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Districts Climb to New Gains in WIDA's LADDER Program
Districts Climb to New Gains in WIDA's LADDER Program

February 2013

Catherine Fox
Catherine Fox

Catherine Fox, an English Language Learner (ELL) educator in the Rhode Island public school system, has experienced more than her fair share of professional development programs. Some have been helpful, she said. But most have been painfully frustrating, lacking either a cohesive structure or an adequate follow-through.

In 2011, Rhode Island put its Model Educator Evaluation System into place, which required all districts in the state to begin teacher evaluation based on evidence of student growth and achievement. The system put strong emphasis on empirical, data-driven analysis. The move once again pushed Fox to explore her options for professional development.

She landed in a pilot program launched by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Project, a Madison, Wis.-based educational research and professional development consortium affiliated with the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. The LADDER program, a 12- to 18-month professional development program, trains a school-based team of educators to engage in continual conversations centered on data. Once the team understands how to interpret the data, it then works to identify targeted areas of need and implement an ELL action plan.

“It was bar none the best professional development program I’ve ever been a part of, and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve been through a bunch of them,” Fox said. “What set it apart was the ongoing support I received during the two years. Monthly call-ins with the WIDA LADDER team coach helped me to continue to develop my coaching skills. Site visits also supported the whole process.”

Merideth Trahan, LADDER’s project manager, describes LADDER as a “boots-on-the-ground initiative.” In the program, each participating school district asks for volunteers from not just its ELL teachers, but its content teachers as well. It then appoints one district ELL specialist to serve as its LADDER coach.

Coaches receive three days of hands-on training in Madison, designed to equip them with the skills they need to oversee the school-based teams.  After the training, the coaches become the team’s point-person for communication between the district and WIDA.

“LADDER is all about incremental and sustainable capacity building for the local district,” Trahan said. “If we do it well, after the program ends, they will remain effective but won’t need our services, and the coaching and team models are essential for that.”

Fox became a LADDER coach, coaching teams from two elementary schools in her district. She attended the training in Madison and learned how to organize her team and moderate discussions focused on achieving strong student growth through data-driven processes. The team and coach concepts worked with remarkable success in Central Falls, a district with universal free lunch, 19 percent of its students classified as ELLs and 90 percent of students coming from homes where another language is spoken, Fox said.

“The coaching and team process is a whole different way of looking at helping teachers,” she said. “WIDA didn’t so much tell us what we needed to improve, but instead focused on giving us the tools we needed to work together and decide for ourselves what needed to be improved.”

Coaches, who usually but not always hold senior administrative positions in the district (Fox herself is not an administrator), must learn a different style of leadership, Fox said.

“One thing I took away from the coach training I went through was that my ideas about what was right or what the district needed to do were not as important as getting the team to come together and find answers as a group,” Fox said. “I learned to be a better asker of questions, because I found that the heart of good coaching is asking the right questions. Being able to get a good conversation going was so important in getting teacher buy-in and in moving the team to work cohesively and find instructional practices that worked best for them.”

As any educator knows, discussion is easy to spur amongst educators, but in LADDER groups, the coach is charged with keeping conversation focused sharply on data, according to Trahan. With two full years of ACCESS assessment results now available in most school districts, there’s enough data to develop an informed action plan to improve language development. .

“LADDER’s goal is to enhance data literacy broadly and to give guidance on how to interpret the data, so the district teams can make instructional, classroom-level and programmatic, school-wide decisions,” Trahan said.

Catherine Fox
Debra Holland

For Debra Holland, principal at the Richard D. Crosby Elementary School in Harvard, Ill., participating in the pilot for the LADDER program was an invaluable experience when it came to getting educators in her district to draw data-based conclusions.

“We have a very large ELL population, so for us the ACCESS data – there’s a lot of it in terms of numbers. When you have that much data, it’s powerful, but then the question becomes, what are you going to do with it?” Holland said. “If we didn’t have LADDER to take us through that data, we would have looked at it but we wouldn’t have really known how to understand it.”

Holland’s district was an excellent candidate for the LADDER program, according to Lorena Mancilla, who oversees WIDA’s professional development programs team. The Harvard district had participated in several data-related workshops offered by WIDA but they were looking for something more.

With the rapid rise in the number of districts nationwide with a high percentage of ELLs, and with the increase in states implementing assessment-based evaluative measures on teachers, many schools “have done everything else but look at data of their ELLs to make data-informed decisions about instruction,” Mancilla said.

