Category Archives: For Schools

I can advise on program management, curriculum, faculty issues, and business development.

What’s your pricing strategy?

As competition for students increases, intensive English programs should consider the price of their program. The pricing decision must take into account the overhead and operating cost of the program, as well as revenue and margin goals. But a conscious pricing strategy also positions the program in relation to competitor programs. Prospective students evaluate the program price against the perceived value the program will have for them. Here are five examples of intensive English program pricing strategies I have encountered over the past few years, each of which exemplifies a pricing strategy that worked, or didn’t, for the program. Prices are for tuition for a four-week general English program.

Program A was part of a for-profit language school chain, located in the downtown area of a major city. At $2,200 (this was in 1998), it was priced significantly higher than similar programs. The price was intended to communicate high quality, but although this company had developed its own proprietary language learning software and hired only teachers with master’s degrees, it struggled to communicate added value to students. Student feedback included comments such as, “Why is this school so expensive?” This language school chain went out of business.

Takeaway: If you charge a higher price, you must be able to communicate the value you offer beyond the competition.

Program B, also part of a for-profit chain, marketed itself as a kind of ‘business class’ English school. It charged anything from $4,000 to $8,000 in the early 2000s, much more than any other program. Its facility was designed with business executives in mind, classrooms were fitted out as high-end conference rooms, and classes were very small, with additional one-on-one options available for personal attention (which most students opted for). Teachers were trained to push students hard for rapid progress. This school had a clear differentiating factor, and there was an elite clientele willing to pay the price, including corporate HR managers seeking professional development for employees. This was a low-volume, high-margin approach that was successful as long as the school could find and reach its market, which was and remains a challenge.

Takeaway: If you price high to attract a small number of well-heeled students, you must have a strategy and the capacity to reach those students or decision-makers, and clearly describe your difference.

Program C is a university-based program charging  almost $3000, which is about twice what the typical proprietary program in the same city charges. The university and the program have a strong reputation, and the program has a highly qualified and experienced faculty teaching an academically-based curriculum. The program saw a significant drop in enrollments in the past few years. While its price may reflect an ‘elite’ status as a university program and continues to attract students who seek a superior program, its net income is allocated to fund other university programs, and the university has demanding revenue expectations. Students are paying above what the program might need to charge if it were an independent entity. On the other hand, if they choose, students can take advantage of the university’s facilities and its student community.

Takeaway: A university-based IEP must be able to communicate the value inherent in its position on a campus to potential students who have academic ambitions.

Program D is a stand-alone proprietary program outside the main business district of the city, charging $750, or as little as $500 for students who make a long-term commitment. This program has made price its main differentiating factor, and is experiencing growth even at a time of overall declines. This is a high-volume, low-margin strategy that works if enrollment is strong, as it is. The downside is that it attracts a population largely from one country, many of whom stay with relatives who have immigrated from that country, and whose priority may be to stay in the U.S. rather than a strong urge to learn English. This has quality implications in the classroom.

Takeaway: A low price can be successful if you are able to find large numbers of students who may be satisfied with a no-frills program, and recruit them directly rather than through commission-based agents.

Program E: This program is a downtown branch of an international chain of English schools, and charges around $1700, which is about the same as other chain schools in the same city. This school emphasizes its location, its modern facility and technology, and friendly, welcoming atmosphere. It recruits primarily through an extensive network of agents, to whom it pays commissions.

Takeaway: When your price is the same as your direct competitors, you must build and maintain strong relations with your sales network, and develop in your agents a strong brand loyalty.

Information about intensive English programs is ubiquitous, and in an era of high student mobility,  you might say that every program is competing with every other program for students. Price is one of the major factors in positioning your program. Which of the above strategies is yours closest to? Is it appropriate now, and will it remain so in the future?

The push and pull of power in intensive English programs

…a review of Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership (2nd Edition) by Gilbert W. Fairholm

Power has a bad reputation in educational environments. In many people’s minds, it is associated with terms like ‘power-hungry’ or ‘greedy for power,’ and yes, I’ve heard it used by faculty to describe what they see as overreaching administrators trying to control their work.

But power, according to Fairholm, is ethically neutral; it is the  motives of the individuals who use it that determine whether its outcomes are positive or negative. And power is intrinsic to any group of people that aims to get things done, so reading a book about organizational power politics can give you insights not only into your own power and how to use and increase it, but also into the power tactics of those around you. In turn, you will gain a deeper understanding of how your organization works, and especially why some people or groups are more powerful than others.

In any group or organizational setting, power is the ability to control scarce resources in order to achieve your aims, even if others oppose you. While you may think of power as coercive (hence its reputation), power is exerted in a number of ways, listed by Fairholm on page 12, ranging from coercive at the top, to consensual at the bottom:

Force
Authority
Manipulation
Threat/Promise
Persuasion
Influence

Those who are higher in the organizational hierarchy are more likely to be able to access the direct forms of power at the top of this list, while those lower down may exercise the indirect power types at the bottom. Yet power is not only about where you are in the hierarchy, and other sources of power include expertise, criticality to the organization, and group solidarity. This means that the exercise of power can be inverted, and power can be exerted upward. Fairholm describes “the power exercised by… lower-level workers who dominate their superiors through their control over resources (e.g., skill) the leader needs” (p. 55).

In many educational settings, especially in universities, there is a tension between faculty and administrators over the use of power. While it may be inappropriate to talk about who is higher and lower in the hierarchy, this struggle often manifests as one between authority legitimized by formal position among administrators, and the threat exercised by faculty who know that their expertise and skills are critical to the institution. Faculty in many university intensive English programs are challenged by the administrative invocation of the authority of non-negotiable accreditation standards. Fairholm sums this situation up concisely: “Promulgation of standard operating procedures, requiring prior (or post) approval of subordinate decision or actions and an over-adherence to organizational traditions, exemplify this tactic” (p. 125). Note that in the case of IEPs, it is often ‘organizational traditions’ that are promoted by the faculty in opposition to the ‘standard operating procedures’ imposed by the administration.  Note also that teachers in proprietary IEPs have long been subject to organizational standard operating procedures, and are unlikely to be able to draw on institutional tradition as a counter-weight. This is one reason why proprietary IEP teachers have relatively less power in their organizations than their university counterparts.

