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Educators Share Stories of Struggles With New English-Learner Standards

A pair of educators with ties to the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association traveled to Washington this week to share stories of their struggles and successes with the Common Core State Standards for English-language learners.

"We (teachers) are struggling with this," said Janet Davis, a Los Angeles Unified school improvement coach and a member of the AFT's nationwide ELL Advisory Task Force.

The new standards demand that ELLs read and comprehend complex texts across all content areas despite their unfamiliarity with English.

Davis and RosaMaria Cordova, a teacher mentor and consultant with the Paradise Valley, Ariz., school system, fielded questions at the U.S. Department of Education about obstacles and best practices they've encountered while trying to implement the college- and career-ready standards.

The session was part of the Education Department's Office of English-language Acquisition's series on "Connecting Research, Practice and Policy." The department co-hosted the discussion with the AFT and NEA. The session is available for replay here: //edstream.ed.gov/webcast/Catalog/catalogs/default.aspx

Davis and Cordova, who is a member of the NEA's Common Core Working Group, discussed the need for more teacher training to meet the needs of ELLs, who are learning another language while also trying to understand multiple academic disciplines in that language.

"Because a kid can speak English doesn't mean they know what's going on in the classroom," Cordova said, an indication that students who know social English don't always grasp the academic English expected by the Common Core standards.

Before the panel discussion, Stanford University professor and English-language acquisition expert Kenji Hakuta provided a broad historical overview of policy and research that preceded the Common Core standards.

Hakuta told the audience that the focus has shifted from "the whats of language," namely vocabulary and grammar separated from academic content, to "doing" with language. With the new standards, students are more often required to use language to engage teachers, peers, texts and tests.

The three panelists discussed the use of collaborative MOOCs, "massive, open, online courses," to help teachers of language-learners learn from each other.

Hakuta estimated that 30,000 educators enrolled in MOOCs on Common Core State Standards and ELLs that his Understanding Language team hosted in fall 2014. He said the experience is like a "citizen science project," with educators from around the country collecting data and sharing insights.

"It's an interesting opportunity to learn more about serving the students," Hakuta said.

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