Case study: Los Angeles Unified Surveys Its Teachers' Needs

With over 600,000 students, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the largest school district in California, and the second largest in the nation. It also has one of the highest percentages of English Learners at 150,000 students. LAUSD cannot reach education equity without addressing the needs of its EL students.

Luckily, Francisco Villegas, the Vice President of School Transformation, with the Partnership for LA Schools understands this. The Partnership for LA Schools embeds employees as coaches at middle schools around Los Angeles. Under Villegas’ purview, they work with around 40 teachers, in 5-7 schools at any one time. As part of his mission to transform high needs schools and help ensure that students are set up for success, he recognized that many of these schools have high EL populations and that supporting these students was critical.

As part of the Gates Foundation’s Professional Learning Partnership initiative, Villegas brought ELSF on board to support this work by meeting with the coaches to identify ways to better support educators working with EL students. The curriculum being used by these schools, a version of Illustrative Mathematics, is typically language and discussion heavy, featuring many activities and tools designed to provide an opportunity to learn through conversation and dialogue. However, COVID-19 required a shift to digital-based, distanced learning, so efforts were underway to streamline this curriculum to adapt to these circumstances.

During initial meetings, ELSF determined that there was a lack of data and insight into the EL experience from both the teacher and student perspective. Teachers couldn’t point to any systematic ways in which they were adapting the curriculum to virtual learning, and didn’t have a clear understanding of the needs of their EL students, particularly in the COVID-19 environment.

As a result ELSF proposed a teacher survey, framed at understanding how all students were faring with the curriculum, with questions designed to better understand what gaps existed between EL students and their non-EL counterparts. The information in initial meetings provided some idea of what challenges and opportunities might exist, and the survey validated anecdotal evidence and allowed the Partnership for LA Schools to prioritize top key professional needs.

With an 80% response rate of 42 teachers surveyed, ELSF was able to work with the Partnership for LA Schools to analyze the data and pinpoint areas where a gap existed between the performance of ELs and the classroom as a whole. The survey discovered the following key areas of opportunity for supporting educators in better serving their EL students:

  • Clarifying tasks: Teachers reported that many students didn’t understand what was expected of them, and aren’t comprehending the mechanics or purpose of specific exercises and activities. Finding ways to more effectively help students understand the tasks being asked of them is fundamental to ensuring their continued learning and educational growth.
  • Identifying ELs in the classroom: The survey revealed that some teachers weren’t able to identify who exactly their ELs were in a particular classroom. Since students are entitled to specific services based on EL designations, this is a critical area of need.
  • Cool down data: As a part of the curriculum, teachers do a quick check as each lesson is closing. The survey identified that educators were not regularly using this data strategically, to incorporate into future lesson plans. Helping educators better incorporate cool down data to plan future lessons can help ensure a formative assessment cycle that enables students to progressively learn subsequent lessons effectively.
  • Understanding mathematical language routines (MLRs): MLRs, structured but adaptable formats for developing students’ language capacity around mathematical concepts, are helpful tools for any math classroom. However, many educators expressed a lack of understanding of what the MLRs are and how to identify them. When reviewing the survey, coaches with the Partnership for LA Schools expressed a lack of clarity and understanding around MLRs as well, revealing the need for support at a systems level.
  • Increasing student engagement: Lack of student engagement was unsurprisingly a common challenge reported by teachers, especially given the challenge of educating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The implementation and analysis of this teacher survey helped equip ELSF with an accurate understanding of the needs of both teachers and students in these classrooms. Based on these results, ELSF is working with the Partnership for LA Schools to develop supports for each of these high-needs areas. In addition to the supports, indicators are being developed to understand how progress has been made and whether the gap between EL students and non-EL students has been closed for each particular area of need.

This comprehensive, objective, data-driven effort between ELSF and the Partnership for LA Schools serves as a model for how to create a survey to gauge educator needs to better support EL students.


Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

The mission of the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) is to collaborate with field-leading researchers, district leaders, teachers, content creators, and education funders to improve the supply and accessibility of high-quality K-12 mainstream instructional materials that address the linguistic and cultural needs of ELs while building smart demand to reach educators at scale – all with the goal of providing ELs full access to grade-level content and quality learning. Unlike most efforts that aim to improve EL learning outcomes, ELSF focuses exclusively on ensuring that full-year core instructional materials guide teachers in addressing these students’ varying needs.

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