If you want to understand the workings of power in your organization, and gain insight into your current power and how to increase it, Fairholm’s book – with its sharp analysis, questionnaires, and lists of strategies – is a good place to begin.

Fairholm, G.W., Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership, 2nd Ed., Praeger 2009

Faculty freedom and curriculum design in intensive English programs

How much freedom do intensive English program (IEP) teachers have to design their courses, choose their materials, and teach to their interests? How much should they? These questions become ever more compelling as accreditation standards push programs to be accountable for their outcomes.

Teachers in proprietary (non-university-governed) IEPs have long been used to teaching within a structured framework, using prescribed textbooks and curricula that map out what is to be covered by the week or even by the day. This has been necessary because, adopting a customer-centric and profit-maximizing approach, they allow students frequent – weekly or monthly – entry and exit points. Students staying for a short program jump in and then out of existing classes with longer-term students. Those long-term students need to be able to move through a defined program of work and progress to the next, and then the next, level. This means that all teachers need to be on the specified part of the curriculum – in some cases on the specified page of the textbook – at all times.

Many university IEPs have inherited the university tradition of faculty autonomy, giving faculty the freedom to write their own syllabi, choose their own materials, and generally teach to their own interests. Under the influence of CEA accreditation standards, faculty are losing some of this autonomy, as student achievement standards require them to teach to a program-wide set of learning objectives. Student promotion to the next level must be based on student achievement of objectives, so faculty have to conform to standard assessment, evaluation, and grading practices. In order to ensure all students are getting the same course, university programs are increasingly prescribing textbooks. As a result, university IEP curricula and faculty work are looking more like those of proprietary programs.

This trend has caused much tension between faculty and administration at IEPs where faculty have fought to retain autonomy in their teaching. Some faculty claim that students are losing out because, being close to the students, they know what is best for them. Administrators charged with implementing accreditation standards argue in turn that students gain when there is a program-wide system that smooths out the differences between faculty styles and preferences.

In proprietary programs, curriculum can be imposed by administrative fiat. This is harder in university programs. Those that have adapted best are the ones where administrators and faculty have a trusting relationship and can jointly respond to the new requirements in a collaborative way that reconciles the divergent demands of individual autonomy and program standardization. Some programs continue to struggle.

 

 

 

Unintended Consequences? Effects of the 2010 Accreditation Act on Intensive English Programs

The Accreditation Act passed in 2010 required that F-1 students pursuing an English language training program must attend a program that is accredited by a Department of Education recognized accrediting agency. University-governed programs were covered by their university’s regional accreditor, which meant that for them, an additional specialized accreditation was optional. All proprietary programs – mostly for-profit language schools – were required to seek and gain accreditation.

The Accreditation Act was supported, and its passage celebrated by, program directors and leaders at university-governed and well-established, already-accredited for-profit language school companies. They were motivated by a strong desire to bring greater professionalism to the field and to weed out a significant number of unscrupulous and fly-by-night operators who had cleared the relatively low bar for entry into the industry and whose low standards were tainting the field as a whole. Since the passage of the Act, the two specialized accrediting agencies for intensive English programs, CEA and ACCET, have added hundreds of intensive English programs to their rolls. Plenty of programs that sought accreditation have been denied, and the weeding out process has been largely successful.

But some consequences are not so unequivocally positive for the field:

  • The accreditation process costs up to $10,000, plus annual sustaining fees. This is a significant financial burden on programs, especially during a time of enrollment challenges. While university-governed programs have the option of sheltering under their institution’s accreditation and avoiding these costs, proprietary programs have no choice but to pay up or cease doing business.
  • The requirement for an IEP to be accredited creates a Catch-22 for potential new entrants into the market. A proprietary program has to be in business for two years (ACCET) or one year (CEA) before it can apply for accreditation. The accreditation process itself takes around 18 months, and if it succeeds, the program must then wait for F-1 issuing approval from the federal government. In the words of one IEP administrator in this situation, “It felt like being choked to death for four years.” During this time, the program has to survive on non-F-1 students. The near-impossibility of this makes the price of entry extremely high for those wanting to enter the field. While there were always requirements to become an F-1 school, the Accreditation Act raised almost insurmountable barriers to new proprietary players.
  • A consequence of this is greater consolidation in the proprietary IEP market. If you cannot start a new school, you have to purchase an existing one. Inevitably, those with the resources to do this are large companies seeking to develop branded chains of English schools. Further, accrediting agencies make it relatively easy for existing schools to open new branches through a simplified accreditation process for the new branch, thus allowing existing companies to expand while new entrants continue to struggle to gain entry.
  • Accreditation likely has the effect of curbing innovation in the field. Adherence to accreditation standards tends to result in institutional isomorphism (the phenomenon of institutions of a certain type looking the same), and programs are reluctant to launch anything radically different for fear of not complying with accreditation standards. Aside from surface details (number of levels, number of weeks per session, etc.), IEPs can be quite difficult to tell apart. This, combined with the lengthy SEVP approval process for new programs, in turn leads to commodification in the industry: potential students have difficulty telling one program apart from another, and use price, location, and established brand reputation to make their choice rather than any specific features of a program.

Overall, the benefit to the field has been positive. Students can apply to U.S. IEPs with the knowledge that their chosen program has been verified by an accreditor to meet high standards. The price to the industry as a whole is high though, and we should look for ways to mitigate the downsides – in particular to find ways to foster innovation and be open to new models – as we continue to face challenging market conditions in the years to come.

How valid is that speaking test really?

students in testing lab

Language learners who take an online language test usually expect to receive an evaluation of their speaking ability in the results. But online tests don’t do a very good job of assessing speaking ability because they lack construct validity: they cannot create the type of conditions the learner will be speaking the language in, such as a conversation or presentation. The iBT TOEFL has speaking components, but the test taker has no interlocutor, creating a highly unrealistic speaking situation – a monologue spoken into a microphone with no audience – on which speaking ability will be evaluated. Some online tests contain no speaking component at all; claims about the test taker’s speaking ability is even more inferential than those of the iBT. None of this prevents test makers from making confident claims about their test’s ability to measure learners’ speaking ability.

Speaking is a particularly difficult skill to test properly, especially the ‘spoken interaction’ described in the Common European Framework of Reference. Research has shown that learners perform differently under different conditions. For example, a test taker scored more highly when paired with another learner in a conversation than when assessed by interview with an examiner (Swain, Kinnear, & Steinman, 2011). Conversation is co-constructed by participants, who build on and scaffold each other’s utterances. Conversation requires cooperation, the successful negotiation of meaning, strategies to understand the other person, asking questions, requesting clarification, affirming, and paraphrasing. Is it likely that any of this can be evaluated by an assessment that does not require the learner to do any of these things?

Online tests have emerged from the psychometric testing tradition, which assumes that an ability is stable in an individual, and therefore requires isolation of the individual in order to avoid extraneous influences. This is the opposite of most spoken language in use. We should call into question the usefulness of tests that make claims based on a lack of validity.

The best way for spoken language to be assessed is by an expert interlocutor interacting with and observing learners in interactions with others over a period of time. Language teachers – trained and experienced in assessment and evaluation techniques, and in many cases able to assess learners over the course of a session or semester – are best placed to offer this kind of assessment.

Reference
Swain, M, Kinnear, P., & Steinman, L., Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education, Multilingual Matters 2011

Picture credit https://tc.iupui.edu/

How SWBATs and can-do statements shortchange language learners

“Can keep up with an animated discussion, identifying accurately arguments supporting and opposing points of view.” “Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points.” If your program is using Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) descriptors as its outcomes statements, you’ll be familiar with ‘can-do’ statements like these.

The CEFR was developed as a means to assess and describe language proficiency. It was built on the European tradition of communicative language teaching (CLT), which emphasized the performance of language tasks. Since language performance can be observed, the CEFR’s can-do statements were a perfect match for the measurable-outcomes-based accountability initiatives that came in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Many teachers have been trained, encouraged, or badgered to plan their lessons and courses around SWBAT (‘students will be able to’) or can-do statements.

There is a persuasive case to be made that CEFR (and similar) performance statements are a useful way to describe language proficiency. Employers, for example, what to know what a potential employee can do in a language – what practical uses the employee can use the language for. Language educators are not employers, though. What language educators need to know is whether and to what extent learning has taken place, and here’s the problem.

Broadly speaking, two educational traditions have informed language teaching: the behavioral, and the cognitive. Behaviorists see learning as a change in behavior, one that can be observed or measured. Cognitivists see learning as acquiring and understanding knowledge. The cognitivist tradition fell out of fashion with the demise of the grammar-translation method and the rise of behavior-based approaches to language teaching. These days, we can probably all agree that in language learning, we need to refer to both traditions: the acquisition or construction of a mental representation of the language, and the skill required to be able to use it in practice. When our outcomes are can-do statements, we focus on observable or measurable behaviors, but tend to pay less attention to acquired or constructed knowledge. We want to know if the learner ‘can tell a story,’ or ‘keep up with an animated discussion,’ for example.

If you have taught students from various countries, you know that some are great performers even if they lack a solid language base – somehow, they manage to draw on sparse linguistic resources to communicate. And on the other hand, you know that some learners have extensive language knowledge, especially grammar and vocabulary knowledge, but have a great deal of difficulty ‘performing.’ Hence, Chomsky wrote of language proficiency, “behavior is only one kind of evidence, sometimes not the best, and surely no criterion for knowledge,” (as cited in Widdowson, 1990). The one is not necessarily indicative of the other.

If you are an educator (as opposed to an employer), you are interested in student learning in any form. You want to know what progress a learner has made. From a cognitive point of view, that includes changes in the learner’s mental representation of the language – a clearer understanding of the form, meaning, and use of the present perfect, for example – even if that has not yet resulted in a change in behavior, such as the ability to use that tense easily in a conversation. A learner who has made great strides in his/or mental representation of the language but is still speaking in telegraphic speech may be of little interest to an employer, but should be of great interest to an educator, because learning has taken place that is a basis for future teaching. Assessment and description of the learner’s language should address this type of progress. The behavioral tradition, with its can-do outcomes statements have no interest in such cognitive development – it is not interested until there is a change of behavior, an observable, measurable performance.

This approach to assessment shortchanges learners who may have made real progress on the cognitive side. So, I’m calling on language educators not to accept uncritically the use of CEFR and similar performance-based descriptors as measures of language learning.

Reference
Widdowson, H.G., Aspects of Language Teaching, Oxford University Press, 1990

The Accreditation-Ready Program

There are few obligations for faculty and staff that cause knots in the stomach and departmental wrangling than preparing the accreditation self-study. It is often viewed as a burden, a distraction from everyone’s ‘real’ work, and a process of bureaucratic box-checking or of trying to fit the round peg of the program into the square hole of accreditation requirements.

In Five Dimensions of Quality, Linda Suskie draws on years of experience with accreditation, institutional and program assessment, and accountability to re-frame the role of accreditors as “low-cost consultants who can offer excellent collegial advice” (p. 245) to schools and programs seeking to demonstrate their value to stakeholders in an increasingly competitive market.  Accreditation should be viewed not as an imposition of alien practices on an established program, but as a way for a school or program to gain  external affirmation of already-existing quality. The challenge is not to make the program ‘fit’ accreditation standards, but actually to be a quality program and demonstrate that quality.

Accreditation success, then, flows naturally from the pursuit of quality, and is not an end in itself. But what is quality? Suskie breaks it down into five dimensions or ‘cultures’:

A Culture of Relevance
Deploying resources effectively to put students first, and understand and meet stakeholders’ needs.

