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Research-Driven Policy: Houston's English-Language Learner Program

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This week we are hearing from the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC). Today's post is the practitioner perspective on the research introduced in Monday's post: What Works for English Language Learners.

This post is by Leah Binkovitz (@leahbink), staff writer for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, who spoke with Altagracia Guerrero, Assistant Superintendent for Multilingual Programs with the Houston Independent School District (@HoustonISD).

When Altagracia Guerrero started working at the Houston Independent School District (HISD) five years ago, the bilingual programming was all over the map. "Depending on the school, you would find a different program being followed. In some instances it was a hybrid program," she said. "I wanted to be able to simplify that process a little bit," said Guerrero, Assistant Superintendent for Multilingual Programs with HISD.

With an eye to streamlining the many bilingual offerings the district provided, Guerrero met with Sandra Alvear, a researcher with the Houston Education Research Consortium. Alvear shared an interest in bilingual education and after reviewing a list of topics Guerrero identified as top priorities, they decided on a study that would look at the impact of different bilingual programs by following a cohort of English Language Learner (ELL) kindergarteners through grades three and five, depending on the language tested; Spanish or English.

The topic was of major interest to the district—the largest in Texas—which serves around 213,000 students. "We have close to 70,000 English Language Learners, not all of them are Spanish speaking, of course, but Spanish speakers do comprise well over 90 percent of that number," she explained. "So our dual language expansion has been predominantly with English and Spanish."

Focusing on the three different types of bilingual education programs in use at the time — traditional, developmental, and two-way bilingual immersion — Alvear reviewed the longitudinal data for a cohort of students starting from kindergarten. Because of a data-sharing arrangement between the district and the research consortium, that part was easy. As was the feedback, according to Guerrero.

"I like the fact that she took time to be able to start her research with things that are not only long-term but that specifically get our feedback throughout the research," she said. "I haven't experienced anything like that before."

The partnership also gives Alvear access to a uniquely robust set of data. "When she first started this study she was dealing with 18,000 [ELL] students," explained Guerrero. "No one else in the nation has our numbers, no one else. That adds that much more credibility to the research she's doing."

The findings, shared in the researcher post from Monday, indicated that the two-way bilingual immersion program produced the greatest improvements. This further underscored the significance of the results for Guerrero, who used them to help support shifts within the bilingual program. "It showed that more English didn't necessarily equate to higher achievement," she explained. "It kind of convinced schools that the way to have long-term achievement would be to be able to teach them in their native language and have instruction in English, hence the expansion of dual language."

Now working with Alvear on the second part of the study, which will follow the cohort students through the next several years of their academic careers, Guerrero said she is looking forward to the next round of results. The district has already met with Alvear twice this year to review the progress. "I think it will be a good tool," she said, of the forthcoming findings.

Guerrero also has other topics on her research agenda, including assessing drop-out rates for English Language Learners based on the type of bilingual instruction they received and fluency in a second language among the same population. "It would be worth it," said Guerrero. "I don't think anyone else is doing such a thing."

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.

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