First Person

Opinion: ELL students and changing minds

Alexander Ooms, a senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

Additional attention to English Language Learner (ELL) students is unquestionably a good thing. Particularly given the large percentages of ELL students both in Denver and across Colorado, there can be no doubt that this is a critical issue.  There is simply not enough concerted attention on how schools support ELL students — and especially on specific strategies at both the district and school level to see what is most effective.

What there should not be, however, is opinion substituting for fact.

A Denver Public Schools student does class work in this EdNews file photo

A recent discussion on these page does exactly that. The claim is that any attempt at quantitative assessment — through state and district tools such as School Performance Frameworks, or representation of this data on sites like  — unjustly punish schools with high percentages of ELL students.

These kids, so the theory goes, don’t learn as fast as their non-ELL peers, and schools who have more of them will always do worse on academic growth.  And growth percentiles are the primary driver in most assessments.  By holding all schools equally accountable for the academic growth of their students, as a member of the Denver school board put it, these systems are shamefully guilty of:

“accountability blinders that punish schools and kids for their English-proficiency differences by trying to lump them all into the same bucket as native and fluent English speakers”

Well, there is a blindness here, but it’s not the assessments.  It’s us. Conventional wisdom dictates that including scores from ELL students will depress academic growth — and I’ll admit that I believed it as well (although to a lesser extent than some).  I doubt I’m the only one.  But we are all mistaken, as this perspective could be Exhibit A for the blind acceptance of opinion and conjecture at the expense of data.

For what the data shows is that, over the past five years across Colorado, ELL students do better on median growth percentiles than non-ELL students — on aggregate, on every subject, and at virtually every grade level. Let’s start with a view across Colorado (red signifies where ELL students did worse than non-ELL students):

In aggregate, there is one subject score in the past five years where ELL students performed worse than non-ELL students. One.  So perhaps the claim “While we all want students to grow and succeed, [ELL] student growth must be reviewed under a different lens” takes on a different meaning.

Think you should have lower expectations for ELL students on academic growth, and for the schools and teachers that educate them?  Well, think again. Here is the 2011 Colorado growth data by grade level:

ELL students performed worse than their non-ELL peers on just three subject scores — two of them in 4th grade — out of 21 scores total. One of these three is much lower (4th grade reading).  But in six subject scores, ELL students were 5 points or more better than their non- ELL peers. Not, perhaps, what the many commentators on the original piece had in mind.

When questioned about a view contrary to what he had advocated previously, the economist John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have said: “When the circumstances change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” So, I’ll admit it: I found the above surprising.  This data presents an entirely different set of circumstances than I previously envisioned.

But the mind resists.  Perhaps the ELL student growth is only higher when aggregated at the state level, and the results are different in urban centers like Denver?   Well, no – in Denver, the gap between ELL students and their non-ELL peers actually increases.  Over the past five years, ELL students in DPS have outperformed non-ELL students on growth, every year and in every subject, by an average of between 2 and 5 percentage points:

This data, which one can compile for oneself using CDE’s DataLab, turns the argument inside out.  Schools with large proportions of ELL students have higher growth percentiles — and thus better rankings — then if they had no ELL students at all. In fact, if there are any schools at a structural disadvantage on this issue, it is those who are without ELL students, not those with them.

How does this impact policy?  Let’s look at the four schools that were cited as specific examples — where a high proportion of ELL students were assumed to be damaging their median growth percentile scores, and thus their ColoradoSchoolGrade rankings:

Not once do ELL students score lower than non-ELL students.  Not in any school.  Not in any subject.  All of these schools have higher growth in their ELL students than their non-ELL students. And it’s not a small advantage, there is an overall average of 10 points higher. All four of these schools have growth in their ELL populations well above the state median (50).  All four have growth in their non-ELL students well below the state median. What is being penalized again?

Complain about their low rankings on assessments all one wants — but don’t blame the ELL students and their teachers. Without their scores, the schools would have all ranked lower, not higher, on assessment data. It is the ELL scores that are holding these schools up, not pushing them down.

When conditions change, I change my mind.  If there is a lesson in the past few years, it is that many conditions previously assumed simply don’t hold up under the sunlight of data and assessment. There are schools with mostly high-poverty students with remarkable academic growth.  There are schools with affluent school populations performing below the state averages.  There are specific demographic groups where students are experiencing growth far beyond assumptions.  There are schools where the achievement gap persists, masked by aggregated averages.  Conditions are not what many people thought they were.

And this is the fundamental point of a site like It is to present data to eliminate the misconceptions of schools and students that have no bearing in fact.  It is to try to reduce subjective opinion and unwarranted bias. It is to provide data as an entry point to further inquiry and a more complete understanding.

So when a sitting school board member criticizes this effort by writing:

As I retrospectively consider last year’s board decision to phase out Montbello High School, for example, imagine how differently the school’s performance would have seemed had we considered the 25 percent of students who are not ready to take the CSAP in English.  Not being a statistician, I will defer to those who can calculate the probability of a 25 percent bump in overall achievement if those scores are even just disaggregated from the whole.  I wonder if the board’s decision would have been different if we knew then what I know now.

Well, we don’t have to speculate here, and we don’t need a complicated statistical analysis.  We need to have transparency and access to data — which, thanks in large part to the organizations maligned elsewhere in that post, are increasingly common. It’s now remarkably easy to find out exactly what the growth percentile would have been in Montbello had it not included ELL students (and it’s in the chart above). Note first that while there are 25 percent ELL students in the school overall, the cohort used to measure academic growth had an even higher proportion — a full 40 percent of students were ELL.  That, under the initial assumptions, was the injustice that unfairly sealed their doom.

So what would the schools median growth percentile been with a “bump in overall achievement” from eliminating the scores of the ELL students?  A full five points, um,  lower.  Yup, pull out the ELL students, and the academic growth scores at Montbello would have been even worse.  The decision to close Montbello might not have been different, but the conversation probably should have been more informed.

And that’s the point of data and assessments, isn’t it?  To rid us collectively of false assumptions and the dogma of our preconceived notions.  The erroneous and misshapen critique that evaluation systems punish schools with high ELL populations proves the fundamental point of why these systems are so critically important.  Don’t rely on speculation. Don’t assume that you know how good or bad a school is based on conjecture. Don’t conjure up some false reasoning for why some schools are penalized by the results. Start with the basic data, ask questions, and dig deeper.

And the growth data for ELL students surfaces some really interesting further questions: Why do ELL students have higher growth?  Which ELL students (based on the CELA test) are progressing the most, and how quickly?  Do school with a specific ELA programs see faster growth than those that don’t?  Are there schools whose ELL students — particularly ones with initial low CELA scores — who seem to be able to move these students along even faster?

CDE apparently has started to analyze CELA cohort growth scores, and hopefully they will quickly make these available.  There is a lot more to do here, and this subject deserves increased attention, not less.  But it also needs the right kind of inquiry.

We should try to answer a lot more questions regarding ELL students, but we should do so with an attention to data and to fact – not based on the assumptions, accusations, and preconceived notions that have far too often held all of us in thrall. Circumstances are often not what they first seem.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.