Category Archives: Other news

Proficiency by proxy: language proficiency and test preparation

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

I wonder if your school offers test prep classes for any of the English language tests that are intended to indicate a person’s readiness for academic study in English or to succeed in a professional or daily life in English? Test prep classes – and the test prep industry – have always struck me as being a little strange. What are these tests for? In my naive moments I think they are meant to give a snapshot of a person’s language proficiency at a particular point in time. Looking at a test result, we are supposed to be able to say that on such and such a date, the test-taker’s English was at a certain level of proficiency.

A complication arises because of test preparation. By intensively focusing on the test itself prior to taking it, a learner ‘hacks’ the test so that it may not give a true indication of the learner’s level. The result then is not an indication of the person’s English level on a given date, but of the person’s ability to get a certain score on the test on that date. And the score is everything – because scores have a gatekeeping function for higher education and other purposes, the aim of the learner becomes the score rather than English proficiency as such. The number is a proxy for English proficiency and is treated by gatekeepers as a substitute for actual knowledge about English proficiency.

Now, it isn’t true to say that English proficiency tests have no relationship to English proficiency, but in my experience, a test score that was gained through test prep classes, coaching, and individual study may make learners appear more proficient than they really are. Anectodally, I think we all know of the students who arrived at an institution with a qualifying English test score but who were not able to handle the demands of the English language academic environment. This may have a lot to do with whether the test is truly valid, that is, whether its scores indicate what they are purported to indicate.

Test preparation can be beneficial for language learning, of course. In my own experience, preparing for Japanese proficiency tests gave me motivation and no doubt improved my vocabulary, grammar, and (under controlled conditions) listening ability. Yet even when I passed at a high level – sufficient to be accepted to a Japanese university – I knew that I wasn’t equipped linguistically to handle that level of language. I had prepared intensively to perform well on a limited and somewhat predictable range of tasks.

In spite of these concerns, test prep will continue to thrive because, well, everybody’s doing it and learners put themselves at a disadvantage if they don’t. I hope that as a field we will try to keep language test preparation in its appropriate place, connected to a genuine effort to build practical language knowledge and skills, and never an end in itself, chasing proficiency by proxy.

Deepening the well with Professional Development


Accreditors require it. Schools mostly support it. We all know we should be doing it. Professional development is an essential aspect of the educator’s responsibility, but what is it and how should it be delivered, received, shared, and reviewed in a school or program?

To understand professional development, it’s useful to first think about what we mean by ‘professional.’ Anyone in the workplace can be said to ‘act professionally’ – which means caring about what they do, showing respect for others, knowing their field, and working conscientiously and honestly. But not every job is considered a ‘profession.’ There are plenty of definitions of profession, but I like to think of a professional as someone whose job involves making impactful  decisions based on knowledge and experience gained through specialized education and training. Hence, doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers are generally considered professionals. And educators are professionals too. 

Professionals don’t work with standardized products. A person making fast food meals in a restaurant must follow highly specified procedures and produce a meal for each customer that is identical to the next. If there is uncertainty, it’s referred to a supervisor or a manual. This kind of work, important though it is, doesn’t fit the definition of professional 

Professionals deal with the non-standard: people, situations, procedures, materials. And they have to use their judgment to make the best decision to achieve the optimum outcome. Educators encounter new students every year, term, or even week, each student having unique qualities, motivations, learning experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. Teachers may have to teach new courses or new levels of the same course. They have to choose appropriate materials and techniques to teach the students in front of them. This is not a fast food burger situation, where one set of procedures is followed rigidly. Teachers and other educators, such as student affairs professionals, student advisors, and counselors, must be willing to adapt and use their good judgment in each unique situation they encounter. (You might therefore say that efforts to standardize education tend to deprofessionalize educators.)

Hence, educators cannot rely on a single set of procedures they learned at the start of their career. As the world changes, they need to expand and update their repertoire of techniques, methods, and approaches. Becoming a ‘seasoned professional’ means having gone through this process of expanding and updating over a long period of time. 

