singular.

Using these principles, appropriating whatever technologies and you wish, create a learning infrastructure that includes:

  1. Curated lessons or learning experiences that teachers and students can access, along with a process for user comment and rating.
  2. Digital badges and scorecard for students and parents to track their progress through the English language development levels.
  3. The capacity for teachers to network and to get assistance on demand and personalized to their needs.

Finally, estimate the cost of this system and the schedule for its delivery.

You are welcome to comment on the design specifications in the comment section below. If you would like to respond with your system design ideas, please contact me by email. Big prize for the winning design!

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