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Once in a while, everything comes together. That happened on Friday.

The academic vice presidents of the community colleges in New Jersey gather roughly once a month during the academic year. The meetings typically cover issues around general education and Perkins eligibility, new state programs, common challenges fitting new ideas into existing rules, and the like. The issues matter but are generally a few levels removed from the classroom.

This past Friday, we took a different tack. We invited the Community College Research Center to send out a couple of researchers to meet with us and discuss their current research on English as a second language (ESL) instruction in community colleges. Jessica Braithwaite and Julia Raufman made the trip. Each college also allowed its respective VPAA or equivalent to bring two guests from campus. I brought the department chair, Deborah DeBlasio, and the ESL coordinator, Synde Kaufman.

The room was packed with close to 60 people, a nice mix of faculty and administration. Braithwaite and Raufman were given the stage for two hours, so they had a chance to dig pretty deep.

Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of research and innovation around developmental education, but much less on ESL, especially from an institutional perspective. ESL falls between silos; it’s sort of like developmental English, but only partly. It’s sort of like, say, French, but it often doesn’t count for graduation or transfer, and you can’t assume everyone starts from the same native language. It also frequently comes in both credit and noncredit flavors, depending on the long-term objectives of the student. Given that financial aid requires that students be “degree seeking,” students who only want to learn the language aren’t eligible for financial aid. We have some free, grant-funded noncredit ESL classes, but the demand far exceeds the funding.

Much of the research on developmental education has focused on placement and acceleration. How do we know who needs it, how much do they need and how quickly can they get through? Those are reasonable questions, given that we know from the data that the longer the sequence, the fewer students will finish. (There’s also a timing issue with Pell, now that the lifetime Pell limit is the equivalent of 12 semesters. Spend too long on courses that don’t carry graduation credit, and you may not be able to afford to complete a degree.) Getting students through remediation more quickly increases the chances that they’ll finish degrees.

It’s not yet clear, though, whether or how those findings would generalize to ESL. That’s why I was so encouraged to see the CCRC jump in and start checking.

It became clear that the research on ESL is still at an early stage.

On placement, for instance, I was struck when Raufman reported that as of now, there’s no national consensus on a placement instrument. While single-test placement tools have obvious drawbacks, they at least imply some consensus on what to test. We’re not even at that level yet with ESL. Colleges employ various homegrown methods and measures, making comparisons difficult. Multifactor placement -- which typically involves looking at high school GPA -- offers some promise, but if the student attended high school 15 years ago in another country, it may or may not be feasible. Directed self-placement sounds promising, though the word “directed” can mean a lot of things. We don’t yet have a consensus around what that should entail.

On progression, early signs suggest different routes for different groups of students. For the ones who come in with pretty good colloquial English, contextualized or corequisite models seem promising. For those who start with relatively minimal English, even that can be overwhelming. Learning communities between ESL classes and credit-bearing gen ed classes hold some promise, though they raise the usual issues around class size and logistics that learning communities always do. With small cohorts, that can be a problem.

In terms of pedagogy, ESL instruction often includes some introduction to American culture, and some popular teaching materials are based on the model of the international student. That can be an odd fit for the “generation 1.5” student who came to the U.S. sometime in the K-12 years. Those students often have good colloquial English and a fluency in the culture, but they struggle with the more academic skills around reading and writing. Texts written on the model of someone who just got off a plane sometimes don’t resonate.

My favorite moment in the talk came when Braithwaite and Raufman suggested moving away from isolated courses in (say) speaking, writing and reading, and toward a more integrated model. A professor in the audience objected that those labels shouldn’t be taken literally; the courses overlap quite a bit. They’re broken out like that so students can be either part-time or full-time, as their work and family schedules allow. That’s the kind of in-the-trenches information that can prevent understandable category mistakes in the research. (As an administrator, I admit getting squirmy when I hear things like “don’t take course titles literally,” since it could be taken as an admission of shaky institutional integrity. But that’s another post.) In a discussion of the possibility of offering graduation credit for ESL courses, much like we do for French or German, I mentioned transferability as an issue. Most four-year schools either don’t teach ESL at all or regard it as strictly developmental. (Teacher ed programs sometimes teach the teaching of ESL, but that’s not the same thing.) That said, it may be an issue ripe for pressing.

The research is clearly at early stages, but I was just glad it’s happening at all. Judging by the interest level in the room, more clarity on the most effective ways to help ESL students would be well received. Kudos to the CCRC generally, and to Braithwaite and Raufman specifically, for stepping up to the challenge. There’s much more to be done, but at least we’re starting.

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