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Teaching ELLs: Do Qualifications and Effectiveness Overlap?

By guest blogger Sarah D. Sparks. 

This item originally appeared on the Inside School Research blog.

Want to find a better teacher for English-language learners? Start by looking for teachers who add the most value for any students, rather than limiting the search to those who may have had specialized training to work with ELLs.

That's the conclusion of a new Stanford University study, "Is a Good Teacher a Good Teacher for All?" in online preview in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Education researchers Susanna LoebJames Solandand Lindsay Fox used a value-added measure to look at the effectiveness of teachers both with and without bilingual certification in Miami-Dade public schools in Florida. 

They analyzed teachers' effectiveness in reading and in math, with English-learners (both current and those who had been considered not proficient in English within the last three years) and those fluent in English. The researchers conducted separate analyses of English-learners and non-ELLs in the same school and the same classroom, to correct for potential differences in how students are sorted to teachers.

Loeb and her colleagues found that generally, a great teacher is great for all students, and an ineffective teacher is pretty much ineffective for everyone, too. In math, nearly six in 10 teachers who rated in the top 20 percent of effectiveness for students fluent in English were also in the top quintile for English-learners. In reading, 42 percent of teachers in the top 20 percent for non-ELLs were also most effective for ELLs.

The researchers also noted that  more than half of teachers would be rated in different quintiles of effectiveness under value-added measurements if they were being judged on ELLs or non-ELLs alone. However, the differences are rarely very large. A very effective teacher might be in the top 20 percent for ELLs and the top 40 percent for all students, for example, and a less effective teacher might be in the bottom 20 percent of value-added scores for ELLs and the bottom 40 percent of value-added for non-ELLs. 

But she's not likely to be misclassified as ineffective when she's really highly effective: Fewer than 4 percent of teachers in math were rated most effective for non-ELLs but least effective for ELLs or vice versa; for reading, that was about 7 percent.

Of course, this doesn't mean English-learners don't benefit from having a teacher who specializes in teaching students learning a new language. The researchers found teachers who were fluent in Spanish, or had a bilingual certification, were more effective with English-learners than teachers who were not as familiar with students' native language and teaching ELLs, all else being equal. That makes sense.

But Loeb and her colleagues cautioned that Miami-Dade is an unusually homogenous district, where English-learners are overwhelmingly Spanish speakers, and many adults also speak both English and Spanish fluently. The effects of having a bilingual certification may be more or less important in a district like New York City, boasting students and teachers alike who speak dozens or even hundreds of different native languages.

"Finding a better teacher for English-learners is at least as much if not more a question of finding an effective teacher, as it is a question of finding a teacher who specializes in English-learners," they concluded.

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