There are three broad contexts for professional development: external, in-house, and self. External professional development includes conferences (attending and presenting), and webinars. In-house professional development might involve invited speakers or workshops developed by faculty or staff. And the ‘self’ context is anything an individual chooses to do independently. This could include reading a book or article, engaging in some in-class action research, or keeping a reflective journal. Even challenging oneself to teach an unfamiliar course can be useful professional development. 

Although some of these options are cheap or free, many require some financial commitment. Schools should allocate some funds to support faculty and staff professional development, but funding, like any resource, is sure to be limited, so administrators need to consider the return on investment. Here are four approaches for determining how professional development funds can be distributed and their effectiveness evaluated. 

  1. Individual need. There are cases in which a faculty or staff member needs to learn a skill or process, or has a demonstrated area of weakness. For example, a faculty member moving into an administrative position might benefit from a management or leadership workshop. The effectiveness of this training could be demonstrated by the individual on the job and observed by a supervisor. 
  2. Institutional need. If a program has or anticipates a need for certain knowledge or skills, it can prioritize professional development funding on that basis. An example is the need to develop online teaching skills to meet anticipated demand for online programs. The benefit of this training can be monitored through teaching effectiveness measures such as observations and student feedback. 
  3. Justification/priority. In this approach, faculty and staff propose their professional development plans, and those responsible for distributing funding determine which plans are likely to bring the greatest benefit – to the individual or the program – for the money spent. Those receiving funds can report back to a supervisor or to their colleagues on the results of the professional development activity. 
  4. Individual choice. In this case faculty or staff members are offered an amount of funding and can use it for any professional development, within program guidelines. They might use it to join a professional organization or attend a conference, for example. It can be difficult to determine the effectiveness of professional development funding distributed in this way. Report-back sessions from conference attendees tend to be rather brief and superficial. However, this kind of professional development can be very meaningful to the person doing it. 

On this last point, there is another type of professional development, what I’ll call participatory professional development. Specific takeaways from a conference are sometimes hard to identify, but a teacher or staff member may feel refreshed, energized and motivated by a change of scenery and the opportunity to meet, discuss, and network with colleagues from the field for a few days, and this is valuable in itself.

Another form of participatory professional development is involvement with professional organizations. In English language teaching, for example, there are volunteer opportunities with organizations such as TESOL, EnglishUSA, and accrediting organizations, including board and committee service. I can testify that engaging deeply with colleagues from around the country and the world, on meaningful projects, is some of the best professional development I’ve done, and plenty of others would agree. 

I’ve often thought of professional expertise as like a well. At the start of your career, the well is  shallow. You know enough to get by, but you don’t have much to dip into. If you take an active interest in your professional development, the well deepens and your range of options for decision-making in new and unexpected situations widens.

So professional development is a responsibility of individuals, programs, and institutions in education. Keep supporting it, keep doing it. You know you should. 

Inputs and outcomes – how we wound up with two systems for grading students in english language programs

row-students-doing-examAssigning final grades to students has been done in various ways over the years. In some contexts, everything rested on a final exam – this was the case with the O-level and A-level exams I took in a British high school ‘back in the day.’ Then ‘continuous assessment’ became popular, making the final grade a composite of grades for assignments completed during the course, either with our without a final exam.  This approach became popular in U.S. intensive English programs, where the final grade might be made up of homework assignments, projects, tests and quizzes, and the usually ill-defined ‘participation’ by the student. 

But English language programs, like all other schools in the U.S., became caught up in larger forces that had an enormous impact on how students were evaluated. Following the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s, there was much nail-biting over the quality of American education, culminating in the ‘A Nation at Risk’ report in 1983, which painted an anxiety-inducing picture of failing U.S. public schools. 

In the years following the publication of the report, the means of defining quality in education were questioned. The focus of quality tended to be on inputs – number of hours in class (this is where the ‘credit-hours’ system came from), teacher qualifications, teaching methods, and so on. Many schools in competitive environments still make such inputs the basis of their quality claims – “highly qualified teachers!” “innovative teaching methods!” 

But those raising the red flag about school quality were less concerned with inputs and more concerned with what the students came out of their education with – that is the outcomes, or as they have come to be known, student learning outcomes, or SLOs. No matter how great the inputs, if students were not learning useful knowledge and skills for the job market, the education they were receiving was not valuable. The solution was to turn the traditional curriculum planning process around and start at the end by first defining the desired outcomes, and having course design lead to student achievement of outcomes. 

