Maria Santos, the deputy superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif., poses a question to principals, to teachers, and to herself constantly.
Is it possible for students, especially English-language learners, to come to school for an entire day, or perhaps a whole week, and never utter a word in class?
The answer, she knows, is yes.
So as the rollout of new, rigorous standards in English/language arts, mathematics, and science were coming quickly down the pike in the 36,000-student district, Ms. Santos decided it was the ideal opportunity to address the shortcoming head on.
Many Oakland classrooms would have to change in two major ways:
For one, teachers were going to have to do a lot less talking. And, secondly, students, regardless of how well they know English, would need to do a lot more of it.
"Meaningful academic discussion has to be going on in every classroom," said Ms. Santos, the administrator responsible for instruction, leadership, and equity in action in Oakland, which sits on the east side of the San Francisco Bay.
"But getting students to engage in collaborative conversations and negotiate ideas with their peers," said Ms. Santos, "requires a very different kind of classroom."
Oakland, where 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, has a troubled history. The district emerged from six years of state control in 2009, after a $100 million financial bailout and oversight from administrators appointed to right the district's fiscal ship. During that period, charter schools proliferated in Oakland, while enrollment dropped by some 12,000 students. Large achievement gaps persist in the city's schools: The four-year graduation rate in 2012 for African-American students was 53 percent, compared with 78 percent for both white and Asian students. The Latino rate was 52 percent.
Turning Oakland's classrooms—especially those with English-learners—into environments in which students are compelled to converse, discuss, debate, argue, and engage verbally with their peers is a key focus for Ms. Santos and her academic team, who are working closely with principals and teachers to make it happen.
Their initiative puts the needs of English-learners and other students who traditionally struggle academically squarely at the center of the district's foray into the new standards. For Ms. Santos, 61, a former mathematics, science, and bilingual-resource teacher whose first language is Spanish, it's a continuation of her career-long commitment to students who are learning English, according to those who have worked closely with her.
"English-language learners are not an afterthought for her, nor, by extension, the district," said Tina Cheuk, the project manager of the Understanding Language project at Stanford University, which Ms. Santos co-directs.
Said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor who is Ms. Santos' Understanding Language co-director: "I do think what has always set her apart as a leader for ELLs is her focus on balancing the content and the language expertise and putting the content upfront, rather than in the background. That has helped to position Oakland's transition to the common core very well."
Now that public schools in nearly every state are beginning to teach the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and literacy and mathematics, and, in states like California, the new Next Generation Science Standards as well, demands on students to use more sophisticated language and practices such as analysis, persuasion, and comparison have ratcheted up.
Ms. Santos, who directed New York City's English-language-learner services for six years before coming to Oakland, said the California district's first step to make the major shift was to pair content-area teachers with ESL teachers to create new units of study for English/language arts and math. Those collaborations, Ms. Santos said, led to lesson plans that build in tasks and prompts to get students engaging in discourse, along with supports, or "scaffolds," that teachers can use to help English-learners at various levels of proficiency.
To ensure that teachers could follow through on the units of study and create the right conditions for classroom conversation, Ms. Santos and her team turned to the idea of "instructional rounds," inspired by the earlier work of Harvard University researchers. Akin to patient rounds conducted by medical professionals in hospital settings, small teams of educators have been going into schools and select classrooms to closely examine a problem or area of instruction they've singled out as in need of improvement. To delve into the complexities of academic discussion, the Oakland teams—made up usually of the principal, a teacher, and a content specialist—look specifically at how students are behaving and what they are saying.
"We have been able to really concentrate on what students are saying and listening to make sure they aren't just regurgitating facts," said Monica Guzman, the principal of the International Community School, a K-5 campus where 70 percent of students are ELLs. "It's helped us figure out which are the right supports and strategies that work especially well for English-learners."
The teams also look for basics like how classrooms are set up to foster discussions and whether teachers are using the content-specific vocabulary and academic language that students will need to master. They document everything they see and then break down each finding, point by point, in later discussions with teachers.
When it comes to English-learners specifically, the team looks at whether those students are discussing ideas and making connections to the content, even if their language isn't perfect.
"That's the ultimate goal of all of this," said Ms. Santos. "We have to support ELLs to develop their language through the content."
Roma Groves, the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland, where 20 percent of students are English-learners, said the instructional rounds are having a positive impact on her teachers, some of whom were initially skeptical. "It was something new for them and perhaps a little invasive," said Ms. Groves. "But when they got useful feedback from the team that came to see them, they took what they heard to heart."
The rounds began in the 2012-13 school year in a half-dozen schools and have expanded districtwide this year. They are done twice—once in the fall and once in the spring.
"When we do these rounds, it's really about all of us learning together," Ms. Santos said. "Nobody here has all the answers."
Vol. 33, Issue 23, Pages s18,s19