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Aurora Institute

Taking a Minute to Reflect on Competency Education and ELL students

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Why would a school serving high numbers of ELL students want to turn to competency education? As I visit schools serving students who are learning the English language while also learning academic skills, content, and the powerful higher order skills, I always seek further understanding about how competency education is being implemented to better serve English Language Learners.

Given the release of iNACOL’s new paper Next Generation Learning Models for English Language Learners by Natalie Troung, I thought I would take a minute to reflect back on what I’ve heard from educators over the past six years of visiting schools on behalf of CompetencyWorks. I realized as I revisited my conversations with educators that much of what has been shared certainly applies to any student.

From Flushing International High School in NYC

Power of intentionality and transparency impacts students and teachers. Principal Lara Evangelista explained the value of competency education, “We started along the path toward mastery-based learning when we began to ask ourselves why we assess. Why do we grade? We realized that every teacher did it differently. The transparency and intentionality of mastery-based learning makes a huge difference for our teachers and our students. Our teachers are much more intentional about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. It has also opened up the door to rich conversations about what is important for students to learn, pedagogy, and the instructional strategies we are using. For students, the transparency is empowering and motivating. They are more engaged in taking responsibility for their own education than ever before.”

Targeting conversations on learning and habits of success. The topic of how to help those students who are really struggling ran through the conversations. Math teacher Rosmery Milczewski explained that she was unsure at first, as she wasn’t familiar with mastery-based learning. “The thing that convinced me is that in the traditional grading systems, when a student would come and ask how they could do better in a class, all I could really say was study more,” she explained. “The grades didn’t guide me as a teacher. There was no way to help students improve. With mastery-based grading, we talk about specific learning outcomes. I know exactly how to help students and they know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are. With mastery-based learningI am much more focused and goal-oriented when I’m conferring with students. In my advisory, mastery-based grading has changed how I talk to them about how they are doing in other classes. We always look at their work habits. That is going to tell you everything.”

Improving quality of learning experiences and assessing students. Assistant Principal Kevin Hesseltine noted, “Our projects are teacher-designed. The intentionality has made a huge difference on the quality of our project-based learning.” Wolf explained, “The question of how you judge what mastery is has made a huge difference for me. I don’t use quizzes any more. I would rather spend a day working on project with students than designing and grading a quiz.”

Finding ways to build successful learning experiences. For students who are really struggling, Jordan Wolf suggested that the key is seeking ways to build success, “Sometimes it is important to find small chunks that give a roadmap to success for students. In JumpRope (Flushing’s grading software), I can expand down to a much more granular level until I can find a place to focus in which the student can build success on one or two things. After they realize they can be successful, they’ll be willing to try a little more.” To make sure students get extra attention when they are having difficulties, a policy has been developed where a 1.7 triggers an intervention. There is also a policy for course extensions when students have not been able to reach all the learning outcomes. The expectation is that students will finish everything by the end of the following semester.

Helping teachers improve their own learning. Milczewski explained, “When I look at JumpRope and I see that a majority of students are having difficulty with a specific outcome, it tells me two things. One, I need to re-teach it, and two, I need to reflect on my own teaching to find a better way to reteach it.”

From Dual Immersion Academy (DIA) in District 51 Colorado

Empowering students to monitor their learning in language and academic domains. Principal Monica Heptner discussed what it means to have more student ownership in learning when they are learning both another language and other academic domains. “Our teachers think about two types of scaffolding,” she said. “One is for language and one is for content, with rubrics in both languages. Students need to have a strong set of Habits of Mind to make sense of the scaffolding, especially meta-cognition. They need to be able to think, “Do I need help with the language or with the content in order to take advantage of the different scaffolds?’” Thus, students learning a language while also learning within the academic domains are going to have an even more refined set of metacognitive skills. If performance indicators included this capacity, it’s easy to say that our ELL and dual language students would outperform others.

