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Developing a Theory of Change to Close the EL Achievement Gap

By Kim Marshall

The article: “Speaking Their Language” by Carol Larson and Tyrone Martinez-Black in Principal, November/December 2020 (Vol. 100, #2, pp. 54-57)

In this article in Principal, Carol Larson (Christel House Schools/Indianapolis) and Tyrone Martinez-Black (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) say that too many schools make the mistake of identifying a problem or a goal and going straight to action planning.

“This approach is like throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks,” say Larson and Martinez-Black. What’s missing, with complex challenges, is an analysis of the root causes of the problem and a well-thought-out theory of change.

On the issue of inequitable outcomes for English learners, school leaders might start by asking questions like these:

  • Why are there achievement differences between English learners and non-ELs?
  • Why are there fewer ELs in Advanced Placement classes?
  • Why are there fewer ELs applying to college?

Research and careful observation help unpack the problem and develop a comprehensive theory of change. For example, ELs’ lower college application rate might be the result of a tracking policy that limits ELs’ access to college-ready curriculum content, which indicates the need for changes in scheduling, student placement, and academic content. As the theory of change is implemented, progress needs to be monitored so educators can respond to unexpected challenges; the theory evolves as new information and circumstances dictate.

An essential tool for understanding problems like this is the equity audit – an in-depth assessment to see whether resources, learning outcomes, and other factors are out of kilter for certain groups of students. An equity audit looks into whether all students have similar access to effective teaching, are over- or under-represented in special education and other programs, whether there are achievement differences among student subgroups, as well as stakeholder groups’ participation on school boards, parent-teacher groups, and other decision-making bodies. An equity audit should also survey students’ perceptions of school climate, family involvement, classroom practices, and access to resources.

It’s important, say Larson and Martinez-Black, to understand the specific needs of each school’s English learners. “EL students are a heterogeneous group that varies by native language, culture, socioeconomic status, English fluency, birthplace, and more,” they say. “Examination of student development within these contexts helps identify barriers that might interfere with learning and equitable outcomes.” A robust theory of action needs to take into account the community’s beliefs about learning English, family members’ ability to help children with homework, and the “funds of knowledge” that students acquire outside of school – where they’ve traveled, their families’ routines, and their interests, activities, and cultural and religious beliefs.

Having done an equity audit and formed an accurate picture of the English learners in a school or district, it’s possible to formulate a theory of change.

Three areas of focus:

The school environment – This includes school policies, funding, programming, curriculum, instruction, assessments, school culture, and, say Larson and Martinez-Black, “structural discriminatory practices that might have been institutionalized over time, such as the de facto segregation of some EL students.” An example: what steps can be taken to increase ELs’ participation in gifted and accelerated classes?

Professional learning – PD should be informed by the needs assessment, addressing unconscious biases against EL students and the type of culturally responsive approaches that will lead to successful learning in classrooms. “Celebrating diverse holidays or honoring cultural heroes won’t close achievement gaps,” say Larson and Martinez-Black; “educators must understand students’ cultural backgrounds, connect with their experiences, and create meaningful learning goals that meet students’ needs.”

Family and community engagement – A key part of an effective theory of change is the participation of multiple stakeholders. This means involving community agencies, engaging local libraries, organizing translators, and eliminating barriers to EL parents participating in the educational effort. “You must know your parents to find effective ways to encourage participation,” say Larson and Martinez-Black. “Communicate the benefits of parent involvement while providing a welcoming school culture.”

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