This enabled education bureaucracies to hold schools and teachers accountable: school and teacher quality could be judged not by the quality of the teachers or the hours spent in class, but by the extent to which students were meeting the defined learning outcomes. In the public schools, those outcomes were assessed by standardized tests, and schools were judged and ranked by how well students scored on those tests. (The downside of all this was that quality aspects of school such as adequate breaks between classes and time for the arts, music and sports suffered as schools honed in on efforts to increase standardized test scores in math, science, and English.)

Back to grading. ESL teachers have for many years been used to giving final grades based on a combination of test and quizzes, homework assignments, projects, participation, and final exams. But with a shift toward accreditation of English language programs – mandatory in many cases, voluntary in others – teachers in those programs are now required to fall in with the requirement to define learning outcomes at the outset, and assess and evaluate students with sole reference to the students’ achievement of the outcomes. This has to be done at the school level, and it results in a greater standardization of curricula, syllabi, and assessments in schools. Schools are required to record and analyze the data arising from the assessment of SLO achievement. Decisions about whether a student may progress to the next level of study or complete the program successfully must be made solely on the basis of whether the student achieved the learning outcomes. 

The result is that schools have to take a mixed approach to grading students. Schools may still assign a traditional grade based on continuous assessment and participation, but they must also maintain a system that isolates achievement of the student learning outcomes and makes promotion and completion decisions based on that. What’s certain is that choosing one or the other of these two systems is not possible – both are needed. Yes, we can agree that it’s important for students and their sponsors to understand what the expected outcome of a course or program was and whether the student achieved it. This kind of accountability is needed when many are questioning the dollar value of their education. But as educators we also want to know whether students engaged with the educational process – collaborated with peers, challenged themselves on difficult projects or assignments, sought help and advice and gave them to others in turn. How the students got there is important to us, and still largely defines the benefit of studying at one school rather than another. 

And so we ended up with two types of student assessment and evaluation, one based on inputs into the process and ongoing or continuous assessment, the other on outcomes. Both systems are here to stay, and educators need to be familiar with the rationale and procedures for each of them. 

Background photo created by pressfoto –

Prepare to delight your students

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

As I write this, we have just learned that the first COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. Even while the number of infections reaches an all-time high, the approval gives us a glimmer of hope that things will return to some kind of normal in the coming months. Students will be back with us in person, students and teachers will occupy our classrooms, and our hallways will be lively with the comings and goings of students between classes.

Let’s remember though that English language programs were suffering enrollment declines even before the pandemic, and it wasn’t simply the result of the negative rhetoric of the (now outgoing) administration. English language teaching has been been improving across the globe, and is begun at ever-younger ages, starting in elementary school in some countries. There is competition for English language business from other countries – including those where English is not spoken as a first language, such as Malaysia and the Philippines, where students can find programs that meet limited budgets. Synchronous online learning has taken off at low cost.

English language programs in the U.S. must compete on two levels, then: first, they must convince potential students that an in-person experience in a country where English is spoken is the best option; second, they must demonstrate that their own program is the best choice. English language programs of course compete against each other for new students, but that is not where the competition ends. Once in the U.S., students can transfer from one program to another, so programs have to ensure student retention in order to be successful. Although it may seem a long time until students are back with us in person, now is a good time to consider how your program will differentiate itself and hold onto students once once they have enrolled.

Although most of us in English language programs probably consider our industry to be education, I’m convinced that a significant part of what we do has much in common with the hospitality industry, and I think we can gain some competitive edge by adopting this perspective on our work. Think about it: many of us offer housing, transportation, an activity program, and concierge services. We create attractive spaces for our customers (students), help them navigate the local area with maps and guides, and are there to assist them, in some cases 24 hours a day. We have procedures in place to handle complaints and try to achieve customer satisfaction. So as we look ahead to having students back with us, we can consider our own experiences in hospitality environments – especially hotels and resorts – and plan how to apply the good practices we found there to our English language programs.

Were you ever delighted in one of those environments, and do you remember that experience? I was. There was the chocolate I found on the pillow when I checked into my room in one hotel. There was the happy hour with wine and good company in the late afternoon at another. I woke up on a long-haul flight feeling groggy and disoriented, and was offered a delicious and refreshing cup of ice cream.