The LADDER program is designed for those school districts. After the Harvard team entered the program and learned how to understand its data, it found its assumptions about the academic needs of the ELL students in its district were largely erroneous, according to Holland, the elementary school principal.

“We determined our K-3 speaking scores could be higher, and that’s what we chose to target,” Holland said. “So we looked at ways to get our students to speak more in the classroom, and discovered through our observations that our teachers were talking too much. What they needed to do was back off and let the kids talk, so the students could become more comfortable talking in English.”

Mancilla, of WIDA, said Harvard’s experience was a fairly typical outcome of the program. The teams in Rhode Island had a similar experience.

Training the teachers who are participating in district teams to read and understand data is a high priority for the LADDER support team, according to Mancilla. Once the district team members can understand the significance of the data, they can then target specific areas of concern and make informed decisions on the best solutions for improvement, she said.

“Amongst teachers, ‘data’ is a four-letter word and it’s very scary. It was scary to me when I was a teacher and it’s still scary to me, even though I’m on WIDA’s data team,” Mancilla said. “But LADDER’S approach to data tries to take the fear out of the equation. For educators involved in LADDER, your work with data is focused on how you’ll be able look at it and get a better idea of what is going on. We try to make it as practical and easy to understand as possible.”

An important aspect of LADDER is its suggestion to districts to assemble a diverse team.

“What makes LADDER unique is that it actually encourages educators to come together as a multidisciplinary team. It’s not just ELL specialists at the table breaking down the data. It’s general education teachers; special education, ELL, and literacy specialists; administrators; school psychologists and counselors,” Mancilla said. “The diverse composition of the team leads to great dialogue, smarter decisions and greater consensus on implementing changes to school and instructional practices.”

LADDER also asks for a long-term time commitment from its team members, Mancilla said.

“The most important thing about LADDER is ensuring we get commitment and buy-in from everyone involved,” she explained. “Participants will be learning together for a whole school year. That’s rare – in most cases teams like these only get one day or even just a half-day workshop. LADDER teams go through a long-term professional development process together. As a WIDA staff member with the opportunity to observe this firsthand, I can tell you it was phenomenal to see the growth that happens when you give a talented group that much time to work together to find solutions. You see changes in perspective, an amazing growth in the team’s ability to try and think in new ways about ELLs, and great leaps in thinking on how school structure affects the performance of its students.”

During the program, teams are provided with interactive on-site workshops, continuing technical assistance, networking opportunities, web-based resources and virtual learning through online tutorials on ELL best practices. They’re also offered a dedicated WIDA staff member who provides support to the district LADDER coaches. Such support proved to be invaluable to the Central Falls team, Fox said.

“I felt like I could e-mail or call Amanda, our WIDA team member, anytime and she got back to me within 24 hours,” Fox said. “To know I could get on e-mail or the phone and call and get helpful answers gave me the relief of knowing I had a lifeline to depend on.”

Such support is standard for WIDA programs, Mancilla said, but the ultimate goal with the LADDER program is to have the district teams continue to meet long after their official involvement with WIDA concludes. That goal is already being met in Rhode Island and Illinois, where the LADDER pilots have officially ended. Mancilla tells with fondness the story of Holland’s school district in Harvard, which she met with formally as a WIDA staff member for the last time in the spring of 2012.

“Harvard’s teachers didn’t know it was going to be our last workshop, and before I could tell them, they had already taken out their calendars on their own and set up all their meetings for the upcoming year. They were all onboard, and they didn’t even realize they were going to be doing it on their own,” Mancilla said. “At that point, they didn’t even need me, because they were a group comfortable enough with data to make decisions that were improving their instruction. To me, that’s what makes LADDER worth it.”

LADDER has since moved out of the pilot phase and is now an official WIDA product. Tim Boals, Director of WIDA and Project Investigator for LADDER, said school districts committed to making substantive improvements to their teaching of ELLs will see enormous benefit from joining the program.

“WIDA invested in LADDER because short-term workshops don’t change practice, and WIDA is about changing practice for the better for English language learners,” Boals said. “Teachers need to more clearly understand what their data means relative to the specific needs of their students, but we must also empower school teams to manage this process so that understanding data is linked to school improvement in iterative cycles.”

If you are interested in learning more about LADDER, visit the website at: