Gates Joins Stanford ELL Project as Details Emerge

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 15, 2011 4 min read
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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $1 million to a Stanford University-led effort to develop English-language-proficiency resources for the states’ common-core academic standards.

The announcement comes as details begin to emerge about the project, which launched last month with a separate $1 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation of New York. Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford and a long-time expert on ELLs, and Maria Santos, the former director of programs for ELLs for the New York City school system, co-chair the project, which aims to create a framework of the English-language demands within the Common Core standards for math and English-language arts, as well as for the National Research Council’s next-generation science standards.

The team will work with national ELL experts and educators to parse out the academic language required in different content areas and develop an open-source platform of resources to help teachers of English-language learners implement the new standards.

“We owe all students, but especially English language learners, an instructional system that is tightly attuned to the language necessary to succeed in learning,” Hakuta said in a statement on the project. “Our current education tends to obscure the role of language, and our project will make the language that kids need to succeed academically much more visible so that it helps guide what goes on in the classroom.”

The Education Department is expected to award grants later this month to state consortia to develop enhanced English-language tests aligned with the math and language arts content standards. Both of the consortia applying for the federal grants—led by Wisconsin and California—previously have developed English-language proficiency standards, but those were not necessarily common among states, nor aligned to the new common-core standards.

Moreover, states have continuously struggled to go beyond basic English-language proficiency to discern the academic language needed for students to understand specific content. Hakuta told me that the Stanford project will not create ELP standards, but rather will work with both the Common Core consortia and eventually the ELL assessment grantees to establish a framework and supporting materials to link the ELP and content standards.

“It may be that these are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “We’re not trying to develop standards per se, but we are trying to call attention to the fact that language undergirds much of instruction and learning for all students and especially for English learners. We need to be very aware of the language basis for academic content.”

Stanford will roll the project out in three phases. This fall the team will bring together ELL teachers, researchers and other experts to discuss the role of academic language in different parts of instruction and assessment in the math, language and science standards. By spring 2012, Hakuta told me that the project will develop and begin testing prototypes of curriculum mapping frameworks, lesson plans, teacher professional development and other resources based on the standards, and then will work with the Council of Great City Schools to test them out in classrooms. Hakuta said he hopes to release a draft proposal of the ELL content frameworks and supporting materials by the end of 2012.

Stanford’s project team will include a who’s who of ELL experts, including:

  • Helen Quinn, a professor emerita at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford and the chair of the National Academy of Sciences report on the K-12 science standards;
  • Susan Pimentel, the lead writer for the common-core standards for English/language arts and literacy;
  • Phil Daro, the lead writer for the common-core mathematics standards;
  • Okhee Lee, an expert on science education, language and culture, and teacher education at New York University;
  • Judit Moschkovich, an expert on ELLs and mathematics at the University of California at Santa Cruz;
  • George C. Bunch, an expert on ELLs and academic language, also at U.C. Santa Cruz;
  • Aída Walqui, the director of professional development at the research group WestEd;
  • Lydia Stack, a former San Francisco school district ELL expert;
  • Guadalupe Valdés, an education professor at Stanford; and
  • Robert Linquanti, an ELL researcher at WestEd.

Deborah Veney Robinson, a senior communications officer for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, said it is supporting the Stanford project in order to ease educational barriers to accessing the new content standards. Some parent communities, particularly parents of color and language minorities, have voiced concern that their children would not be given the resources to achieve under the common core, she said.

“The thing is just to crack that nut a little bit and figure out what each child needs to be successful,” Robinson said, adding, “It’s not just about keeping the standards high, but about giving teachers and students the resources to be able to meet those standards.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.