These are small gestures and don’t cost much, but they have some or all of these features:

  • They are a pleasant and unexpected surprise
  • They break the usual routine
  • They give customers something extra that wasn’t advertised
  • They show the customer that someone has thought about them
  • They demonstrate to customers that someone has taken extra trouble to make them feel happy
  • They are memorable

What would create this effect in your program? A pop-up ice cream party after class? The teacher handing around treats after a particularly tricky grammar exercise? An ‘impromptu’ concert by a couple of your teachers or staff? Why not brainstorm ideas with everyone at your next in-person meeting?

These kinds of things show your students you care about them over and above the classes and advertised services.

Here are a couple of tips to help you succeed in delighting your students:

  1. Calendar it. Just put a ‘delight’ reminder in your calendar, to repeat every two or three weeks, just to ensure you remember to implement one of your ideas. But don’t make it routine or expected. 
  2. Budget it. Make this a line item in your budget. And don’t be greedy with the budget – offer amounts to teachers and staff so that they can be creative in delighting students too.


3. Remember, you can treat everyone as your customer. That means       teachers and staff too. So see if you can find ways to delight them,       and they will want to pass on that feeling to the students.

Wishing you a holiday season filled with delights!


Three organizational approaches to great student service

Over many years I’ve found that people who work in English language programs, whether teachers or  staff, are extremely kind, generous with their time and attention, and committed to their students. You’d think in an environment with people like that, students would always be well served. But in some cases the organization is set up in such a way that good student service is impeded. Here are three examples of organization-level problems and a suggested approach to addressing each one. 

  1. In one English language program, first-day check-in was conducted by the admissions team. They had it down to a fine art. Enter the lobby, present your I-20 and passport, check that you’ve paid your bill, show evidence of your health insurance, good to go, come back tomorrow for placement testing. It was highly efficient, and although the staff were friendly, this was hardly the welcome students should have been receiving after traveling thousands of miles and spending significant money for their program. 

    At this program, there was a siloed culture in which each team did its own thing. It was clear that students could be much better served if all staff, and faculty too, were involved in that first-day process. So, starting by inviting faculty to participate in welcoming the students that first day, the other teams – student activities and the academic staff team – were brought in. This resulted in a comprehensive first-day experience for students, starting with a warm welcome and conversation with faculty. Once the possibilities became clear, the academic and student services staff worked with the admissions team to create a process in which students could get a lot done – IT setup, activities sign-up, electives selection, program changes – in a ‘one-stop-shop’ approach that left students feeling welcomed and accepted into their new program. 

    Lesson: if your teams are working separately on serving students, break down the walls between departments and find ways to collaborate. You’ll find staff and faculty all pulling in the same direction and you’ll be serving students better. 

  2. Going back years, the summer term had been divided into ‘first half’ and ‘second half.’ This made it possible for teachers to teach just one half of the summer (which was an optional semester to teach in) and take the other half off. What’s more, the schedule had been adapted so that summer classes took place only in the mornings. The thinking seemed to be that the fall and spring were the ‘real’ semesters and the summer was just an optional, additional semester. 

    This may have been true for teachers, but not for students, many of whom wanted to continue their studies as normal over the summer and were inconvenienced by the mid-term change of teachers and the option to take only one 6-week elective in each half of the semester instead of two 12-week electives for the whole semester. 

    The arrangement seemed to suit faculty well, but had not been designed with students in mind. Again, there was no intention on the part of any individual to serve students poorly, but that was the effect of this arrangements. 

    Lesson: in decision-making around curriculum, schedules, and anything else that directly affects students, the first people to consider are the students. Always ask, ‘how does this benefit our students?’ In most cases, other considerations are secondary. Put students first. 

  3. In the final example, individual teachers worked with a staff member to plan and deliver specialized short programs. In some cases the staff member and the teacher had very different ideas about the role of each in the planning and delivery. One teacher viewed the staff member as ‘support’ – a back-office function to get students to the classroom where the learning happened. The staff member saw her role as integral to the students’ education and claimed more than spreadsheets and transportation arrangements. Disagreements got in the way of a team effort to give students the best possible service. 

