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Edu-Themes this Fall: ELL, CCSS, Tech & Data

Written by: Crystal Wirth, Director of Educational Programs

I recently attended two popular conferences highly attended by educators at all levels. Although the experience at each was very different, the themes and trends were very much the same.

Council of Great City Schools offered sessions led by superintendents and other high-level staff from inner-city school districts across the United States. The sessions gave attendees a peek into large urban school systems. Association of Middle Level Learners (AMLE) more specifically targeted issues that middle school teachers face in their day-to-day work. The themes that resonated throughout both conferences were clear:

  • English Language Learners (ELL): Are we successfully addressing their unique needs?
  • Common Core State Standards (CCSS): How do we get students to where they need to be— college- and career-ready?
  • Data & Technology: Are we using both effectively?

ELL Needs

Middle school is the speed bump in bilingual education. We must examine how we place students; often we end up holding some back by assuming that all students that don’t speak English or have limited English are in the same place. Newly arriving students should not necessarily be placed in the same class as students that can read but not comprehend or in special education classes. Schools should consider creating long-term ELL classes to meet the needs of ELL students, particularly for those who can read fluently but lack comprehension skills.


With the majority of the reading and writing standards focusing on comprehension, it is critical that teachers focus on text complexity and comprehension. Vocabulary is the feature of complex text that causes the greatest difficulty. We have to get students the knowledge of the world they need to be able to read and comprehend complex text. Meredith and David Liben of Student Achievement Partners recommend “text sets” as a way to do that. Building sets of text on the same topic but at different reading levels allows students to gradually increase vocabulary while reinforcing comprehension at an individual pace. It is also a way to get ELL students on level.

College & Career Readiness

David Coleman, president of the College Board, gave a powerful speech about the shifts that his organization plans to make as it continues to focus on college and career readiness. These changes include making sure that every single minority young man who is ready for advanced placement courses will not only have access to them, but be encouraged to take them. In a connected effort, the College Board plans to send out college packets with four fee waivers so that eligible students are encouraged to apply to college at no charge.

Additionally, the organization will reexamine all assessments and the way they are used. No child should be tested without the opportunity for teaching and learning, and productive practice. It must only be on the exam if it is useful for college and career.

“What we put in front of kids matters. They rise when there is something to rise to.” David Coleman

Data & Technology

The benefits of using technology in the classroom include allowing students to learn with no end results in mind and encouraging genuine curiosity. Technology allows for self-motivated learning and when used in collaboration with social interaction, learning sticks! Technology can also be a significant boon to useful data collection.

Rick Wormelli, Nationally Board Certified teacher, challenged us to define mastery—the question is not “what is the standard?” But instead, “what evidence will we, as teachers, tolerate?” Assessment is integral to instruction, however he reminded attendees to always think about the purpose when planning lessons or assessments. Tests need to be judged by the data being collected—every assessment must be focused, useable, and connected to a standard with the evidence that you are willing to accept. Assessments are not meant to trick kids. Formative assessment with feedback can become an overt act of direct instruction. Students can learn without grades but they can’t learn without feedback. Summative assessments should be seen as the final declaration of mastery.

Something tells me that these three themes will continue to be topics of conversation from the conference level down to the classroom level.