A Culture of Community
Fostering trust among faculty, students, and staff, communicating openly and honestly, and encouraging collaboration.

A Culture of Focus and Aspiration
Being clear about school or program  purpose, values, and goals.

A Culture of Evidence
Collecting evidence to gauge student learning and program or school effectiveness.

A Culture of Betterment
Using evidence to make improvements and deploy resources effectively.

Fostering these cultures is the work of leadership, since they require widespread buy-in from all stakeholders. The challenge in many institutions is institutional inertia, as Suskie points out in her chapter, “Why is this so hard?” Faculty, staff, and governing boards may feel satisfied that the school’s reputation is sufficient for future success; resources – especially money and people’s time – may not be forthcoming; faculty and staff may live in comfortable isolation from the  real-world needs of students; there may be an ingrained reluctance to communicate successes; there is frequently resistance to change; and siloed departments in programs and institutions make across-the-board cultural change difficult to pull off.

The question administrators and faculty should ask themselves is, “Do we put our efforts into pursuing quality, or into maintaining our accreditation?” Suskie’s book presents a convincing case that working on the former will make the latter much easier and will result in quality rather than box-checking. For its straightforward prose (including jargon alerts scattered throughout), its sound advice, and its call for schools to demonstrate quality in a highly competitive environment, Five Dimensions of Quality should be a go-to resource on the reference bookshelf of decision-makers and leaders in higher education programs.

Suskie, L., Five Dimensions of Quality, Jossey-Bass 2015

More of my education-related book reviews are at Amazon.

Challenge and change in intensive English programs

From left: Bill Hellriegel, Carol Swett, Michelle Bell, Amy Fenning, Alan Broomhead

Challenges over the past few years have deeply impacted intensive English programs, forcing irreversible changes in their organizational cultures that result in anxiety and tension, but also innovation and adaptation. That was the theme of a panel session, “Organizational Culture in University and Proprietary IEPs: Challenges and Changes,” presented by Michelle Bell (University of Southern California), Amy Fenning (University of Tennessee at Martin), Bill Hellriegel (Southern Illinois University), Carol Swett (ELS Language Centers at Benedictine University, Illinois) and myself at the TESOL International Convention on March 28. Recognizing the cultural types of IEPs and how they are affected by changes is the first step in adapting and surviving in an increasingly competitive field.

IEP cultures can roughly be divided into collegial and managerial types, following Bergquist and Pawlak’s (2007) typology of academic cultures. A collegial culture, more likely to be found in a university-governed IEP, is faculty-focused, with faculty scholarship and teaching, academic autonomy and freedom, and faculty ownership of the curriculum as the organizing principle. A managerial culture is administration-driven, motivated by considerations of fiscal responsibility and effective supervision, and organized by systems, processes, and standards.

The massive shift to accreditation in IEPs has moved collegially-oriented programs in a managerial direction. Faculty are required to plan, teach, and assess in compliance with program-wide student learning outcomes; policies and procedures have to be written and followed; and program success is measured by data, which has to be systematically collected, analyzed, and evaluated. Proprietary IEPs are seeing a a shift in the other direction: faculty standards require minimum levels of certification, experience, and ongoing professional development, and these are affecting faculty hiring and employment practices in many proprietary programs.

The severe enrollment challenge of the past two years has also affected both types of program. University IEPs are becoming more revenue-driven and entrepreneurial, actively seeking new recruitment partnerships and designing new programs – such as short-term high school programs – to respond to changing demand. Faculty may have little say in these initiatives. Meanwhile, proprietary IEPs are increasingly developing conditional-admit and TOEFL-waiver agreements with partner universities, requiring them to make programs more academically-focused and hire masters-level teachers who are qualified to teach English for academic purposes.

These are ground-shifting developments, and program leaders who recognize the need to address profound cultural change in their organizations – and not just surface-level adjustments – will be in the strongest position to navigate these challenging times.

Reference
Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2007

Is language proficiency measurable?

For the past few years, ESL teachers have been pushed to focus their efforts on helping their students achieve ‘measurable objectives.’ Am I the only person who finds this a strange idea? Measuring something is a matter of determining how much of something there is. To measure, we need a unit of measurement: inches and feet, centimeters and meters, pounds and ounces, grams and kilograms. By agreeing on standardized units of measurement, we can determine, objectively, the quantity of something.

Could we use this approach to evaluate a work of art or a piece of music? What would Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik measure? What unit of measurement would you use? Impossible, because we are not dealing with quantity (the amount of paint or size of canvas, or the number of notes) but with quality. There is no unit of measurement for quality.

When we want to assess and evaluate language are we dealing with something more like a distance or weight, or like a work of art? Is it the quantity of language or the quality of language we want to know about?

If you believe it is quantity, then you might say we can ‘measure’ the number of words a student has learned, or the number of grammar points. These don’t work as units of measurement, though, because defining exactly what is meant by ‘learning a word’ is complicated, as language teachers know. A student may be able to say it but not spell it, may use it but in an inappropriate context, may not recognize it when written down but may hear it in another person’s speech, may forget it on one occasion but recall it on another.

The psychometric testing tradition has given us tests which appear to measure learners’ language ability by assigning a score and thus appear to be objective. Classroom assessments by teachers are often regarded as a subjective second-best.

We should move away from the notion that language proficiency is measurable, and that test scores give us an ‘objective measure’ of a learner’s ability.  Language should be evaluated qualitatively, by people, using rich description rather than fantasy units of measurement that give the false impression of objectivity.

The Inadequacy of “ESL” for International Student Preparation

Wrapped up in the term ESL (English as a Second Language) is an assumption that language, above all, is what students need to succeed in an English-speaking environment. The same kind of assumption can be found in the name of the most popular standardized U.S. admissions test for international students, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) lists levels of language proficiency by skill, and many ESL programs continue to organize their curricula on the basis of Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing skills. The field of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) is a major feeder discipline in ESL teacher preparation programs.