    No matter the individual job – whether classroom teacher, student services staff, admissions personnel, and so on – everyone works for an organization that has the purpose of educating students. A narrow view of education is the ‘delivery to the classroom’ model – staff get students to the classroom where the ‘real learning’ takes place. But an English language program is a place where learning can take place at every stage and in every interaction.

    Lesson: As a part of the institutional goal to educate, see all employees as educators, and get them to see themselves in that light too. In particular, faculty and staff should see themselves as being in a partnership, with differentiated roles, to help students learn at every opportunity. 

    I hope you can see how impediments like the ones I’ve described can get in the way of good student service, no matter how kind the individuals in the program are. Look for examples of these organizational blockages in your own program and work to fix them. You’ll make a big difference to your students’ experience. 

In our students’ shoes

Learning to play a new piece of music on the guitar. A piece that is really beyond my level, but I’m trying it. Making progress, bit by bit , but it seems ever so slowly. Trying to be accurate and get every note right. Trying to play faster and more fluently. When I go faster,  I make more mistakes and end up frustrated. When I go more slowly, I feel I’m always going to be a beginner.

Yesterday I could play this part, my fingers easily moved among the strings. Today my fingers feel like lead, heavy and awkward, hitting every wrong note. Why is that?

I’ve been practicing this forever, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I want to be perfect, just like a professional guitar player, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach my goal. So I feel inferior and  constantly look up to real guitar players, always comparing myself to them. When people compliment my playing, I say no, I really can’t play at all, I always make mistakes.

I know how this is supposed to go, I’ve memorized it, test me and I will be able to tell you. It’s just that when I actually try to play it in front of people, I find it so difficult. Performance anxiety kicks in, I become embarrassed, my heart beats faster, my face contorts, I’m ashamed to even try. Even if you tell me you like it, I feel you’re just being nice.

Sometimes…sometimes though, my fingers just seem to dance on the strings, I go faster, I can feel myself doing it, finally getting somewhere, feeling as though I really can play the guitar.  These moments spur me on, encourage me to keep going, even though the road is long and slow-going.


Learning any skill enables us to empathize with our students as they struggle to master their foreign language. Some language teachers choose to learn a language themselves to put themselves in their students’ position, but learning any skill puts us in touch with our students’ challenges, frustrations, aspirations, and successes, as they try out new language, make mistakes, compare themselves to native speakers, and slowly, slowly progress.

It is a very difficult time for our field. Many colleagues have lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. I think most will find their way back, one way or another, as the virus is defeated and students begin to return to our programs. While Netflix is entertaining (until you have watched everything), now is a good time to pick up a new skill or develop an existing one, and reflect on our students’ learning experience.  It is a time for us to renew our understanding of – our empathy with – their struggle and their challenge. This will make us more effective educators when our students return again.

English language programs: what the virus tells us about who we are

The novel coronavirus has gone pandemic, our entire cohort of students has canceled, and we’ll be closed for the semester. While it’s encouraging that faculty are willing to re-tool quickly for online teaching, we are a study abroad program where English happens to be taught, and you cannot study abroad online. It’s true that many English language programs have ‘gone online’ to try and ride out the crisis, but this is a stopgap measure that will not satisfy students over the long haul.  The corona crisis forces us to consider just what English language programs in the U.S. actually are, and what value they offer to their students.

The terms ‘intensive English program’ and ‘English language program’ can actually distract us from getting to the right answer. Yes, we teach English, but so do online instructors, phone apps, self-study books, and secondary schools in countries the world over. Our students don’t come to us only for English. English language programs are:

  • experiential: students embark on a life adventure, many in a tradition that follows the ‘grand tour’ of Europe of young people from wealthy families in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • immersive: students are surrounded by the target language and culture, which can drive changes in their language ability, their resilience, tolerance, adaptabilty, and even their identity
  • destination-based: many proprietary programs in particular are located in attractive and prestigious cities such as New York, San Diego, and (yes!) Boston
  • interactive: students can get to know classmates and others in the community, primarily through activities outside the classroom
  • local: students can experience living in a foreign place that may eventually come to feel like a second home to them.

