Teaching Opinion

Response: Helping Long-Term ELL’s & Evaluating ELL Teachers Fairly

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 15, 2012 12 min read
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This week, I’m doing something a little different and offering responses to two, instead of one, “questions of the week.” They both relate to English Language Learners. The first one relates to long-term ELL’s and the second is on how ELL teachers can be evaluated fairly.


Anne Smith asked:

What is being done to help Long-Term English Language Learners and what does effective intervention look like?

Over the last few years, I’ve had quite a few students who have been in American schools since kindergarten. I teach at the Middle School level and some of these students cannot read beyond a 2nd or 3rd grade level. By the time they reach me, they feel feel they are “held hostage” in ESL and are very upset to spend ANOTHER year waiting to be released. They want to be in classes with everyone else, do not want to be identified as “ESL” and they tell me that they are stupid. What is really heartbreaking is when there are high school students in this situation. They give up, fail their classes and are at risk for dropping out of school.

As a teacher of ESL, as well as mainstream, classes, I can understand Anne’s concern. I’ve asked Katie Hull Sypnieski, my long-time colleague, friend, and co-author of our upcoming book, The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English Language Learners of All Levels, to respond to this question.

Response From Katie Hull Sypnieski

Katie Hull Sypnieski has taught English learners of all levels for fifteen years in the Sacramento City Unified School District. She has served as a teaching consultant with the Area 3 Writing Project at UC Davis for the past ten years and is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. As mentioned earlier, Katie and I have co-authored an upcoming book on teaching ELLs. Education Week Teacher published an excerpt last week:

Well over half of ELLs in middle and high schools were born in the United States, are second or even third generation immigrants, and have been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten. While these students have been labeled “Generation 1.5", researchers more commonly identify these students as “Long-Term English Learners or LTELs.” Typically, these students have high levels of oral English proficiency, but have major deficits in academic language and in their reading and writing skills. Many Long-Term ELLs struggle in their content classes and are “stuck” at the Intermediate level of English proficiency.

Research has shown there are many factors which contribute to a student becoming a LTEL including a lack of targeted language development, placement in intervention models designed for native English speakers, limited access to the full curriculum, placement with teachers lacking the professional development needed to address the language needs of ELLs, and socio-economic factors including poverty, among others. In California, Laurie Olsen and the statewide coalition Californians Together have published research and recommendations for addressing the needs of LTELs in a report titled Reparable Harm.

Unfortunately, few school districts have formal policies and programs designed for LTELs, but many educators are working to address the needs of these students in their classrooms. It is essential that teachers get to know who their LTELs are and get a clear picture of their academic strengths and weaknesses. Using formative assessment to guide instruction, focusing on building students’ oral and written academic language, encouraging primary language development, and using engaging, relevant curriculum designed for adolescents and not for younger children can be successful approaches. In order for students to have true access to the content being taught, teachers must carefully consider the language demands required in order to access that content and scaffold their instruction to meet both language and content objectives. Building relationships with students and parents and creating a positive learning environment where students feel challenged and engaged are also crucial factors in addressing the needs of LTELs.

At my school, LTELs are placed in mainstream content classes with their English-only peers and teachers differentiate instruction to meet their specific language needs. However, it can be difficult to be at a school where the LTELs are “tracked” and put into separate classes often resulting in feelings of frustration, failure, and disengagement. While this is a huge challenge, powerful teaching and learning can occur when teachers use high-interest texts and units of study, and when they scaffold academic tasks and skills that students will need for college and in their careers. Using materials and strategies designed for younger learners or struggling English-only readers can be demoralizing and ineffective as the research has shown. Reparable Harm offers more specific recommendations for teachers working with LTELs. As the title of this report suggests, there are actions we can take as teachers right now to better serve these students. Hopefully, we will also see policy changes addressing the needs of LTELs so that districts and teachers can offer the support and instruction these students deserve.


Anonymous asked:

In NYC we are learning by some half baked professional development, and drive by 10 minute observations as part of using the Danielson Rubric. It seems impossible to me that any ESL teacher could achieve any of the two highest ratings, both which require seeing a great deal of high-level student oral response and conversation.

Is the Danielson rubric being used in your school? Is it, along with the Common Core Standards, the national future? I believe she developed this for teachers to learn about improving their teaching. In a supportive environment, the potential as tool to encourage improvement is good. But for evaluating teachers it seems a poor fit.

I am getting rather unhappy teaching a beginning class of ESL and noting the near impossibility of getting either of the top two ratings. What have other teachers thought of that rubric? If verbal response is not easy, the teacher has failed to engage the class, it seems to say.

Please keep my identity anonymous if you choose this question to post. My school administration is using it to demoralize teachers.

The issue of teacher evaluation is a major national issue. Many questions remain to be answered, including ones about the effect of ELL’s on different evaluation processes that are being implemented throughout the country. In addition to the Danielson rubric, value-added measurement (VAM) is being used in many districts to assess teacher effectiveness.

Before I talk specifically about the Danielson rubric, I’d like to highlight a report that was just published last week by Linda Darling Hammond at Stanford examining the shortcomings of VAM and exploring more effective teacher evaluation strategies. Here is what she found about VAM’s effect on teachers of English Language Learners:

...a California study... found that teachers’ value-added ratings were significantly related to their students’ race/ethnicity, income, language background, and parent education, despite the fact that these variables were “controlled” in the statistical models. In one example, the rating for an experienced English teacher jumped from the very lowest decile in one year to the very highest decile the next year. Between these two years, the proportion of English learners in her classroom dropped from nearly 60% to under 5%, and the proportions of Hispanic and low-income students also decreased while parent education levels increased.

