UO and partners work to improve education for English learners

College of Education assistant professor Ilana Umansky is part of a team of researchers exploring how to improve educational opportunities, experiences and outcomes among secondary school-aged, English learner-classified students.

Umansky will work with colleagues from Oregon State University, the University of California, Los Angeles and the UO to examine English learners’ access to core curriculum in middle and high school and different ways to improve that access. Umansky, along with co-principal investigators Karen Thompson of OSU and Li Cai of UCLA, will conduct the research using data from four states.

Umansky’s research has shown that classifying students as English learners reduces their access to certain courses, thus segregating them from students not classified as English learners. Knowing those effects, the team’s goal is to change education policy to create more equitable learning environments.

“Too often, secondary school-aged English learners are segregated and separated into less demanding, and often non-credit-bearing, courses, as was the case in the high school I attended,” Umansky said. “Even if a student graduates, they may not be eligible for a standard diploma or to attend college.”

Umansky’s high school experience inspired her to explore how dividing students into curriculum tracks affects learning and postgraduation outcomes. Though her school served a diverse population, students were still segmented into different classes that were highly correlated with race and class.

“English learners, I remember, were rarely in my classes, and their classes took place in the basement of our buildings for the most part,” Umansky said.

Though the practice was common at the time, they influenced her research interests in her career.

The National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners, led by West Ed researcher Aída Walqui, studies ways to improve the access and quality of English learner education. Its areas of research include education policy, instruction and curriculums, English learners’ academic trajectories, and co-teaching.

West Ed is a nonprofit research and development agency with a mission to improve education through research. The National Research and Development Center received a $10 million grant from the Institutes of Educational Sciences to fund five years of research. At the UO, the money will support graduate student researchers as well as full-time research faculty.

Umansky and the team would like to see states and districts adopting policies that ensure full access to core content by English-learner students in middle and high school. Having equitable access to classes, especially college-track classes, could also increase graduation rates and college enrollment rates.

“By impacting policy, we can change the lives and experiences of many, many students in important and positive ways,” Umansky said. 

—By Meghan Mortensen, College of Education