None of these features is available in an online format, and this ‘grounded’ nature goes a long way to defining what English language programs are. It also means that English language programs must see themselves as occupying a particular and special niche in the diverse English language market, and not as the be-all-and-end-all of language learning.

The forced and rapid move online for many English language programs means that they are likely changed forever, and this is a good thing. Now that teachers and administrators know firsthand that online lessons and assignments are possible, they will become integral to curricula in many programs, with online learning accompanying in-class work. This benefits students in various ways:

  1. It meets the digital generation where they are by allowing them to engage with online media. Students can create blogs and multimedia presentations to demonstrate their achievement rather than writing essays in stodgy blue books.
  2. If a teacher is absent or the school is closed because of bad weather, online learning is a useful short-term solution to keep students on track.
  3. Online materials enable teachers to ‘flip the classroom,’ delivering written and spoken material online for outside study while exploiting the interactive potential of the classroom when students gather.
  4. Programs are more likely to introduce online pre-program and post-program study, preparing students for their studies and consolidating their learning, thus adding value to the overall experience.

A few years from now we will be able to distinguish pre-corona and post-corona practices in English language programs. Programs will continue in an essentially grounded tradition, part of a study abroad and language tourism industry that students travel to, while becoming more sophisticated about integrating online learning into their offering. We will continue to be vulnerable to global crises, but perhaps better adapted to cope with them when they happen.

Why you should be teaching to the test

Back in the day, if you were ‘teaching to the test,’ you weren’t really doing your job as a teacher. You isolated the pieces of knowledge and the skills that you knew would come up on the test and taught them to the exclusion of broader educational activities that might have enriched the students’ experience. You might have done this to ensure a high pass rate, which reflected well on you as a teacher if the higher-ups were judging you on your students’ test scores. But teaching to the test was frowned upon as a kind of shortcut for both teacher and students.

Since the advent of the accountability movement, teaching to the test is exactly what you should be doing. In the currently popular paradigm, schools and teachers are accountable for students’ achievement of defined learning outcomes, expressed in behavioral terms: “The student will be able to…” Examples in language programs are:

  • give a five-minute presentation on a topic of personal interest
  • write a five-paragraph narrative essay
  • summarize, in writing, a radio news story
  • re-tell orally the plot of a short story

If the learning outcomes are well-conceived, they should be a guide to what the test – let’s call it an assessment – should be. How do you assess students’ ability to give a five-minute presentation? Have them give a five-minute presentation at the end of the course. How do you assess their ability to write a five-paragraph essay? Have them write a five-paragraph essay. And so on. (The specifics of the assessment will need to be made clear, and rubrics provide a means of determining the students’ level of performance.)

And so what is the best way to prepare students to give a presentation? Teach to the test and have them practice giving presentations. To write an essay? Teach to the test and have them write essays. This is what I mean when I say ‘you should be teaching to the test.’

Some summative tests – including many of those provided in published textbooks – are not good tests to teach to. A grammar gap-fill isn’t much use in giving information about a student’s final level of achievement, unless your learning outcome is ‘be able to provide the appropriate grammatical forms in a gap-fill test.’ That’s not a very useful outcome to anyone, though this activity might help promote student learning along the way. A well-defined learning outcome is a behavior that you can describe to a future employer or school indicating the student’s ability to do useful things with language.

So let’s embrace teaching to the test – as long as you have good learning outcomes and a corresponding test that assesses them appropriately. (If you don’t, maybe it’s time for an overhaul.) And while we’re doing that, let’s not forget that games, songs, poetry, sharing experiences, and laughter create a positive, human environment that leads to unanticipated learning and ideal conditions for students to learn.



Intensive English Programs and the SEVIS Fee Increase

 SEVP recently announced an increase in the SEVIS fee from $200 to $350, a 75% increase. All international students who wish to study in the U.S. in F-1 status must pay the SEVIS fee (in addition to any additional in-country visa application fees), and are not eligible for a refund if they are denied an F-1 visa. The SEVIS system was an unfunded mandate introduced to keep track of international students following 9-11. It is entirely funded by its users: the students and the institutions they study at.

