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Top 10 Takeaways From the 2023 IES-Funded English Learner Research Centers Conference

In the spring, nearly 300 guests attended the Improving Instruction, Assessment, and Policies for Secondary English Learners Across the Content Areas conference at George Washington University in Washington, DC. This event was a collaborative endeavor by the Center for the Success of English Learners (CSEL) and the National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners, which provide the field with rigorous, reliable evidence about how to improve opportunities and achievement for English Learners in secondary school settings. Both centers are funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the independent statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education.


The conference brought together researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from the local to federal levels. Together, this network of experts engaged in productive dialogue, shared ideas to address challenges and opportunities for enhancing English Learner outcomes, and collaborated to tackle systemic issues and create practical solutions. Below are the key takeaways:


1. The Need for a Skilled Workforce: IES Director Mark Schneider opened the conference by highlighting the federal commitment to English Learner research, an investment of $280 million in 135 research projects to date. This is the first time IES has funded two Research & Development centers simultaneously with a shared focus on English Learners in secondary school settings. Having two centers working together presents unique opportunities that can push the field in new directions. Their combined resources enable the field to expand the scope of the questions and challenges researchers examine and the answers and solutions they generate.


“We need a highly skilled workforce. … We can’t afford to take this group of students and say, ‘Because you can’t read English, you can’t take math.’ They deserve our support to succeed.” —Mark Schneider


2. The Metaphor of Building a Cathedral: Kenji Hakuta, professor emeritus at Stanford University, gave the first keynote address, “Looking Back and Moving Forward: The Complex Path for ELs Across Support Systems and Their Policies.” He provided historical context for factors that have contributed to building and shaping the field, or “cathedral,” including the Civil Rights and bilingual education movements. He talked about ongoing research conflicts and predicted future ones, and he noted that this work has spanned multiple generations. He also emphasized the need for renewed energy and commitment and invited the development of the next generation of researchers.


“We’ve learned a lot, but there is a heck of a lot we still have to learn.” —Kenji Hakuta 


See the keynote video HERE.


3. Blazing a New Trail, Ecologies, and Critical Dialogic Interaction: In “Why Ecologies Matter: Critical and Dialogic Perspectives on Instruction, Assessment, and Policies Impacting Multilingual Youth,” Amanda Kibler, professor at Oregon State University, introduced the importance of the relatively new “ecological system” frame, recognizing two central understandings: 


  • We learn a language “by using it to accomplish things.” 

  • “Language practices, conceptual understanding, and analytical practices are all interwoven and cannot be disentangled” in learning or action.  


Kibler pointed out that peers become a significant influence and resource for English Learners in secondary schools. Her research revealed connections between teachers’ instructional practices and the strengths of relationships among linguistically diverse peers. Furthermore, these peer connections predicted measures of academic and language learning. Kibler suggested reconsidering how we organize schooling, whether we are collecting correct data, how larger levels of ecology affect the classroom, how English Learner teachers can influence overall ecologies, and the significance and common features of the innovative solution of critical dialogic interaction or Quality Interactions


“The use of language is what develops our language.” —Amanda Kibler 


See the keynote video HERE.


4. What Tests Measure and How to Improve Them: In “Challenges and Possibilities in the Assessment of English Learners: Evolving Policies, New Technologies, and Old Problems,” Stanford University professor Guillermo Solano-Flores examined the issues and patterns in research on assessment and instruction for English Learners. He demonstrated that lack of verbal interaction time among students is not solely the responsibility of individual teachers or students but is a system problem rooted in teacher training methods and school setups.  


Solano-Flores emphasized the need for teachers to know how to develop their own assessments, especially in times “when you realize what you don’t know about what you are trying to assess . . . the complex cognitive processes taking place.” He ended with several key findings from his research, such as how English Learners are as competent as English-only learners “when they are in conversations on a topic that is meaningful to them in the context in which they live.” Furthermore, he highlighted the need for teachers to receive professional development around a teaching model enriched with deliberate efforts to interact with students. He emphasized that many times the problem is not with the social or academic ability of English Learners; it is with the label used to develop a negative identity for the group, which often leads to their inappropriate marginalization within the school setting.


