Partnering To Develop Research-Based Recommendations for Teaching English Learners


October 27, 2015


As a researcher who frequently interprets research findings for teachers and administrators, I have seen many encouraging examples of education research informing daily practice. Yet districts that consult research to improve practice face substantial challenges. First, the implications of research for practice are not always immediately apparent. Second, each year sees the publication of an enormous number of studies. To identify results they can trust, practitioners must assess the quality of each study and its applicability to their local context. Often, sifting through the research with a critical eye can take more time and effort than districts can afford.

Beaverton School District (BSD) in Oregon recently invited Education Northwest to facilitate a group of BSD staff members convened to examine research related to teaching English learners. The result was one of the most outstanding collaborations between a district and a research institution in which I’ve had the pleasure to take part.

In a typical school year BSD enrolls more than 5,000 students who qualify for English learner services. To ensure these students are provided with consistent, high-quality support across all schools and grade levels, the district developed an English Language Learner Action Plan. The plan established the working group, which was charged with examining research not only on best instructional practices for English learners, but also on program models that have shown positive academic outcomes for these students.

The working group included 43 general education teachers, English as a Second Language teachers, counselors, specialists, and administrators. The group was split into two subgroups—one to look at the research on instructional practices and one to look at the research on program models. After an initial kickoff meeting, each group met in four two-hour work sessions from January to February 2015. Key topics included:

  • Foundations of education research (both groups)
  • Definitions of program models used by the Oregon Department of Education (both groups)
  • Research on models for core content and English language development for ELs (program models group)
  • Research on instructional practices for ELs (instructional practices group)

Education Northwest’s job was to guide each subgroup through the relevant research and facilitate the development of recommendations that were appropriate to BSD’s needs. The meetings followed the same general format:

  • Presentation of the research findings by Education Northwest
  • Activities to engage participants with specific studies and summaries of research
  • Table group discussion about the implications of the research for BSD
  • Table group share-outs with the whole group
  • Homework aimed at identifying preliminary recommendations

At the final meeting of each group, participants reviewed the presentations, individual studies, research summaries, and homework assignments and identified final recommendations by group consensus.

Recommendations for delivering core content included a combination of two-way immersion, sheltered instruction, and newcomer programs. For English language development (ELD), the group recommended the flexible use of push-in and pull-out strategies at the elementary level and specific class periods in middle school and high school, combined with special ELD programs for newcomers at all levels. Instructional recommendations were differentiated between the elementary and secondary levels but also included some common elements, such as providing students with necessary background knowledge, providing appropriate visual and graphic supports (including the use of technology), and setting clear content objectives.

At the close of the project, BSD participants expressed how much they appreciated learning how to distinguish between research designs that support causal inference and those that don’t. They also appreciated the guided discussions, which gave staff members the opportunity to examine the implications of the research findings for specific BSD programs.

This project illustrates core strengths that Education Northwest brings to our work with school districts, strengths such as experience working in school districts as teachers or administrators, expertise in interpreting very technical material, the ability to translate it for teachers and administrators, and the ability to identify how research findings apply to particular conditions within a district. Finally, we are not pushing products or an agenda, which allows us to serve as objective interpreters of research findings and how they do or do not meet a district’s particular needs.

The partnership between BSD and Education Northwest was a true team effort. Education Northwest brought expertise and experience and BSD brought together committed staff in an atmosphere in which they could be productive. We hope our experience will spur other districts to engage in partnerships with institutions such as Education Northwest.

We welcome your inquiries on this process and our work together on behalf of English language learners. For inquiries about instructional programs at BSD, contact Danielle Sheldrake who serves as the district’s executive administrator for student services. You can also contact me via email.