From Lindsay Unified

It starts with knowing where students are in their learning and what their needs are. Brett Grimm, Assistant Principal of Curriculum & Instruction at Lindsay High School explained, “In a performance-based system, when we are not marching kids through the system, the requirements of students with special education needs or language needs stick out. There is no way to avoid those needs. The students can’t hide by sitting in the back of the room quietly. We know who they are, not because of an early intervention system, but because our system is based on knowing exactly where students are in their academic journey and how they are progressing. We have to respond so they can progress. We no longer graduate students with second-grade reading levels. The needs are transparent to everyone. Parents and students know exactly at what level students are reading and writing.”

Literacy across the curriculum benefits many students, not just ELL. Lindsay reduced the number of levels for building English language skills from five to three in shifting from the old ELD standards to the new ones that are aligned to Common Core: emerging, expanding, and bridging. Grimm explained, “Students who are bridging have the basic skills, and their language needs are often very similar to other students.” Students at bridging (or what would be known as Level 4 and 5) receive support within the school day.

Lindsay is encouraging all teachers to use practices that build literacy skills including vocabulary, using sentence frames and graphic organizers, and doing writing prompts. Grimm explained, “The effort to build capacity to teach literacy across the curriculum is benefiting more than the ELL students. In general, children who have grown up in poverty are also lacking academic language proficiency. This has a big impact on our ability to teach at higher level skills.”

Responding to students begins before they start high school. At Lindsay High School, the begin to look at student data about incoming freshment through the information system Empower. Grimm explained, “ We look at which level they are on across content domains. We identify which ones are already working on high school curriculum, which ones are really close to mastering the eighth grade academic levels, and which ones are still in need of help to get to the ninth grade level. We start to plan strategic intervention groups, taking into consideration if they just need English or math, or both.”

Fewer measureable topics in a group is better. Grimm explained that Lindsay found that it was more effective and manageable for groups if they had fewer measurable topics to work on. As they group and regroup students, they try to have no more than two measureable topics within any group of students. He said, “Students could help each other more easily and teachers can work with small groups. Teachers are able to provide more support to ELL students in their classrooms when there is less demand for teaching multiple measureable topics.”

Planning for pace and trajectories. At Lindsay, pace and planning for student trajectories towards graduation is becoming intentional. Grimm explained, “ we have become more thoughtful about how we think about pace and learning trajectories. The clock starts ticking when students enter high school. Students who need to cover more learning during the four years of high school may want to accelerate their pace of learning or take advantage of the summer to keep learning. However, others may need to work during the summer or feel that the best they can do is an academic level per year. Then we have to talk seriously that they may end up being in high school for a fifth year. Some students will move to adult education to complete their diploma, as the hours are more flexible. We are all starting to understand the trade-offs between pace, amount of schooling, and the steepness of the trajectory.

From Casco Bay High School

ELL experts and teachers co-design learning experiences. At Casco Bay, the ELL team co-designs courses with teachers. They want to make sure there is scaffolding so that all students can participate in making meaning. (Remember: making sure that all students can participate and be active learners is a driving design principle.) They also emphasize reading, with expectations that students will read in the summer. They also have book groups for students to pick and choose from – all are high interest with varying levels of complexity of the text.

From Springdale

Advisory helps to ensure adequate support is in place. Dr. Megan Witonski, Associate Superintendent in Springdale School District in Arkansas explained that they are using Understanding by Design as a starting point for designing curriculum. Given the size of their ELL population, they’ve already built up a strong division to support schools, including integrating literacy across the curriculum. Currently they are working with E.L. Achieve to build scaffolding and supports into the curriculum maps for ELL students as well as those with special needs. They are finding that one area they need to strengthen is around constructing meaning so prior knowledge of ELL students is more explicit (rather than assumed), and that there are scaffolds to help understand the vocabulary. Advisory has also become an important place to ensure that ELL students are getting the supports they need, as some students excel in their studies while others need much more encouragement and more personalized support.

Do you have an insight or lesson learned about competency education and English Language Learners? We’d love to hear from you!

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