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Can Data Improve Student Achievement for English-Language Learners?

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This week we are hearing from the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC). Today's post is the practitioner perspective on the research introduced in Monday's post: Partnership With Practitioners Brings English-Learner Research to Life.

PERC (@PHLedResearch) sat down with Allison Still, Deputy Chief of the Office of Multicultural Curriculum and Programs (OMCP) (@sdp_multingua) in the School District of Philadelphia (@PHLschools), and Maria Giraldo Gallo, Special Projects Assistant in the same office. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

PERC's work has largely focused on describing the characteristics of the Philadelphia English Language Learner (ELL) population. How have you used this information to support Philly's schools and students?

Allison Still (AS): PERC's research supported what we already knew, but it's helpful to have that information in a more official format so people know we're not just going on what we see and experience. We've always used data — for example, the number of ELL students in schools, what languages they spoke, and their proficiency levels — to inform our instructional supports and resource allocations, but we had this information in several different databases. It wasn't easy to share with the public.

Maria Giraldo Gallo (MGG): Right, and now it's easy to read. When you have [data] in an easy-to-read, presentable format, it's a good start for a presentation or even to communicate with a school's front office. This aligns well with the District's Open Data Initiative, allowing teachers and administrators to access our ELL data in order to better serve students.

AS: As an example, Maria was telling me about a specific school where one of our managers started an initiative to improve the staff members' cultural proficiency. The school was really surprised about the number of languages spoken there.

MGG: They didn't know there were a couple of Asian languages spoken at this school. They were surprised to learn that, and they were able to start strategically addressing those students' needs based on that data.

What do you still need to know?

AS: The upcoming trajectory analysis of ELLs who start in kindergarten is really interesting to me. We're already talking about what we're doing next with that data. [In the preliminary analyses PERC shared with us,] there were some positive findings where the outcomes were better than I thought. But I still want to know more about the types of students who aren't attaining English proficiency within five years and what we can do to support them, so we want to know more about that those long-term ELLs and what we can do to support them.

One of the district's anchor goals is to improve early literacy, and most of our ELLs start with us in kindergarten. Those are the kids we have the most impact on because they're educated with our schools from the beginning. We want to look at this data to establish reasonable targets for kindergarteners who start as ELLs so that in four or five years most of them should attain proficiency based on the data that we have. Then we can work to get that timeline shorter and shorter so we have fewer students who are long-term ELLs.

What have you found helpful about your partnership with PERC?

AS: Having a partnership with people who can gather and analyze data, then put it in a presentable format, gives us more time to focus on how we can improve our programs and make more informed decisions about where we need to put our efforts and supports. We can really put our efforts into improving instruction and not spend time and resources on the quantitative analysis piece. In this office, we're all educators — that's where our expertise is — but we definitely need strong research and data analysis so that we can use our time most effectively.

Anything else you'd like to add?

AS: We have a lot of ELL students who come in, maybe in kindergarten, and do really, really well. A lot of our valedictorians are former ELL students. People see this and say, "Look, we're doing so great with ELLs!" What we don't realize is that the students who attain proficiency in five years do really well, but we also have students that, for whatever reason, don't. Those are the students that we really need to focus our supports on, and this work can really bring that to light for people because we need to do better.

The other thing this report really highlighted is that we do have a lot of students who come in at low proficiency levels in middle and high school. A lot of people don't realize that, and the needs of students who arrive as English language learners in middle and high school are very different.

The community forum that PERC hosted was a really good opportunity. It reaffirmed that the concerns and issues we're trying to address are real and shared by so many people. We often feel like nobody notices or cares about multilingual students, but we definitely saw that wasn't the case — there were stakeholders from schools, the community, all there wanting to improve the educational opportunities for multilingual students.

For a look into Philadelphia's multilingual programs, follow Allison, Maria and the rest of the OMCP team on Twitter @sdp_multilingua.

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