But not all users are equal. In particular, students wishing to study in short-term programs at intensive English programs (IEPs) are disproportionately burdened by the SEVIS fee, compared with those who come to study for a bachelor’s or master’s degree. $350 is a large chunk of the outlay of an IEP student in a short-term program. Doubtless the fee increase will deter many students from choosing the U.S. as a destination for study in an IEP, and U.S. IEPs stand to lose significant business.

A comment campaign organized by EnglishUSA made clear the unfair burden on IEP students, but it fell on deaf ears at SEVP, which went ahead with the fee increase for all students. IEPs will be responding by sidestepping the SEVIS system entirely. Already many IEPs offer part-time (such as 15 hours per week) programs, with students entering the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program or on a B visa. Rather than a workaround, this approach will increasingly come to be seen as business as usual.

Although some IEP administrators or designated school officials at universities may be reluctant to admit students for part-time students, it is acceptable to do so. An ESL program of less than 18 hours per week is, by the Department of Homeland Security’s own definition, not a full course of study, and individuals in such programs are not eligible for an F-1 visa. F-1 status is a privilege: it allows individuals who have demonstrated academic accomplishment and financial means the possibility to remain in the U.S. for as long as they remain in a full-time course of study at a recognized institution. People coming for part-time ESL do not seek that privilege, are not eligible for it, and should not apply for an F-1 visa.

I recommend that IEPs refer to the people who come to part-time programs as program participants, not as students. This will avoid any confusion as to the correct visa status for them (that is, they are not F-1 students). And please keep in mind that there is nothing illegal or dangerous about sitting in a room talking about English grammar, whether you are a U.S. citizen or not. U.S. IEPs offer valuable opportunities for people around the world, and should use the means available to them to continue to do so.

Left behind? Intensive English programs have to adapt to survive

Image result for student visa

At the recent IIE summit in New York City, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Marie Royce, trumpeted governmental support for international education. “We must step up our game,” she declared.

While it is heartwarming that the administration, particularly this administration, intends to support increasing enrollment in U.S. higher education, intensive English programs (IEPs), which attract over 80,000 students to the US each year, are unfortunately left out of the conversation. And if cost, as Royce stated, is “a major reason that students decide not to pursue US study,” then the current government proposal to raise the SEVIS fee from $200 to $350 (additional to the visa application fee, none of which comes with the guarantee of getting a visa) impacts prospective IEP students disproportionately.

Prospective students who want to pursue a full-time course of study at an IEP are required to obtain a student visa. Somebody somewhere at some point in time decided that full-time for an IEP student is an arbitrary minimum of 18 class hours per week. Here is a key to how IEPs can respond to the increasing costs imposed by the government’s obsessive need to monitor international students since 9/11: by adapting programs so that they have a smaller number of class hours than 18, students will be ineligible to apply for a student visa and can enter the country using a visa waiver, B visa, or other means that are cheaper and less burdensome than the F-1 student visa. IEPs can fill out their program by adding out-of-class cultural and social activities.

The 15-hour-per week program is a good solution for those who want to come to the US for a relatively short time to improve their English, and return home. This is still a sizable portion of the IEP market. And it could be a more economical program for the price-conscious.

In order to survive tough conditions, even with professed administration support for international education, IEPs have to adapt.

Easing the difficult conversations between IEP administrators and teachers

Sasha and Alan at the EnglishUSA Professional Development Conference, San Francisco, January 2019

At the EnglishUSA Professional Development Conference, held in San Francisco in January, Sasha Bogdanovskaya and I led a workshop in which several ‘difficult conversations’ were role played by participants. In the daily life of an intensive English program, it’s inevitable that challenges, stresses, and disagreements will arise between administrators and teachers. Our goal was to bring some of the resulting conversations out into the open for analysis, and for participants to gain insights into how to manage these difficult conversations effectively, with an emphasis on trying to understand the other person’s situation and viewpoint in order to reach a resolution. This is particularly important in schools where teachers work part-time and have other, competing life commitments.

Here are some of the insights generated by the workshop – useful for new managers to keep in mind, and helpful reminders for the more experienced.

Express appreciation 
In the first roleplay, when the administrator had to speak with a teacher about repeated lateness, he opened the conversation by immediately speaking of the teacher’s lateness. This resulted in defensiveness and a counter-criticism from the teacher. This conversation would have gone better if the administrator had begun by expressing appreciation for the teacher’s work and contribution. Doing so would likely have reassured the teacher and resulted in a more constructive, solution-oriented conversation.

Communicate expectations clearly
In the second conversation, the manager expressed concern about the part-time teacher’s failure to attend mandatory teacher meetings. It became clear that the program had not communicated this requirement to the teacher effectively. Managers need to ensure that new teachers are oriented thoroughly to the expectations of the program. Too often, new teacher orientation is rushed, perfunctory, or relies too heavily on the teacher reading and memorizing the employee handbook.

Recognize the challenges
When an administrator gave a teacher some negative observation feedback – too much teacher talking time and failure to correct student errors – the teacher responded that the class she was teaching had 19 students, several more than the program’s advertised maximum per class. Sometimes it is necessary to create a larger class rather than run two or more under-enrolled sections, and at such times the administrator needs to recognize and acknowledge the additional challenges this presents. This gives an opportunity to provide support: in this case, does the teacher have a mentor, or could she be provided with teaching assistant to help with classroom management or give individual support?

Understand how assignments affect workload
In the fourth scenario, the manager wanted the teacher to take on an extra course. The teacher entered that conversation wanting a reduction in teaching hours. Both were in a tight spot: the manager needed a teacher at short notice, but the teacher was already feeling burned out by the workload created by four different preps each day, including one for a specialized class without assigned material. It is easy to equate the number of teaching hours (on which compensation is based) with workload, but the fact is that some classes require much more preparation and grading than others, and a higher number of different preps increases the burden. If this burden cannot be eased, the manager at least needs to recognize it and not increase the load unreasonably, which can lead to further burnout and a reduction in teaching quality.

Don’t be quick to assign blame
In the final conversation the administrator criticized the teacher for not enforcing the English-only policy in class. The teacher responded that she didn’t feel she received adequate institutional support in enforcing the policy. Administrators must understand that teachers – especially part-time teachers – cannot implement institutional policies without strong backing from school management. In this case, the messaging to students about English-only in the classroom should have been communicated clearly to students before they arrived at the school, repeated during their orientation, and reinforced during their program. This was the administration’s job.

Teachers and school managers tend to live in different ‘worlds’ in an IEP. Managers may inhabit a world of policy, compliance, business considerations, and customer satisfaction, and can be removed from the direct experience of teaching and learning. Teachers are deeply involved in the details of their classes, and often don’t have the opportunity to come up for air and see the big picture. In resolving difficult situations that inevitably arise, it’s important for each to try to understand the other’s point of view and work constructively toward solutions.

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.

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

Picture credit

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)

IEPs and the Rise of Pathway Programs

This week my colleague from the University of Kansas, Deborah Osborne and I led a discussion on the future of

Deborah Osborne and Alan at the TESOL Convention, Seattle

university intensive English programs at the TESOL Convention in Seattle. Many university IEPs reported enrollment declines of between 10% and 70% last fall, and some are really struggling at this point. Meanwhile, pathway programs resulting from partnerships between universities (such as American University, Oregon State University, and George Mason University) and corporate partners (such as INTO, Navitas, and Shorelight) continue to proliferate, suggesting that English language and academic preparation for international students is undergoing a major shift.

For prospective students, the major attraction of a pathway program is the word ‘guaranteed.’ If they complete the program successfully, they will matriculate into the partner university. Many university IEPs can offer college advising and assistance with applications, but are not able to offer that guarantee. For universities, pathway programs can offer a fast track to increasing international student enrollments with little upfront investment or the need to build their own international student recruiting capacity.

There are two main choices for university IEPs. First, they can try to compete on the pathway providers’ territory by setting up their own pathway programs. The challenge here is that they generally don’t have the recruitment network to make that happen quickly, and there are very few instances of a university recruiting significant numbers of students via a home-grown pathway. Second, they can adapt to provide programming that pathway programs can’t. Examples include shorter programs, custom programs, specialized programs, and programs to support admitted or matriculated international students on their campus. This will require flexibility and an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

These are challenging times for IEPs, and it remains to be seen whether they can adapt to the challenge of the pathway model.