English learners will get a boost from College of Education grant

A new $3 million grant will enable the UO College of Education’s Department of Education Studies to create an online program for Oregon teachers seeking an endorsement to teach students who are learning English.

The five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education will be used for the college’s Education Leaders for Oregon’s English Learners project. In addition to helping teachers get the state endorsement, the program will offer training to principals and family members of English learner students.

The project is led by Edward M. Olivos, a professor in the college’s Department of Education Studies and Sylvia Thompson, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences.

In partnership with the Oregon Department of Education and Lane Education Services, the grant will allow the Department of Education Studies to expand its English for Speakers of Other Languages endorsement program. The endorsement provides Oregon-licensed teachers tools for effective instruction to aid students for whom English is an additional language.

English Learners in Oregon

According to state data, English learners are the fastest growing demographic of students in Oregon, which means the work comes at a critical moment. Those students are typically described as “English learners,” but Thompson said that terminology puts the emphasis on what they lack. She prefers terms that speak to students’ successes and existing skills, such as “emergent bilingual” or “multilingual learner.” 

“The process of acquiring academic English for students who aren’t fluent is a reality for students, so therefore it’s a requirement for schools and for teachers in Oregon,” said Heather McClure, assistant research professor and director of the Center for Equity Promotion.

Preparing Teachers for English Learners

The current College of Education endorsement program for English for Speakers of Other Languages, housed within the Department of Education Studies, instructs student teachers in the UOTeach masters and licensing program to work with students coming from bilingual backgrounds. The federal grant will fund the creation of a parallel remote e-learning program to be made available to licensed Oregon in-service teachers.

The ability to complete their endorsement remotely will allow teachers to continue with their professional careers while learning skills to better support Oregonian English-learning students. 

“Research shows that when teachers use evidence-based practices and strategies that support student language development while teaching content, student outcomes improve,” Thompson said.

While the online English for Speakers of Other Languages program will be open to all licensed teachers in the state, the College of Education project will target teachers who work in the state’s lower-performing English learner districts. The grant will cover most of the tuition for project participants who come from what are known as HB3499 districts. 

Oregon’s House Bill 3499 was signed into law in July 2005 to support districts in the state that demonstrate challenges in serving students who are English learners. The one-year, online English for Speakers of Other Languages endorsement program will be followed by one year of professional development. 

 The program will focus on the English for Speakers of Other Languages endorsement rather than a bilingual endorsement for two reasons, Olivos said.

First, the choice reflects the student body generally attracted to the College of Education, who are not typically bilingual. Second, Oregon has an overall shortage of bilingual teachers, so most bilingual students are placed in monolingual classrooms.

That means it makes more sense to focus on increasing the skills of existing teachers and their abilities to support English learner students through teaching practices that support learning, the acquisition of English, and the desire for students to maintain their linguistic backgrounds.

"We want to collect as much data as possible, qualitative and quantitative, to see if we're on the right track," Olivos said.

Education Leaders for Oregon’s English Learners

 The term “education leaders” encompasses both teachers and school leaders and assumes that with strong, evidence-based training, follow-up support and accountability, all educators can become instructional leaders in their schools and districts, Olivos said. That’s why the second key component of the grant involves training Oregon administrators to be instructional leaders for teachers and English learner students.  

 Finallly, Olivos and Thompson have embedded an equity and family engagement component into the curriculum. Research demonstrates that English learner students rely heavily on their families because of the disruption caused by experiences with immigration and marginalization.  

 “Part of what we’re doing is really helping to bridge the assets of families with the assets of schools,” McClure said. 

By Ari Wolfe, College of Education