Similarly, in a study in Houston, Texas, where teachers are evaluated for dismissal and merit pay using a value-added system called EVAAS, teachers generally receive lower EVAAS ratings when they are teaching larger numbers of mainstreamed English learners. Some highly respected teachers with strong supervisory ratings have been dismissed after taking on such classes in the fourth grade, where students are first transitioned into mainstream classes. One of those dismissed had previously had exemplary ratings every year and was voted Teacher of the Year. As two teachers commented to researchers conducting the study:

“I went to a transition classroom, and now there’s a red flag next to my name. I guess now I’m an ineffective teacher? I keep getting letters from the district, saying “You’ve been recognized as an outstanding teacher”... this, this, and that.

But now because I teach English-language learners who “transition in,” my scores drop, and I get a flag next to my name.I’m scared to teach in the fourth grade. I’m scared I might lose my job if I teach in an [ELL] transition grade level, because I’m scared my scores are going to drop, and I’m going to get fired because there’s probably going to be no growth.”

ELL and ESL teachers like Anonymous clearly have reason to be concerned about how evaluation systems will be applied to them.

The Danielson Group did not respond to my request for a response to Anonymous’ question. However, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed to ask her staff prepare a response since several AFT Local affiliates are in districts where the Danielson rubric is being used. Giselle Lundy-Ponce contributed this response on behalf of The AFT-NYSUT-RIFTHP Educator Evaluation for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (E3TL) Consortium. The Consortium was formed to implement a comprehensive teacher development and evaluation pilot project across ten districts in New York and Rhode Island.

In addition to Giselle’s response, I will also be sharing a reader’s comment who echoes Anonymous’ fears.

Response from Giselle Lundy-Ponce

Dear Educator in New York,

Thank you for your correspondence. You are certainly not alone in pointing out that the evaluation of teachers of special student populations, such as ELLs, students with disabilities, students with interrupted formal education and others, using the Danielson rubric can be challenging. Implementing this rubric with teachers of these students will require much more preparation, support, resources and information for all stakeholders involved.

In the particular example that you cite, newly-arrived ELLs or ELLs who are at very basic levels of English proficiency may not be able to participate fully and evaluators should be made aware of these particular situations in advance. However, this does not mean that efforts should not be made to try and engage these students in grade-appropriate content through a variety of alternative methods.

A collaborative initiative* representing the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP), is in the midst of a five-year pilot project (funded by the Department of Education’s i3--Investing in Innovation--grants and the AFT’s Innovation Fund) that is focusing on implementation of state-of-the-art teacher development and evaluation systems across ten districts in New York and Rhode Island (New York City is not one of the ten districts) using the Danielson teaching standards as the basis for each state’s rubric. The pilot includes the evaluation of teachers of special populations.

Since this is in the piloting phase and a work in progress, we do not yet have resources available for dissemination or final guidance. However, knowing full well the complexities of trying to do this work and how time- and resource-intensive it is, we can recommend the following components for a successful teacher evaluation and development system:

• Multiple measures used to assess teaching performance (student work, teacher portfolios, etc.);
• An analysis of conditions affecting successful teaching and learning (school climate, safety, professional support, instructional leadership, etc.);
• A system for teacher support and assistance (mentoring, coaching, professional development, study groups, etc.);
• Adequate time for evaluations to include time for self-reflection, goal-setting, pre- and post-observation conferences;
• Highly prepared evaluators/observers who are aware of each teacher’s special circumstances

As to how special populations fit into the Danielson rubric, we would recommend that particular attention be paid to the following steps:

• Thorough examination and analysis of rubric language for effectiveness in instructing ELLs and students with disabilities;
• Gathering feedback and research-based information on what best practice looks like; and
• Determining if modifications are needed

In short, any multi-faceted teacher evaluation and development system can not be implemented without a well thought-out process and requisite amount of work and preparation.

At the end of this pilot project, one of our expected outcomes is to include guidance and recommendations for school districts and state departments of education on what teachers and evaluators should be aware of when it comes to special populations. As districts and states embark on the process of implementing teacher evaluation systems, one of our recommendations will include the need for more time and resources for teachers to collaborate closely with each other, to share best practices and effective resources, and for general education and specialized teachers to learn from each other.

The work we are doing is aimed at influencing districts and states to ensure that these recommendations are taken into account when designing and revising systems.

Giselle also suggested several resources that provide teachers with practical suggestions on helping ELLs acquire high-level content and levels of participation. I’ve listed them here.

Reader Response

Here’s a comment from another high school ESL teacher in New York City:

I teach in NYC and had an observation of an ESL high school class with new and long term ELLs, using the “Low interference” model from the Danielson Rubric. City Principals and Assistant Principals get the rubric preloaded into their ipads. In this observation the format is T: S: for example:

T: Yesterday we read about “Stop and Frisk” Does anyone remember what that means?
S: inaudible
T: Tan, please repeat that.
S: mumbles

Needless to say, I got a U on a well planned lesson which was weakened further by the AP asking a long term ELL “Why won’t you speak? I can have you moved to ESL 1 if you won’t speak.” Amazingly most students’ would not speak up in class when a classmate was abused.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Katie and Giselle for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” tomorrow.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.