As the U.S. population of PreK-12 English learners (ELs) continues to grow, so does the urgency for education leaders to create equitable learning experiences for all students. Educators are working hard to ensure that English learners have the learning supports they need; however, true equity for English learners requires long-term, systemic changes. District leaders can play a critical role in restructuring education systems to not only address the specific learning needs of ELs, but also create a district-wide culture that celebrates, challenges, values, and unlocks the full potential of every EL in the U.S.
To gain a deeper understanding of how this is occurring throughout the nation, we released our second EL Education Report earlier this year, surveying PreK-12 teachers and principals from representative districts across the country. While there is still much more to learn, especially as we continue to reevaluate the needs of ELs in an ever-evolving educational landscape, the report provides us with valuable insights into the current state and potential future of EL education – including what ELs and their teachers need most from school and district leadership in order to succeed. The insights from this report enable us, as a content provider, to craft instructional materials that address EL’s most pressing needs and be stronger partners to the educators we serve. The data from the report could also be of use to district leaders as they attempt to identify strategies for EL education. From this report, we’d like to share several key actions that the data indicates district leadership can take to empower the PreK-12 English Learners in their communities:
Know Your Students
For district leaders who serve hundreds or even thousands of students, it can be challenging to get to know these learners on an individual basis. However, that individual connection is critical for ELs. When we discuss English learners in the context of policy and practice, it’s essential to remember that they are a remarkably diverse group. According to the U.S. Department of Education, English Learners in PreK-12 U.S. schools speak over 400 different languages, including Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Linguistic and cultural diversity among ELs can vary even within individual states – for example, the Department of Education reports that ELs speak over 225 different languages just in the state of Pennsylvania (1). With such vastly different experiences, backgrounds, and abilities, it’s critical that all education stakeholders, including district leaders, gather a full picture of the specific EL population they serve in order to accurately create a plan of action to support them.
Know Your Students’ Families and Connect with Their Communities
Just as district leaders strive to know their students, they must also identify ways to create relationships with English learners’ families, parents, and communities. In our survey, educators cited relationships with parents, family, and teachers as the most important factor in EL’s academic success. To address this, leaders throughout the country have been exploring ways to transcend any linguistic and cultural barriers that have traditionally prevented relationship-building, with promising results.
District leaders can specifically target establishing open lines of communication with EL families. Some of these families may have faced discriminatory or harmful encounters with educational institutions in the past and feel unwelcome or uncomfortable interacting with school personnel. District leaders can help rebuild trust by sending communication in many languages, reaching out in person, providing opportunities in various settings for parents to interact face-to-face with school staff, and taking special care to respect privacy and individual cultural norms. Community engagement is also key – identifying and forging partnerships with community organizations with ties to ELs and their families can serve as another communication touchpoint with families and a way to make learning accessible and relevant for students (2).
Think Beyond Academics: Consider Social, Emotional, and Cultural Needs
Research increasingly indicates that SEL is inherently linked to both academic outcomes as well as social and behavioral success (3). In fact, SEL is perhaps the most critical element of this list: in our survey, educators and principals cited social and emotional learning challenges as the most significant obstacle for EL students, such as overcoming trauma or insufficient language skills to communicate with other students. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that all instruction, including SEL, must acknowledge and integrate the rich and diverse cultures of all students. To support the holistic needs of ELs, leaders can start by examining both the SEL and culturally responsive teaching practices currently in place in their schools.
Culturally responsive teaching practices can be evaluated for their effectiveness by gauging teachers’ comfort with implementing these practices and by asking students how they feel about culture in the classroom. In this space, student voice is invaluable: communicating with students will allow leadership to understand if they feel included in the school culture, if educators are responding to their cultural experiences, or if they feel isolated from peers.
When evaluating SEL practices currently in place, district leaders should specifically look to understand their relevance to the EL experience, taking into consideration the cultural assumptions or underpinnings the SEL practices may carry (4).
Hold All Students to High Standards
When evaluating EL academic achievement and instructional supports, it’s important to hold all students to the same high standards, while simultaneously providing appropriate, individualized supports. Equitable instruction for English learners requires that they receive the linguistic scaffolds they need to build language fluency, but it also requires that English learners are challenged and supported in all disciplines. English learners should be exposed to rigorous learning activities, extensive academic language, and continually challenged to grow (5).
Identifying appropriate ways to provide ELs with rigorous learning experiences can be challenging. We know that collaborative conversations between peers are key for ELs – in our survey, educators cited interactive group work and games as approaches that have the greatest impact on EL achievement. English learners need to be provided ample opportunities to engage in academic conversations with English-proficient peers and should be armed with the linguistic (and social and emotional) supports to participate in conversations, games, and group work across disciplines. While rigorous learning may look different for every student, educators in our survey cited a few tools that have been particularly effective in EL instruction, including audio and visual tools and adaptive learning tools.
Commit to Equity, For Good
English learners are one of many student subgroups that can only thrive if all stakeholders, including district leadership, teachers, students, the community, and content providers commit to striving for educational equity. To achieve true equity, it must not be viewed as a temporary initiative or a special project, but rather as a fundamental, lasting shift across educational systems. This journey can be challenging, and the way forward may not always be clear – but as part of our joint responsibility to support and empower English learners, and all students served by PreK-12 public education systems, we must stay united in our mission to build an education system that understands and responds to the needs of every student.
Review the full EL Education Report.
Kelly McGrath is the vice president, chief academic & product development officer for McGraw-Hill School.
Kelly began her career as a marine engineer designing pumps for the Seawolf submarine. She then combined her love of working with kids and passion for STEM to become a math and science teacher for middle and high school students. As a teacher, Kelly became passionate about igniting and sustaining a love of learning in each student.
She transitioned out of the classroom to extend her impact in education, beginning her publishing adventure as a STEM editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Moving across the street to Pearson in 2001, she led the way in digital development over her career from creating templates for flash interactives in the early days to most recently concepting, testing, and developing 3D gaming and AR/VR experiences. As Chief Operating Officer for the edtech startup, Planet3, Kelly filled gaps at every level and stretched her leadership capacity to solve the challenge of the day with grace and thoughtful insight.
As Chief Academic and Product Development Officer at McGraw-Hill School, Kelly is championing efforts to integrate research-based, teaching and learning best practices into McGraw-Hill’s learning systems. The integration plan includes metrics for evaluating classroom effectiveness in order to iteratively improve our approach over time.
- Our Nation’s English Learners. The U.S. Department of Education. https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/el-characteristics/index.html#three
- Green, T. L. (2017). Community-Based Equity Audits: A Practical Approach for Educational Leaders to Support Equitable Community-School Improvements. Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(1), 3-39.
- National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (2019). From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. The Aspen Institute.
- Castro-Olivo, S. M. (2014). Promoting Social-Emotional Learning in Adolescent Latino ELLs: A Study of the Culturally Adapted Strong Teens Program. School Psychology Quarterly. Advance online publication.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). The flat world and education: How America's commitment to equity will determine our future. Teachers College Press.