A focus on the acquisition of language skills gets us only so far if we are preparing an international student for academic work in an English-speaking setting.  One thing among very many that this student needs to do is to read a text critically and offer an original, well-thought-out, supported, and argued response. The student may need to argue that response in class, and defend it against other points of view, in an assertive yet diplomatic manner. To be taken seriously, the student will need to behave in what is recognized as a normal and appropriate manner in that environment – and know when and how to revert to a more informal style when class ends. All of this goes far beyond language skills.

What this student needs to learn is what James Paul Gee in Social Linguistics and Literacies refers to as Discourse (with a capital D). Discourse “is composed of distinctive ways of listening/speaking and often, too, writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and with various objects, tools, and technologies, so as to enact specific socially recognizable identities engaged in specific socially recognizable activities” (p. 152). These are less language skills than “social practices into which people are apprenticed as part of a social group” (p. 76). As we move in different Discourse communities, we need to know how to play our part and be recognized as a legitimate member of each community. Discourses are mastered by “enculturation…into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (p. 168).

This helps us understand why any program of learning that reduces preparation to language skills is inadequate. Students need to learn the ways of interacting, believing, valuing, and effectively being in the academic Discourse community. University IEPs (intensive English programs) teach English for academic purposes, but they still largely identify as English language programs with language-based missions, their faculty members have degrees in teaching English, and classes are often language skill-specific. They are often isolated from the rest of the campus, and therefore don’t allow for the kind of apprenticeship into the social practices of the campus that would make international students full members of the Discourse community.

In order to address this wider understanding of international student preparation:

  • Intensive English programs should ensure their missions, their curricula and teaching, and their names, encapsulate the full meaning of international student preparation – not simply ESL.
  • University administrations should make international student preparation a task for the whole university, supported by, but not the sole responsibility of, an intensive English program. The IEP’s efforts should be integrated into a campus-wide strategy for international student preparation.
  • Universities should not expect that simply raising the required TOEFL scores will improve international student outcomes – students need induction into the Discourse community, not just a higher TOEFL score.
  • ESL teacher preparation programs need to include coursework on social literacy and in preparing students to enter and successfully navigate their target Discourse communities.

Some of this has already been achieved. Many IEPs recognize their wider mission of orienting students into academic culture, and more recently,  pathway programs have been structured to provide ESL support alongside credit-bearing classes that, in theory at least, offers an apprenticeship into the academic community. But there is a long way to go before the notion of Discourse communities drives international student preparation beyond the inadequacy of “ESL.”

Reference
Gee, J.P., Social Linguistics and Literacies, 5th Ed., Routledge 2015

Working with the tension between language test validity and reliability

The combination of validity and reliability is the holy grail when it comes to language assessment, yet these two qualities are always in direct tension with each other. This can create a challenge when English language programs try to put in place effective measures of language learning, and especially when they have to convince their accreditors that they’ve done so. Student achievement standards are frequently not met in accreditation reviews for precisely this reason.

An assessment is valid if it measures what it is supposed to measure. So, a multiple choice test is generally not a very valid means of testing speaking ability; nor is a gap-fill test a very valid way to determine whether a student has learned to use a grammar structure in communication. On the other hand, a student presentation might serve as a useful basis for a valid assessment of speaking ability, and a speaking or writing test that elicits a target grammar structure would bring to light a student’s ability to use grammar.

An assessment is reliable if would yield the same results for that student if administered by a different person or in a different location. An in-class presentation or role-play assessed by the class teacher is vulnerable to having a low level of reliability, since the test conditions would be difficult to reproduce in another class. The TOEFL iBT is probably the gold standard for test reliability, with extremely detailed protocols for ensuring the uniformity of the test-taking experience for all students, and two-rater grading of written and spoken assignments.

You can probably see the tension: the greater the validity, the harder it is to attain reliability; the greater the reliability, the harder it is to make the test valid (in the three-hour iBT, the test taker is not required to interact with a single human being).

To increase the reliability of valid assessments, programs can:

  1. use a common set of learning objectives across the program and hold teachers accountable for teaching to them
  2. use standard assessment rubrics across the program
  3. calibrate grading through teacher training
  4. have more than one person assess each student’s performance.

These measures might generate pushback among faculty in some university programs.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any great ways to increase the validity of highly reliable of achievement tests. Doing so would require standardizing the teaching – teaching directly to the test – which nobody in an IEP wants, except in a course specifically for test preparation. Programs that use external standardized tests for level promotion are not using a valid means of assessing what was taught (since the test makers don’t know what was taught).

Instead of seeking the absolute standard of ‘assessments that are valid and reliable,’ we need to

  1. start by creating assessments that are valid – that measure precisely what was taught and was supposed to be learned; and then
  2. design and implement measures to reach as high a level of reliability of those assessments as is possible and practical.

Using this approach is a recognition that you can’t have it all, but you can work within the tension of validity and reliability to reach a satisfactory compromise.

Teacher Leadership for Program Improvement and Development

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

If you’ve read anything from the popular leadership literature, you’re probably familiar with the prescriptions for strong leadership: confidence, vision, integrity, charisma, and so on. Analyses like these are premised on positional leadership, or what James Spillane called ‘the heroics of leadership’ – the notion of the strong leader standing at the head of an organization, leading the way. Think Jack Welch, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page.

There is an alternative to this view of leadership. Distributed leadership begins with the idea of leadership tasks and asks how these tasks can be accomplished by individuals across an organization. In an intensive English program (IEP), leadership tasks can include curriculum development, teacher professional development, and materials writing, among others. In many management-driven IEPs, these tasks are still carried out by non-teaching staff. But there are advantages to bringing teachers into leadership tasks and distributing them more widely.

Bringing teachers into leadership roles – whether formally or informally – is great professional development for teachers in a profession that otherwise may have no upward career path. It can give teachers a sense of fulfillment from helping other teachers or the program as a whole, and can serve to retain talented teachers by more thoroughly networking them into the program. And it serves the program by drawing on the enormous pool of talent that teachers bring, and which is otherwise confined to their classrooms.

