Boals, WIDA providing tools, resources for educators of language learners

Leadership that Matters

Leadership is not just about the position one holds — it’s about bringing people together to accomplish something collectively. In this issue of Learning Connections, we are putting the spotlight on leadership that brings about change in the evolution of beliefs, values and behaviors.

Leadership that Matters is centered on the efforts of School of Education faculty and staff who are working locally, around the country and across the globe to make a positive difference in real and relevant ways.

Boals, WIDA providing trusted tools and resources
for educators of language learners

Tim Boals was asked if, upon its launch in 2003, he could have ever imagined what a significant role the WIDA Consortium would be playing in the realm of standards and assessments for English language learners (ELLs).

Summer 2018 Learning Connections CoverBoals, the founder and director of WIDA, paused for a moment before explaining, “It has been successful beyond our expectations on so many levels. A colleague once called it a grant that went viral — and viral in a very positive way because we’ve been able to make a huge impact on English language learner education.”

WIDA is housed within the UW–Madison School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). It provides language standards, assessment tools and a range of evidence-based resources and professional development opportunities for educators and ELLs in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Today, 37 U.S. state departments of education, among others, participate in the WIDA Consortium.

“ELL education historically was underserved within states and local schools,” says Boals. “Our focus has been to provide a holistic system of supports to our state partners, teachers and students.”

Boals started his career as a Spanish teacher prior to landing a position with the Indiana Department of Education. He moved to Wisconsin in 1997, where he worked with ELL and bilingual programs across the state for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). In this role he helped make educators aware of current research and best practices in an effort to improve bilingual and ELL programs.

WIDA was established in 2003 within Wisconsin DPI thanks to a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal was to create English language proficiency standards and assessments, and the consortium initially started with Wisconsin, Delaware and Arkansas — thus the WIDA acronym. However, Arkansas dropped out and World-class Instructional Design and Assessment was created to fit the acronym. Today, it’s simply WIDA.

“WIDA came around at a time when ELL students and their teachers were voiceless,” says Audrey Lesondak, an English language and bilingual consultant with Wisconsin DPI who was a teacher in Sun Prairie at the time WIDA was launched. “WIDA brought this group of educators who worked directly with students to the table, along with university researchers and DPI in an inclusive way.”

From the start, WIDA was more than a testing system measuring English language growth for culturally and linguistically diverse children. And its ongoing relationship with students, teachers and researchers has led to a variety of resources for educators of language learners.

Boals, who earned his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and Educational Policy Studies from UW– Madison in 2003, is uniquely positioned to lead WIDA and its many constituents due to his background as a teacher, his experience in state education agencies and his familiarity with UW–Madison and WCER’s research capacity.

“Tim brings a clear vision, knowledge and a can-do philosophy,” says Lesondak. “He’s not saying he has all the answers but he brings people together to find success.”

Tim Boals
Tim Boals (center) poses for a photo during the WIDA 2016
National Conference in Philadelphia.
Soon after its launch it was apparent Wisconsin DPI — which is charged with serving schools in Wisconsin — was not the proper home for WIDA. When the grant moved to WCER in 2006, the consortium had already grown to 12 states.

The 2016 Every Student Succeeds Act requires states today to include English language proficiency progress for ELLs as a core component of accountability plans. This has pushed the WIDA Consortium to its current levels.

While there are competitors that provide ELL testing and evaluation, WIDA thrives because it’s the only player in this field that supports an entire system of resources for educators of language learners.

“We’re successful because we’re much more than a testing system and people have confidence in our work because we’re housed in a leading School of Education,” says Boals, who notes that more than 300 international schools also use WIDA’s standards and assessments. “We work hard creating systems of supports for teachers that are research-based and that are proven to help English language learners succeed. It’s the Wisconsin Idea in action.”

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