Evidence is Driving Kentucky’s Unique Approach to Improving Opportunities for English Learners

Results for America
5 min readSep 28, 2022

State education leaders who are champions for data- and evidence-use significantly impact the way their state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) serve students. These leaders are better positioned to:

  • Deeply understand their students’ needs;
  • Identify, share, and invest in evidence-based strategies; and
  • Create a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

Results for America’s State Education Fellowship brings together state senior evaluation and program leaders who are these very champions. Fellows are education leaders who are focused on accelerating the generation and use of data, investing in what works and making evidence-based policymaking the new normal in education.

Kentucky education leaders participating in the State Education Fellowship saw that the state needed to find a new way to support Kentucky’s educators in supporting English Learners. They developed, piloted and are now expanding a unique opportunity that offers principals a chance to experience learning from their English Learners’ view. We asked the Kentucky team to share how they are increasing principals’ empathy for students, building new partnerships and creating a model for how Kentucky can learn from new initiatives.

Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Education

What challenge did the Kentucky team face that the team decided to focus on through the State Education Fellowship?

In 2020–2021, the Kentucky Department of Education was providing support to schools identified for Additional Targeted Support and Improvement (ATSI) that needed to better meet their English Learner students’ needs. As they reviewed these schools’ funding applications, the Department team realized something important. The conferences, training, and interventions that schools intended to use to improve their English Learners’ performance were the same conferences, training, and interventions they had used in the past. These strategies hadn’t worked before and there was little reason to believe that they would suddenly work now.

To the Department, it was clear that these schools needed a new approach to addressing a persistent need. It was equally clear that the Department needed to think innovatively about how they could help schools support their English Learner students.

Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Education

What was the solution to this challenge?

Department staff began learning more about the evidence base for professional learning that successfully develops competencies among educators supporting English Learner students. This exploration led staff to begin investigating BaseLang, a promising program designed to improve participants’ mastery of Spanish. The Department determined the BaseLang program aligned with the evidence-base, but it had never been evaluated as a professional learning strategy for educators. Armed with data on their schools’ needs, an understanding of the relevant evidence base, and a theory of action aligned to both, the Kentucky Department of Education launched a small pilot program that enrolled four Kentucky principals in BaseLang.

The initial pilot was a success; the four principals reported increased self-efficacy and cultural awareness. Building on this, Kentucky launched a second pilot, this time expanding to 50 principals and specifically exploring scalability. Through the second pilot, the Department learned that it needed support in scaling the intervention, so it ultimately partnered with the Kentucky Education Association to scale up the pilot with a third cohort, now supporting 75 educators in non-administrative roles. The Department is proactively thinking about next steps, specifically asking themselves what questions they will need to address about the impact of this work in order to continue justifying future investments.

Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Education

How is this work impacting Kentucky?

Committed to doing whatever it takes to support every child in Kentucky, Department staff were inspired to take an innovative approach to addressing a persistent challenge. By piloting the BaseLang program in Kentucky, the Department signaled that “business as usual” was not enough to support the state’s English Learner students.

Through the pilot, Kentucky is learning that language instruction can boost educators’ confidence and empathy while working with English Learners. Further, the BaseLang program has allowed the Department to elevate the importance of stakeholder engagement; principals participating in the pilot learned to make strong connections with families that do not speak English. As the program continues to grow, the state anticipates it will meaningfully impact English Learner students’ opportunities and outcomes.

Significantly, Kentucky now has the opportunity to learn whether the BaseLang program positively impacts students because of the way the Department designed the program, planned for gradual scale-up, and committed to ongoing evaluation. This innovative effort is a model — for other programs in Kentucky and in other states — for how state education agencies can develop, pilot, and continuously improve programs aligned to schools’ demonstrated needs.

Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Education

What did the Kentucky team learn from this effort?

The Department took a thoughtful and strategic approach to developing the BaseLang pilot program. In the process, they learned that the data they were collecting from ATSI schools — in the form of schools’ funding applications — was an important resource in helping the state understand schools’ needs and target investments. That data served as a catalyst for the state to try something innovative and through their subsequent efforts, Kentucky reaffirmed that intentional pilot testing and ongoing evaluation increases the likelihood that the state will design a program that meets schools’ needs and, ultimately, improves student outcomes.

Additionally, Kentucky learned that beginning with a pilot and building evidence was enticing to external partners. Those partners, in this case the Kentucky Education Association, proved to be invaluable in expanding the state’s capacity to scale the BaseLang initiative. This successful partnership can be a model for future initiatives, increasing the potential reach of evidence-based strategies in Kentucky.

From left to right, the Kentucky Department of Education Results for America Fellows are Dr. Matthew B. Courtney, Policy Advisor, Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, Dr. Kelly Foster, Associate Commissioner, Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, and Natasha Stein, Program Manager, District 180, Division of School and Program Improvement, Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.

Check out more fellowship successes with California, Ohio, and Oklahoma’s solutions. To learn more about KDE’s work, Results for America, or how to become a Fellow, contact Results for America’s Director of Education Policy Implementation Heather Boughton.

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Results for America

Working with decision-makers at all levels of government to harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges.