Friday, July 22, 2011

The research says.....

I'm at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Educational Research and Dissemination (ER & D) training in Baltimore this weekend.  It's exciting to see so many talented teachers coming together to share their expertise and dedicate their time to improving instruction.  ER&D courses are based on research and provide practical classroom applications.  Today we discussed research - specifically the different types of research.  This reminded me of how important it is for teachers to understand current (and sometimes older, tried & true) research and be able to question the purpose, methods and findings.  There are three levels of research teachers need to understand.  Level I is theoretical research.  This means the research has been done and the findings are supported by observations, field notes and some quantitative data.  The research leads to a conclusion but needs more testing.  Level II is classroom research.  This means the method or strategy has been tried out on a larger, more diverse group, such as a classroom.  The findings are more reliable because they show effectiveness with a larger group and across many variables.   Level III research is proven research.  This means the method or strategy has been applied in a large setting such as a whole school or district and the positive results have been replicated.   ER&D courses are based on Level III research combined with the expertise that comes from years of classroom practice.   When I think about conversations I've had with others about the best way to educate ELLs, research is often misunderstood, misapplied or misquoted.  For example, educators may quote a research finding that recommends a certain reading strategy, then make the assumption that it would work well for ELLs as well.  It's common to hear, "Good teaching is good teaching."  This isn't exactly true.  Educators need to understand what kind of research is being quoted, who was the subject of the study and what variables might affect the outcome.  Another common misinterpretation of research about ELLs is that a study may have included ELLs, but the researchers may have filtered out ELLs with lower language abilities (because it is very difficult to measure effectiveness when students don't understand the language) or they may have included just one "type" of ELL - for example elementary U.S. born Latinos.  That ELL population would likely produce different results than a population of older refugee students, or a class with mixed language abilities and cultural backgrounds.

An example of Level III research for ELLs is Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas from George Mason University.  They studied ELL instructional programs for 10 years, in school districts across the nation, and including analysis of over 2 million student achievement records.  They found that:

Enrichment dual language schooling closes the academic achievement gap in L2 and in first language (L1) students initially below grade level, and for all categories of students participating in this program. This is the only program for English learners that fully closes the gap; in contrast, remedial models only partially close the gap.

Their point is that learning a language is an enrichment activity for all students.  In a dual immersion program students from two different language backgrounds, such as native Spanish and native English speakers, learn content together and their instruction is provided in English and Spanish.  In this way both language groups are challenged.   Collier and Thomas proved that learning in the first language is beneficial, therefore more educators and leaders should be looking for ways to develop ELLs first language skills as much as possible. 

So as I reflect on different research findings I've heard about or used in my own trainings, I am rethinking it.  What kind of research is it?  How do I know it's good?   Diane August and Timothy Shanahan did the follow up research for the National Literacy Panel on, "Developing Literacy in Second Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth."  Guess what they discovered?  There is very little reliable research to guide us on best practices for ELLs.  What does this mean?  It means that currently educators need to rely on research that may not be that reliable for ELLs.  Further, it means that educators should question all research carefully before accepting that it is sure to work with ELLs.   Do you have recommendations for Level II or III research on ELLs?   I'd be very interested to hear about it!

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