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Effective: The Most Important Word in the ESSA

In this blog series, we host a running conversation about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and English Learners (ELs). Our goal is to put a spotlight on key features of the legislation, with insights from practitioners and policy makers in the field. In doing so, we hope to make sense of a rapidly-evolving policy landscape and help the educators in our community understand the changes that will affect their work. Today, we are focusing on the single most important word in the Department’s recent guidance document: effective.

For educators of ELs, “effective” is likely the most important and impactful word they’ll find in ESSA, which replaces the federal No Child Left Behind Act next fall. In their new guidance document, the US Department of Education puts italics and quotes around the word, both in regards to Language Instruction Educational Programs (LIEPs), as well as professional development. The point of the emphasis is to prioritize effective learning outcomes over the number of academic citations behind a program and its PD. This is an important shift, and might be the most substantive instructional change created by the legislation.

The new focus on effectiveness should be liberating for state and local educational agencies, which will soon be able to focus on measuring the outcomes of their instructional choices, and then make necessary adjustments instead of justifying their program models with available research. Dr. Gary Cook summed it up well last week at the WIDA conference, where he said, “The word effective implies an evaluative approach, which differs from the blind-study model required by NCLB.”

Both approaches have scientific validity, but the NCLB insistence on a particular kind of scientific method was often “one size fits all” and clearly inconsistent with the federalist spirit of the new law. This will give districts the opportunity to try different approaches, accounting for the dynamics of local communities and district resources.

However, this “evaluative approach” also will be much harder than merely citing “scientifically based” research. District leaders will need to gather and analyze data, justify their programming and PD decisions, and show a willingness to change in response to data. Perhaps anticipating the questions that many SEAs and LEAs will have about this new paradigm, the ED goes on to describe what steps a local agency can take to analyze whether an LIEP is effective, including whether it is:

  1.     Driven by data so that the unique needs of ELs are addressed.
  2.     Aligned with local needs.
  3.     Based on rigorous, relevant research.
  4.     Evaluated through performance monitoring (and adjusted as necessary)
  5.     Part of a systemic approach to serving ELs (i.e., aligned to standards)

The ED is signaling that there can be no understanding of “effectiveness” without reliable data that helps districts analyze EL performance, especially for subgroups that may require unique approaches and interventions (including dual-identified students, SIFE students, LTELs, newcomers, etc.). And the Department is clear that effectiveness is also an ongoing pursuit, rather than an end itself. Effective programs will use performance data as part of a cycle of continuous improvement to “make changes to improve LIEP implementation and effectiveness.”

The big question for me is how this new guidance will manifest itself in the SEA plans due next spring. Ken Bond, program coordinator from the New Jersey DOE, acknowledged that his state hadn’t yet tackled this question directly, instead pointing to the elements of effectiveness articulated by the Department and emphasizing the technical assistance work they are doing. David Holbrook, now with TransACT, anticipates that states will issue directives that incorporate much of the Federal DOE guidance, but with more specific metrics that allow for accountability and measurement (notably absent from the federal guidance).

So we are still in the early innings of this conversation, and what makes this moment so exciting is that so many ELL stakeholders have an opportunity to shape state guidance in the coming months.