Today, one of every 10 students is an English learner. That means most classroom teachers are or will be working with English learner students. However, the majority of those teachers will tell you they are underprepared and lack confidence in their ability to work with these students or connect with them and their families.
Staff, coaches, and partners at the ExcEL Leadership Academy in Connecticut recognized the need for a better approach to professional learning that would prepare all teachers to work with English learners. This approach melds current knowledge of effective adult learning and effective instruction for English learners geared toward mainstream teachers. By using a microcredential approach, in which teachers progress at their own rate and demonstrate their mastery of best practices, ExcEL Leadership Academy makes professional learning about English learners more accessible to more teachers.
Mainstream teachers’ capacity
Many schools are challenged to locate, hire, and retain specialist English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. Visit any school, even schools well-staffed with bilingual and ESL instructors, and you will see the average English learner student spends less than 50 minutes per day engaged in English language instruction.
That means more than 80% of their time is spent in mainstream classrooms with well-intentioned, hard-working teachers who know their subject area well but know little about how to scaffold academic content so that English learners can understand it. As a result, English learners are “disproportionately taught by less-qualified teachers” at a time when complex academic standards necessitate well-prepared teachers more than ever (Wixom, 2015).
Further complicating the picture, nearly 15% of English learners have identified special needs, higher than the national average (NCES, 2018). For students who are dually struggling with new concepts and new language without adequate supports, the result is often a cycle of lagging achievement, failure, and remediation.
At the same time, underprepared teachers are engaged in their own downward cycle, as their skill and confidence fail to grow along with the diversity of the students in front of them. The ExcEL Leadership Academy aimed to break these cycles for both teachers and students.
A Better Approach
The ExcEL Leadership Academy uses a microcredential approach, a concept that provides a valuable alternative to traditional professional learning. Teachers are no longer required to complete endless hours of workshop or classroom study that may or may not be useful to them. Instead, this approach engages teachers in self-directed learning and recognizes and rewards mastery of best practices that demonstrably improve student outcomes.
Teachers can access resources that help guide professional learning, but ultimately the pathway and resources used are individual choices. It is competency-based, personalized, hands-on, project-based mastery learning for teachers.
Through this program, practitioners who demonstrate their knowledge and skill in implementing practices that improve student outcomes can be designated as Effective Educators of English Learners. Microcredentials certify that educators have reached the highest professional standards and demonstrated competence through evidence of improved classroom practice and student outcomes.
ExcEL has developed a sequential, tiered approach to career advancement based on earned microcredentials. Every classroom teacher working with English learners should complete the six basic microcredentials (shown in blue on the diagram pdf attached). Those who are interested in becoming ESL specialist teachers may go on to complete the second set of six microcredentials (shown in black on the diagram pdf attached).
Satisfying the requirements for each microcredential generally takes 10 to 20 hours spread out over an academic year, and many participants choose to work on multiple microcredentials at the same time. Feedback and support from peers and the ExcEL team are always available. Participants earning a microcredential will have met the requirement for one graduate credit.
Leadership Academy participants
The ExcEL Leadership Academy was established in partnership with UCLA Center X and the Shelton Public Schools in Connecticut. The academy is supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Education through the National Professional Development Project.
There are about 100 teacher participants enrolled in the program, drawn from six school districts in Connecticut and New York. ExcEL just awarded the first 40 microcredentials, and we anticipate awarding several hundred in the coming academic year.
Participants have been motivated by a range of goals. When we asked teachers why they found this worthwhile, one told us, “I currently work in a classroom where students speak multiple home languages and want to ensure that I am doing everything in my reach to help my students grow.” Her principal added, “Congratulations to such a dedicated educator. Your hard work and passion do not go unnoticed.”
Key components of the microcredential
ExcEL’s competency-based approach and the ExcEL microcredential build on the elements of successful professional learning. It is content-focused, incorporates active learning, supports collaboration, uses models of effective practice, provides coaching and expert support, offers feedback and reflection, and is of sustained duration (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017; Learning Forward, 2011). The process focuses on the application of skills in the classroom.
School systems open the ExcEL process to teams of teachers who are committed to improving their practice. Participants select a focus at the outset — for example, instructional strategies. Teachers then develop an understanding of their goals and personalize their learning to achieve and demonstrate competence.
Logistically, each microcredential requires participants to engage in a rigorous, reflective cycle of improvement. The first step is analysis of current skills. Using the instructional strategies microcredential as an example, teachers are asked to rate their current knowledge and use of strong instructional practices for English learners. Establishing a baseline and identifying a specific area for professional growth always comes first. Next, participants design and implement their selected strategies. The process is documented and concludes with a self-evaluation, supported by evidence.
The work of earning a microcredential is done in the classroom. Participants have access to a customized platform designed by BloomBoard, a platform for educator microcertification. This website hosts curated resources specific to each microcredential. It also provides access to online coaching and peer networks.
At each stage, participating educators upload evidence of their practice to the site, which is then assessed by certified, objective evaluators.
The ExcEL microcredential is a self-paced, self-directed, blended learning experience that includes both in-person and online learning. As such, it is less expensive than traditional workshop or graduate school experiences, and it gives teachers the flexibility to work on their own time without taking time out of the classroom. Furthermore, participants select focus areas and pathways to implementation, so their learning is tailored to their and their students’ needs.
Each microcredential requires participants to implement something in their classroom: a program, policy, or strategy that will lead to improved outcomes for English learners. Evidence of implementation can be submitted in written or video formats as long as the evidence is clearly communicated. Ultimately, these mastery demonstrations add to a growing library of resources that others can learn from.
For example, a high school teacher recently shared the results of her work using dialogue journals with English learners, in which teachers and students write letters or notes back and forth to each other. Over the course of several months, she has experimented with different approaches and scaffolds.
She has learned a great deal about how to effectively use this approach to encourage students to write more. She also uses the journals to assess student writing skills and provide personalized instructional feedback.
Importance of collaboration
The ExcEL Leadership Academy provides participants with support from experts and colleagues as they direct their own pathway towards becoming an effective educator.
There is abundant evidence supporting peer interaction as an effective method for improving teaching performance. Spillane, Shirrell, and Adhikari (2018) published a study examining ways expert teachers interacted with their peers in collaborative groups and the overall impact on teacher performance.
Research demonstrates that lower-performing teachers benefit from interactions with higher-performing colleagues and overall teacher performance improves when a more effective teacher joins a professional learning team. In addition, higher-performing teachers were not more likely to be sought out by others for advice, but these higher-performing teachers were more likely to seek advice.
This search for advice is often manifest in effective teachers joining collaborative work groups. Mounting evidence suggests basing professional learning for all teachers in collaborative work groups and leads directly to the need for a better way of accurately acknowledging teacher professional growth.
Support from peers and colleagues is an important part of the program. Ideally, interested participants work together as part of a school-based team to select and complete microcredentials, but solo practitioners can also participate, connecting with one another through an online learning platform and forming their own virtual teams.
As they work on implementation projects, participants can seek and benefit from peer feedback and the shared experiences of other educators through online discussion.
The need for mainstream and content-area teachers who can effectively scaffold instruction and create environments for successful English learners is growing. Educators who have earned an ExcEL microcredential have demonstrated their knowledge as well as their skill in applying best practices in their classroom or school.