See the keynote video HERE.


5. Multilingualism Is an Asset: On the second day of the conference, Dr. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, provided remarks via a video presentation in which he emphasized the value of multilingualism. He referenced raising the bar for instructional requirements via asset-based approaches utilizing the multilingual students’ full linguistic and community-based experiences. His remarks reinforced the topics presented by the conference keynote speakers and presenters, including those of Monserrat Garibay, Acting Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition.

Read additional remarks by Secretary Cardona on the value of multilingualism HERE.


6. Breakout Sessions Explored Paths to Student Success: Researchers from both centers organized more than 30 breakout sessions over a day and a half focused on the interaction of language and content in the teaching and learning process for multilingual learners. They delved into aspects of curricula and instruction, preliminary data on getting students into courses and classrooms that contribute to their success, and other research underway within both centers.  


“English learner instruction must reflect strong interaction and interdependence. I can’t tell you how monumental I think this development in the field is … it is so critically important and not where we started.” —Jennifer O’Day 


7. Real-World Examples: In small groups, participants examined typical scenarios English Learners experience in schools. They discussed vignettes to reflect on obstacles and the necessary actions to resolve them.


8. Inspiring Action: Discussing the meeting, Jennifer O’Day organized her notes around a three-part call to action to the field on providing high-level educational opportunities for multilingual learners:


  • Figure out how to identify and address systemic contributors to problems. Think broadly about systems, and consider ways districts and schools recruit, develop, and support teachers. Focus on creating cultures of collaboration and improvement. Explore how school districts can put programs together more cohesively.  

  • Form partnerships and collaborations (e.g., between research universities and states), and bring in decision-makers and advocates to analyze local problems and develop solutions. 

  •  Build empathy among all those involved in the education of multilingual learners, especially teachers and administrators.


9. Audience Evaluations: The conference received feedback from nearly 200 participants. The audience praised the quality of the keynotes and the presence of educators, researchers, and leaders from diverse backgrounds. Attendees valued the event’s engaging format, networking opportunities, and abundant resources, with some requesting that the conference be extended into a full 2 days. They also appreciated how it successfully incorporated elements of academia, policy, and practice. 


  • “This was one of the best conferences I’ve attended in years! The mix of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners was divine. Colleagues were friendly and open to meeting new people. I’m eager to implement concepts and resources I learned about in my pre-service and in-service courses.”

  • “This was an outstanding conference! The topics presented were all informative and relevant. The keynotes were tremendous. I loved the mix of PreK–12 and higher education educators, researchers, policy folks, and state and national leaders.” 

  • “I loved this model for conferences. It was the best conference I’ve been to—the coming together of academia, policy, and practice, and the length was perfect. I can’t wait for next year.” 


10. Behind the Event: Conference Organizers: CSEL and the National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners, funded by IES, place English Learners at the core of their research and explore systemic levers affecting students’ success. Their ongoing research aims to boost teacher expertise, student agency, and confidence while opening gateways along English Learner educational trajectories, such as students taking courses critical to long-term progress. They expect to have the results between 2024 and 2026. 


The National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners seeks to advance the capacity of educators, policymakers, and researchers to serve students who are English Learners by bridging research and practice. The center comprises a world-class research team from WestEd, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, and the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) at the University of California, Los Angeles. 


The Center for the Success of English Learners (CSEL) is a national research and development center based at the University of Houston. Collaborating institutions include The University of Texas at Austin, New York University, the Center for Applied Linguistics, and the Strategic Education Research Partnership. 


Special thanks to the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) for their support during the conference.


The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education, supports this research through Grants R305C200008 and R305C200016 to WestEd and the University of Houston, respectively. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of IES or the U.S. Department of Education. IES is the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education. IES is an independent and nonpartisan organization created by the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) of 2002, and it is the leading source of rigorous education research and evaluation. It consists of the National Center for Education Research (NCER), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). 





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