There are challenges to introducing teacher leadership. The role of leader is not a part of the ‘role schema’ of a teacher – teachers are socialized to be followers and may not see themselves as leaders. Teachers need to reframe their self-identity to include leadership. External constraints include how teachers are perceived by other teachers when they take on leadership roles – there is often a culture of egalitarianism among teachers, and teacher leaders may draw disapproval from their teacher peers. Finally, structuring  teacher jobs to include leadership can be a challenge: teachers may lack the time or energy to take on leadership roles, and the program may be limited in its ability to compensate them or structure their jobs appropriately to accommodate leadership tasks.

For teacher leadership to succeed, therefore, it requires strong support from the program director or academic director. Teachers need to be empowered to take on leadership roles, and they need to be given the time and resources to succeed. They may also need coaching on how to manage their identity as teacher leaders, and they may need to be protected from resentment that may occur among peers as they take on leadership roles.

IEPs serve their students best when everyone has an opportunity to contribute to decision-making and program improvements. Here are some examples of teacher leadership I’ve seen over the past few years:

  • A teacher took the initiative to start a reading corner to encourage extensive reading among students. With management support, she built up a collection of books for ESL learners at all levels, and now runs the reading corner as part of her job.
  • A teacher started a peer observation group to encourage teachers to visit each other’s classes and give feedback.
  • Teachers took on program coordinator roles for which they were given release time from their teaching.
  • Teachers played a role in the selection and hire of new teachers.
  • Teachers delivered professional development workshops for their peers, or organized a professional development program.
  • Teachers self-organized into ‘level’ teams to collaborate on in-class projects and assessments.
  • Experienced teachers mentored newer teachers.
  • Teachers became subject or skill experts in the program.

Think about how teacher leadership can be extended in your program.

Can an intensive English program go virtual?


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Along with continuing enrollment challenges for university and proprietary intensive English programs (IEPs) comes a demand for fresh ideas, re-thinking the model, and new types of programs that meet the needs of today’s learner. Given the rise and ubiquity of online learning, many IEP leaders are asking whether and how they might take their programs online.

Online ESL is already big business, with many startup companies connecting students and teachers in different parts of the world through synchronous online lessons. The first challenge for IEPs thinking about breaking into this market is how to devote the resources to develop and market an online program while not diverting resources from their current on-ground operations. But the greater challenge is how to take a model that has developed and established its value in one format (on-ground) over many years and adapting that model to a new, online format.

In their book on academic cultures, Bergquist and Pawlak identify the ‘tangible’ culture and the ‘virtual’ culture as two cultural types that may be in tension with each other. IEPs have developed around a tangible culture that emphasizes location, student life, interaction with local people, institutional facilities – the whole student experience. Additionally, as a result of visa regulations, they have built curricula and weekly schedules that prioritize compliance over the needs of students (example: there is no strictly educational reason why students should spend 18 hours in class in order to learn a language). This model has been valuable to the many thousands of students who have attended IEPs. But how much of this on-ground value can an IEP retain when it puts its programs online? And with many providers in the online market, most of which are specialized, agile, not tied to an on-ground model, and highly entrepreneurial, how feasible is it for established IEPs to make significant inroads into this market?

My prediction is that most intensive English programs will not play a significant role in the online ESL market, nor will they want to break from the on-ground model they have spent years nurturing. To survive, they will need to continue adapting to the needs of current students who want to travel for an education. Right now this means offering short, specialized programs, and pathways into universities. While the demand for intensive English programs is currently in a slump and may never bounce back to the numbers of recent years, the tangible academic culture is not going away, and there will always be value in traveling for a global, intercultural, and language education. IEPs need to continue working to demonstrate that value to tomorrow’s students.

Reference
Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2008.

Keeping your Intensive English Program Relevant on Campus


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These are trying times for many on-campus intensive English programs. Enrollment and revenue are down, and there is increased pressure from senior administration for many IEPs to demonstrate their continuing relevance and usefulness to the wider institution.

At the same time, many universities have enrolled international students who can benefit from language, cultural, and social support. IEPs have faculty and staff who are highly qualified to provide programming in these areas (and who may currently have less work to do), yet because IEPs are typically viewed as profit centers rather than service units, they are not called on to offer such support. This is short-sighted, as increased support for degree-seeking international students will improve their retention and completion rates – which is good for the students,  the university’s bottom line, and the institution’s reputation.

IEP directors can sell this idea to university administrators. Here are some activities the IEP can offer to improve the international student experience on campus:

Workshops for faculty: Offer strategies to encourage international students to participate in class discussions, or give advice on assessing written work of students using English as a second language.

Resource webpage for English language support:  Like this one at Hunter College. Include online dictionaries, grammar resources, and writing advice for international students across campus.

Tutoring: Many universities have a writing center, but few have a place specifically to help with second language issues. The IEP can provide this.

English language workshops: Students who have gained a high score on the TOEFL or IELTS may still be lacking essential English skills. Offer workshops in pronunciation, pragmatics, or giving presentations.

Career preparation workshops: Many international students may seek on-campus employment, co-op or internship positions, or CPT/OPT opportunities. Help them write an effective application and interview effectively.

Pre-arrival language preparation: Develop a short online course to give incoming international students confidence with English. Prepare them for the various situations they will encounter and provide strategies to continue working on their English once they arrive.

These ideas will likely require building relationships with other offices on campus, and IEP directors may run into territory issues. Getting buy-in from a senior administrator who can support these efforts may be essential. This person may also be needed in making the case that the costs incurred in these activities will be more than recouped in international student performance, retention, and completion.

On-campus IEPs are home to enormous expertise on international student success. It’s time to put that expertise to work across the campus.

 

Job number one for education managers and leaders

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I used to see one former boss only when he stopped by my cubicle with a question or an urgent demand. Another gave me the shrill and unhelpful advice, “You should be panicking!” in response to enrollment declines. This is not what you would call effective supervision.

It’s a problem in higher education that individuals are promoted into positions in which they have oversight over others, without having undergone training to prepare them for that role. For university IEP directors, the problem can be compounded by the fact that they report to managers who have little or no knowledge of the workings of an IEP. While there are many good people working in higher education administration, these circumstances can lead to strained relationships, loss of motivation, and diminished performance.

The solution is for managers to understand their primary role, their job number one.  It isn’t revenue generation, test score improvements, or student retention, which are indicators of great performance but not activities in themselves. No, the manager’s first job is to support his or her people. They are the ones on the front line of providing service to faculty, other staff, or students, and who are best placed to deliver quality through their work. The manager’s most frequent question to those employees should be, “What can I do to support you?” This is followed by careful listening and the  acquisition and direction of resources to provide that support, so that employees can do the high quality work expected of them.

On the basis of a well-supported faculty and staff delivering quality, managers can have confidence in focusing on goals of increased enrollment and revenue, improved student outcomes, and program development. There are no short cuts to these goals. Don’t forget job number one: support your people. 

Performance evaluations – a few polite reminders

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Performance evaluation season will be upon us before we know it, so here are a few gentle reminders and tips to make this a good experience for both parties.

For those doing the evaluating:

  1. This isn’t about you. You are evaluating the employee on behalf of the institution, and your evaluation should be a fair reflection of how the employee has served the institution. Put aside your personal feelings and base your evaluation on facts.
  2. Gather your information along the way. Don’t try to remember how the employee performed just a few days before the evaluation. Make it a habit, every month, to take notes on each employee’s performance, so you are not puzzling over the narrative at the last minute. Put it on your calendar.
  3. Make it an ongoing process. Have a deliberate check-in meeting with each employee every three months. Before the meeting, ask the employee to take notes on what has been going well, what the challenges are, what s/he has been working on, and what support s/he needs. Use these meetings to initiate course corrections, and let the notes from the meetings feed into the year-end performance evaluation. Put these meetings on your calendar.
  4. Get your employee’s input. Before the formal evaluation meeting, ask the employee to give you written notes on what has gone well this year and what the challenges were. BUT please don’t ask the employee to write his/her own performance evaluation, and don’t simply reproduce the employee’s notes as the performance evaluation. This is disrespectful to the employee and shows you don’t care. By the same token, don’t ask for the employee’s input and then ignore it in the evaluation.
  5. Rate the employee fairly and realistically. You’ll likely have to check some boxes indicating whether the employee ‘exceeds expectations,’ ‘meets expectations,’ or ‘needs improvement.’ Ensure that you take the entirety of the employee’s record into account when you check these boxes. Don’t mark ‘needs improvement’ to express a gripe about a single incident. And don’t mark ‘exceeds expectations’ across the board – doing so may make you feel generous, but it indicates that you have low expectations, or that the employee should be in a more challenging position.
  6. Discuss goals for the next year. Do this with the employee, and get his or her buy-in. Don’t simply impose goals  on the employee. And be sure to check in regularly with the employee in the following months on the progress toward those goals – don’t wait till the next annual performance evaluation.
  7. And of course, the cardinal rule: No surprises. If you follow the advice above, the performance evaluation will hold no surprises for the employee, which is how it should be. If your evaluation is negative and this is a surprise to the employee, you have failed as a manager, since you should have been working to correct any negative behaviors along the way, and you should have discussed them already with the employee. Your goal should be to have the employee leave your office feeling valued and appreciated, even if there are areas for improvement.

For those being evaluated:

  1. Keep an ongoing record. Make it a habit each month to recall your achievements and write them down. Otherwise, you will forget half of what you achieved and will undersell your accomplishments at year’s end. Put a reminder on your calendar.
  2. Ask to meet with your supervisor once every three months specifically to check in on how things are going with your work. Be prepared to ask what your supervisor is happy or dissatisfied with, and what s/he would like to see from you in the coming months. Report on progress toward your annual goals. Don’t expect your supervisor to initiate this. Put it on your calendar.
  3. If you get a negative surprise in your evaluation, be sure to raise this with your supervisor. It was his or her job to alert you to any performance issues along the way.
  4. Agree on goals for the coming year. You or your supervisor (or both) may develop goals for the year, but you must be sure they are reasonably achievable. Don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic goals.
  5. If you’re not satisfied with your evaluation, bring it up with HR. They will be able to advise you on how to effectively raise the problem with your supervisor.

Performance evaluations should be a helpful process for both the evaluators and the evaluated. Too often, they are a source of worry, stress, and disappointment. The advice above (based on years of hard-won experience on both sides of the process) should contribute to a peformance evaluation that is helpful to the employee, the supervisor, and the institution.

Do you have any other ideas for effective performance evaluations?

Keep Calm and Dance

Jerome Murphy of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has made a career of educational leadership, and has first-hand experience of the stress, burnout, and even despair that can come with a lifetime of trying to satisfy the needs and demands of faculty, staff, students, and a host of other stakeholders. “Honking and hissing like geese,” goes Murphy’s goose theory of leadership, “faculty and staff members will cruise into the boss’s office, ruffle their feathers, poop on the rug, and leave” (p. 44), expecting a solution to whatever problem they brought in. The unskillful response of many leaders under these conditions is to obsessively ruminate, resist the discomfort and try to escape it, and rebuke themselves for not measuring up. The more they try to escape their discomfort, the more entangled they become in it. Can anyone relate yet?

Murphy’s answer in Dancing in the Rain: Leading with Compassion, Vitality, and Mindfulness in Education, is learn to live with the emotional discomfort and get it to work for you. When it rains, don’t run for cover; learn to dance in it. His formula for doing this, developed over a career, is summed up by the acronym MYDANCE:

Mind your values: Take action inspired by what matters most to you
Yield to now: Slow down and focus on the present moment
Disentangle from upsets: Mentally step back, observing and making room for upsets
Allow unease: Open up to upsets even if you dislike them
Nourish yourself: Engage in activities that replenish your energy and restore your perspective
Cherish self-compassion: Give yourself the kindness you need and deserve
Express feelings wisely: Carefully reveal your human side so that you can build trusting relationships (p. 41)

Murphy takes the reader through these Buddhist-inspired precepts chapter by chapter, and includes many easy-to-do exercises. For example in the Mind Your Values chapter, we are invited to call to mind a favorite leader, reflecting on the person’s values and how the person makes us feel. In Yield to Now, a 5-minute exercise suggests focusing in turn on the five senses, bringing attention back gently each time the mind wanders.

This definitely isn’t your typical educational leadership book. It’s more of a handbook on surviving and thriving amid the slings and arrows of academic administration. If your professional life seems to be a constant struggle, this may be the therapy you need.

(This review was also posted on Amazon)

Why language is best assessed by real people


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What is the most effective way to assess English learners’ proficiency?

It has become accepted in the field to rely on psychometric tests such as the iBT (Internet-Based TOEFL) and the IELTS for college and university admissions. Yet these and most other language tests are an artifice, a device that is placed between the student’s actual proficiency and direct observation of that proficiency by a real human being. Students complete the limited set of tasks on the test, and based on the results, an algorithm makes an extrapolation as to their broader language abilities.

When you look at a TOEFL score report, it does not tell you that student’s English language ability; what it tells you is what a learner with that set of scores can typically do. And in the case of the TOEFL, this description is an evaluation that is based largely on multiple choice answers and involved not one single encounter with an actual human being. Based on this, university admissions officers are expected to make an assumption about the student’s ability to handle the demands of extensive academic reading and writing, classroom participation, social interaction, written and spoken communications with university faculty and staff, SEVIS regulations, and multiple other demands of the U.S. college environment. (Although the IELTS includes interaction with the examiner and another student, these interactions are highly structured and not very natural. TOEFL writing and speaking tasks are limited, artificial, and assessed by a grader who has only a text or sound or text file to work with.)

Contrast that with regular, direct observation of students’ language proficiency by a trained and experienced instructor, over a period of time. The instructor can set up a variety of language situations involving variation in interlocutors, contexts, vocabulary, levels of formality, and communication goals. In an ACCET or CEA accredited intensive English program, such tasks are linked to documented learning objectives. By directly observing students’ performance, instructors are able to obtain a rich picture of each student’s proficiency, and are able to comment specifically on each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Consider this a call, then, for colleges and universities to enter into agreements with accredited intensive English programs to waive the need for a standardized test such as the TOEFL. Just as those colleges and universities don’t use a standardized test to measure the learning of their graduates, they should be open to accepting the good judgment of teachers in intensive English programs – judgment based on direct observation of individual learners rather than the proxy scores obtained by impersonal, artificial tests.

Goodhart’s Law and the Measurement of English Proficiency

Goodhart’s Law was first proposed by the British economist Charles Goodhart. In essence it states that, “When a measure becomes the goal, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurements are often used as a proxy for performance. For example, it’s sometimes reported that in Soviet Russia, when the success of nail production was measured by quantity of nails, many tiny nails were produced. When it was measured using weight of nails, smaller numbers of large nails were produced. The measure became the target, and gaming the system created the illusion of success.

In U.S. university admissions, the TOEFL is the most common measure of the English proficiency of international applicants. It’s easy to understand why the complexity of language proficiency needs to be reduced to a small set of numbers when large quantities of applications have to be evaluated. Unfortunately, TOEFL preparation is very often a great example of Goodhart’s Law in action: many students focus on attaining the necessary score rather than comprehensively working on the cognitive-academic language skills and cultural skills they need to succeed in the U.S. university, and this can result in serious challenges for those students. Once matriculated, as those students seek to earn good grades – a proxy measure for learning – they may wind up trying to game the system by plagiarizing, using online essay services, cramming at the last minute, or begging the instructor for a better grade.

Although it would present practical difficulties, it would serve everyone better – schools and students – if the schools used a broader set of mechanisms to determine English proficiency. These might include evidence of English (not just test prep) study, Skype, phone, and in-person interviews, recorded presentations by applicants, synchronous online discussion groups, and reports from instructors in intensive English programs who have first-hand – not proxy – knowledge of the students’ English.

Hourly teaching rates in IEPs – reflection

In my last post, I questioned the hourly rates for ESL teachers in intensive English programs. I looked at the rates themselves, which can be very low, and the practice of counting class-hours as the basis for the hourly rate, which neglects the time that teachers put in on preparation, grading, and other duties.

There is no simple solution to this, since institutions and programs vary in their expectations of teachers for out-of-class work, and teachers themselves spend very different amounts of time preparing and following up on their lessons. Early-career ESL teachers may burn themselves out with over-preparation (as I almost did), or impose time constraints on themselves (knowing that their salary doesn’t justify an enormous amount of preparation) – which can lead to greater spontaneity in the classroom and can therefore  be a useful discipline to learn. Offering an hourly rate that teachers must work within may be the fairest and most workable way to manage all this variation.

Keep in mind, too, that proprietary English language schools are often the first stepping stone into a teaching career for newly-minted ESL teachers, who may have completed only a one-month certificate in addition to their bachelor’s degree. This is a low bar for entry into a teaching job, yet student satisfaction surveys indicate that such teachers can perform well, and the school can be seen as a kind of apprenticeship and nurturer of teaching talent. One teacher I employed did great work before deciding to complete his master’s degree and going on to become a business English professor at a prestigious English language program in Tokyo.

In the end, schools employing hourly-paid teachers should do their best for their teachers, providing resources and programs to develop the skills of their teachers, who may well leave for greener pastures when the time comes.  Additionally, hourly-paid teachers should inform themselves about the ESL job market, understand what they are likely to be able to achieve career-wise, decide whether to earn further qualifications, and make good decisions for themselves.