Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Getting Out of the EL Silos

A multi-sector conversation to envision the future of EL education
abstract colorful open-circle pattern

What's one thing that everyone should know about English learners?

That question provided a launching pad for a multi-sector conversation held this spring at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The event, called the EL Summit, was intended to confront the structural and systemic silos that too often stand in the way of creative thinking, adequate resourcing, effective instruction, and positive results for English learners. These students are the fastest growing subgroup in U.S. schools, but they remain among the lowest performing on standardized assessments and lag far behind peers in high school graduation rates.

The goal of the EL Summit was to elevate the conversation around equity for English learners by bringing together diverse stakeholders practice and policy — from universities, public schools, charter networks, community organizations, and nonprofits. As organizers of this inaugural event, we saw how eager our audience was for this kind of cross-sector gathering, and we hope this will mark the start of a continuing tradition: a community-wide network of stakeholders working collaboratively in a movement toward better outcomes for English-learner students.

“English learners are so much more than their language ability. We need to stop reducing them to their English proficiency. How can we truly know what they know when we limit them to just one language?”

So — what’s one thing to know about ELs? For our summit panelists, a broad answer emerged: English learners are multi-layered students with a wealth of life experiences, which should be celebrated and which should directly shape all the work we do to support them.

Specific takeaways from EL leaders:

  • "Student voices need to be at the center of our enterprise."
    Paola Uccelli, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • "English learners are so much more than their language ability. We need to stop reducing them to their English proficiency. How can we truly know what they know when we limit them to just one language?"
    Christine Leider, clinical assistant professor of language education and program director of Bilingual Education and TESOL-Licensure at Boston University
  • "An advocacy lens is imperative in the face of injustice. It’s everyone’s responsibility — we are all charged to be advocates."
    Martina Wagner, EL specialist, founder of Wagner Educational Consulting, and director of development at Metro ECSU
  • "The achievement gap is not about students; it’s about us. We talk about 'my kids' from the EL department and 'your kids” from 'mainstream' classrooms — when we take this siloed approach to EL, we’re abdicating responsibility of who has to meet their needs. We leave it up to the EL department, when in fact it takes a whole school, a whole system."
    Sarah Ottow, founder and lead coach of Confianza (listen to Ottow's summary of her talk here)
  • "Ask yourself, what do students need? What do they want from us? We have to challenge our tendency to overgeneralize and assume that all students have the same needs. We are not ourselves members of the group that we advocate for and serve, so it’s essential that we ask questions, listen, and be empathetic, because we will never know the experiences that our families have."
    – Rebecca Westlake, director of English language learning for Salem Public Schools, and Abigail Williamson, ELL instructional coach in Salem Public Schools


Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles