English learners are among the student groups most disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last 16 months, school closures highlighted pre-existing challenges that include limited access to a variety of resources.
Non-English-speaking students are more likely to live in homes that lack access to devices or reliable internet, making remote learning difficult, and the impacts of food insecurity, unstable home environments, working parents and language barriers were also exacerbated by the extended nature of closures.
Still, educators nationwide have strived to innovate and transcend these hurdles, seeing some progress along the way. To help you get up to speed, K-12 Dive will keep this page up to date with new English learner trends and developments throughout the year. Here are some recent highlights from our coverage.
Ed Dept report documents pandemic's toll on underserved students
By: Kara Arundel• Published June 9, 2021
English learners, students with disabilities, students of color and students who identify as LGBTQ faced hardships to access and opportunities during the pandemic, while nearly all students have experienced mental health challenges, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Education Wednesday.
The disparities, many of which existed before the pandemic, are “cause for great concern,” the 53-page report said. Although the report is not a legal analysis, it does point out disparities can sometimes be evidence of legal injuries under federal civil rights laws, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Guidance was also released for how school systems should prevent disproportionate budget cuts or staff reductions. The maintenance of equity guidance will help schools that have historically been underfunded and rely more on state funding compared to districts with fewer underserved students.
The documentation the Education Department collected about COVID-19’s impact on certain student groups was based on interviews and publicly available sources, such as assessment results and surveys from education administrative organizations. The document is part of a “developing story” on how the pandemic has worsened educational opportunities for marginalized students, according to the report.
Also impacted by the pandemic and school closures were Asian American students who faced increased risk of harassment and discrimination, as well as students, especially girls, who suffered heightened risk of sexual abuse, harassment or violence.
“These disparities can be a cause for great concern, especially when they interfere with a student’s opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to our nation’s future,” the report said.
Attention to these disparities is vital for building equal opportunities in K-12 education during pandemic recovery, the report said. States and districts should close opportunity gaps through money from three relief packages equaling nearly $200 billion of which districts have broad flexibility to spend on academic and SEL supports, equitable digital resources and more, the Education Department advises.
The maintenance of equity guidance details the calculations for how to protect high-need school districts from cuts in state funding in FY 2022 and 2023 on a per-student basis, and that high-poverty school districts receive at least as much in state funding in FY 2022 and FY 2023 as they did in FY 2019 on a per-student basis. For example, if there is a $100 per-student reduction in state funds for all students, the state would not meet its maintenance of equity obligation if it reduced a high-need school district’s per-student funding from $14,150 in FY 2021 to $14,000 in FY 2022 — a cut of $150.
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Analysis: Detailed, frequent chronic absenteeism data can inform interventions
By: Kara Arundel• Published June 9, 2021
Student attendance was worse this school year for students of color, those learning remotely and those living in low-income communities, according to an analysis of Connecticut school attendance data by the Connecticut State Department of Education and Attendance Works.
The state’s attendance data was uniquely situated for examination because at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, its education department took steps to collect consistent and reliable data — practices that allowed for the planning of education recovery efforts and school attendance initiatives for this summer and next school year, the analysis said.
Tracking and analyzing attendance data by student subgroups and learning formats can serve as an early warning sign that certain students and families need more support, or that schools and districts should add initiatives for positive learning conditions, the analysis recommends.
The collection of reliable attendance data during the pandemic was challenging because of the mix between in-person, remote and hybrid learning. It was particularly difficult to collect attendance data for remote learners, the analysis said. Only 27% of districts took attendance in spring 2020 when school buildings closed and classroom instruction shifted to online, according to a paper from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Another analysis published by FutureEd in May based on an examination of five school districts with a total of 450,000 students showed student absenteeism was worse during the pandemic than previously reported, particularly among young children, those living in poverty, English learners and students with disabilities.
In Connecticut, the state education department took several steps to collect and report attendance data, including keeping a consistent definition of attendance, which is individual student participation for at least a half a day for each instructional day. The state also published specific guidance on how schools should address complex attendance situations, such as when a remote learner is located in another jurisdiction. Additionally, the state also publicly published monthly attendance reports that compared the current data to previous years.
Connecticut’s attendance data showed several trends for the 2020-21 school year:
Overall, chronic absenteeism rates declined between the fall and winter months. Chronic absence is defined by Attendance Works as missing 10% or more of school days for any reason.
The gap in chronic absenteeism rates between in-person and hybrid students was less pronounced for high school students compared to elementary or middle school students.
Chronic absenteeism rates were higher for students who were: receiving free or reduced-price lunch; Black or Hispanic; English learners; identified as having a disability; and male. Those gaps continued between fall and winter.
“In Connecticut, data drives our decision-making because it is crucial to inform how we most effectively address the root causes of chronic absenteeism and ensure positive student outcomes,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, Connecticut’s acting commissioner of education, in a statement.
The analysis recommends districts consider adopting new attendance policies this summer so schools are prepared to begin next school year with those practices.
Also suggested is that attendance be taken daily for elementary students and by course period for secondary school students. Those records should be reported on a frequent basis, such as monthly, so there is the opportunity for local and state analysis before the end of the school year.
“Since states and districts can only address and act on what they can see, having data and results in hand for the current school year versus after the fact will be important in driving decision making,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, in a statement.
Article top image credit: George Frey via Getty Images
Want to improve literacy for Emergent Bilinguals? Get them talking.
Research tells us that oral language plays a critical role in reading development for all students. This important connection between language and literacy deserves more focus and attention throughout schools and districts, especially as it relates to Emergent Bilingual students, or English language learners—one of the fastest growing populations in schools across the country.
The rationale behind the term "Emergent Bilingual" and why Lexia supports an asset-based approach
The six areas of oral language and the impact of oral language acquisition on literacy
The difference between receptive and expressive language, and the importance of creating opportunities for speaking practice
How to integrate speaking and reading instruction for Emergent Bilinguals and specific ways to blend the two in the classroom
Lay the groundwork for Emergent Bilingual reading success by incorporating oral language instruction. Download the white paper.
Article top image credit: Wavebreakmedia via iStock
Review of 41 California districts finds lack of adequate EL learning continuity plans
By: Naaz Modan• Published March 19, 2021
Californians Together, a non-profit advocating for equitable education for English learners, reviewed 41 California school districts' learning continuity and attendance plans and found most did not include a plan for educational continuity, meaning there was little evidence of the amount of guaranteed daily live instruction time for ELs and their prioritization in in-person learning plans. (The state of California has 1,037 districts total.)
Nearly 40% had weak plans in place to assess and monitor EL progress, collaborate with families, and offer professional development for teachers and instructional support staff, according to the report. Nearly half (49%) did not differentiate between different English language learners and their instructional needs, and more than two-thirds had weak plans for SEL and mental health supports for ELs.
Overall, the report found "districts and schools can do significantly more to support ELs, their families, and their teachers."
Districts in California were required to have Local Control and Accountability Plans, or three-year plans outlining goals, actions, services and expenditures to support positive student outcomes. Due to COVID-19, LCAPs were replaced for the 2020-21 school year with Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans, which are meant to provide information about how districts invested state resources and instruction to address student learning.
Researchers Conor Williams, a fellow at progressive think tank Century Foundation, and Manuel Buenrostro, a policy associate for Californians Together, outlined places of improvement for districts, including:
Conducting linguistically and culturally competent outreach.
Addressing learning loss, including evaluation of attendance strategies' effectiveness and supports for 1st-grade students who did not attend kindergarten in the 2021-22 school year.
Professional development for cultural proficiency and competencies, as well as SEL and mental health strategies.
Staff hiring and placement to support at-risk students.
Implementing and delivering high-quality EL curriculum.
Targeted strategies to meet needs of various ELs with differentiated growth targets and supports.
While it is the goal of many districts to get EL students back on track in their learning and engage students and their families, many also face hurdles. For example, districts are still struggling with assessing EL students despite flexibilities granted by the federal government. Specifically, districts have struggled to coordinate staff time, student transportation, adjustments in class schedules, pandemic precautions and other factors to conduct in-person, multi-day EL proficiency assessments.
These obstacles could mean fewer students assessed and unreliable data collection, which could make personalized learning and instructional planning, often informed by assessment outcomes and data, for this student group even more challenging.
In addition to language barriers, data shows non-English-speaking students were already behind their English-proficient peers academically before the pandemic hit. These students also are more likely to live in homes without devices or reliable internet access, struggle with food insecurity, have unstable home environments or have working parents who are unable to assist their children with remote learning during the school day.
Those that have put guardrails in place for English learners are employing a variety of methods. For example, Azusa Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California, had its EL students attend language development classes 45 minutes before and after the regular school day so they don’t miss instructional time in their regular academic courses. The students were also prioritized to return to campus for one-on-one assessments.
Various local associations and organizations like the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators provide training to serve the EL population, as well.
"Districts have made progress toward digital inclusion and accessibility, but there are still many inequalities to address—these inequities will only worsen without meaningful commitments from educators and district leadership,” said Martha Hernández, executive director of Californians Together, in a press release.
Article top image credit: Linda Jacobson
EL assessment challenges remain despite testing flexibilities
In-person, socially distanced proficiency testing of English learners has been logistically complex, particularly for schools in all-remote or hybrid formats.
By: Kara Arundel• Published Feb. 22, 2021
Flexibilities provided by the federal government and states for annual English learner proficiency assessments have been useful during the pandemic, but some EL experts say obstacles for in-person testing mean fewer students will be assessed and that the data collected may not be reliable.
Specifically, districts are struggling to coordinate staff time, student transportation, adjustments in class schedules, pandemic precautions and more in order to conduct in-person, multi-day EL proficiency assessments.
Although states were able to waive the requirement for EL annual proficiency assessments last spring, the U.S. Department of Education has not eased the testing requirement for the 2020-21 school year so far, and many states are in the process of assessing or soon will assess students.
David Holbrook, executive director of the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators, describes the situation as a Catch-22 scenario because although the Education Department is allowing schools to use modified ways to identify EL students this school year, there has not been guidance on alternate methods for administering the required statewide annual proficiency assessments.
In guidance issued Jan. 18, the Education Department said states may adjust their proficiency testing windows. The department also said states have the discretion to administer the proficiency assessments in person or remotely. EL experts, however, say most states use the WIDA ACCESS assessment, which does not have a remote option and typically is given to students in shorter timed sections over multiple days.
There were more than 5 million ELs in U.S. schools during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Office of English Language Acquisition. According to data collected that year, 14% of ELs attained proficiency in English, 27% made progress and 34% of ELs did not make progress or attain proficiency. Widespread online learning due to the pandemic has been most difficult for ELs, immigrant students and students from low-income families, research has shown.
Oakland Schools in Waterfold, Michigan, is an intermediate school district (ISD) that works with 28 districts and 25 public charter schools with a collective EL population of 14,000, said Suzanne Toohey, Oakland Schools’ instruction and pedagogy supervisor and ESL consultant.
Toohey said the agency’s modified process for screening and identifying ELs has been effective. It even led the ISD to develop a model form for collecting and organizing comprehensive student screening data that includes interviews with students and families. Properly identifying English learners allows schools to provide those students with services they are entitled to under federal law, which includes the acquisition of the English language in a timely fashion and the guarantee of participation in core content, Toohey said.
The annual assessment process this year has been much more cumbersome, Toohey said. Although the testing window has been extended and the state is planning to request a waiver from the EL proficiency assessments, school systems are moving forward in planning the logistics for the assessments.
That includes contacting remote students’ parents — in their native languages — about the testing, organizing transportation and on-site meals, planning safety protocols that include the cleaning of each computer and manipulative used for the assessments, scheduling staff to conduct the assessments, and trying not to disrupt the time students are in core academic classes, Toohey said.
The communication with families is especially difficult. While the schools are required to administer the assessments to every EL student, they don’t want families who are uncomfortable sending their children to school for the in-person tests to feel forced to do so.
“It feels for our EL people, who are already stretched thin, like double pressure,” Toohey said.
Typically, data from the proficiency assessments yields valuable information that can guide individualized student instruction and district-wide planning and training, she said.
“We don't know what the data will give us this year because the instruction has been so intermittent… and kids have been through a lot of trauma,” Toohey said.
Deborah Wilkes, ESL program coordinator for Cumberland County Schools in Fayetteville, North Carolina, also worries about the reliability of the testing data compared to the logistical and emotional costs of testing students this year. The school system has nearly 1,500 ELs representing 87 native languages, Wilkes said.
Students have been learning virtually since the pandemic began. The district is planning to reopen campuses March 15, but one-third of the EL student population is electing to continue learning from home, Wilkes said.
And while Wilkes said teachers are trying their best to provide online instruction and students have a lot of potential and an eagerness to learn, there are some students who have had a difficult time following instruction online.
“We know they haven’t progressed,” WIlkes said. “We know they are even falling behind. The [assessment] data will show us how much.”
But because the students haven’t been at school in-person since last year’s EL proficiency assessment was administered, the data from this year’s test, compared to baseline information from last year’s test, could be unhelpful and even harmful, she said. “I really, personally, don't think that the benefits we will get from the testing of these students outweighs the dangers,” Wilkes said.
However, one silver lining in the struggle to figure out how to safely identify and assess EL students this year has been the coordination and collaboration between district offices as they collaborate to find solutions, Wilkes said.
“Ultimately, our goal is to do the very best, and the safest course of action, for our students and then educators, given the current circumstance. And unfortunately in some respects, that is conflicting with what the requirements are,” she said.
Rubric for Recovery: ELs face more hurdles amid lost in-person learning
Schools are employing extra English development courses, individualized support delivered to students' sidewalks and more to maintain progress.
By: Kara Arundel• Published Nov. 2, 2020
Editor's note: This is part of a four-part series on the challenges schools are facing during the pandemic in trying to advance marginalized students and the creative ways they are trying to teach them online and in-person.
The shy girl learning to write, read and speak proficient English blended in with her peers in Kristabel Regalado’s virtual class this fall at Edward K. Downing Elementary School in Odessa, Texas. Regalado, an English language teacher and multi-classroom leader, thought the girl’s oral skills were strong, but the student was reluctant to answer questions or initiate conversations in English.
Was the child, a native Spanish speaker, behind — or was she just introverted? The virtual learning setting made it hard to determine, so Regalado tested the girl’s reading skills and reviewed a variety of her classwork. That’s when Regalado realized her performance level was lower than she initially suspected.
The girl was placed with a group of students working on the same skill level, and Regalado personalized her lessons to focus on specific reading strategies, including decoding and constructing meaning from reading passages. Now, three months into the school year, Regalado said the student's self-assurance and competency in English has grown.
“I can see that she has made progress, and she is much more comfortable asking and answering questions,” Regalado said.
It is a small moment of victory that holds the potential of a big reward — the student’s eventual exit from English learner status. As educators like Regalado and others across the country refine or develop new online or in-person strategies to support ELs in a school year like none other, their confidence in helping students become proficient in English is growing.
That wasn’t the case in the spring, when schools abruptly pivoted to distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. EL students were — and, in many cases, still are — disproportionately affected by extended school closures, say educators and advocates.
Data shows even before the pandemic hit the U.S., non-English speaking students were behind their English-proficient peers academically (see chart below). They also are more likely to live in homes without devices or reliable internet access, making it difficult to access remote learning. Furthermore, many struggle with food insecurity, unstable home environments or have working parents who are unable to assist their children with remote learning during the school day.
Language barriers only compound these challenges, educators say.
The pandemic "is just exacerbating the existing challenges,” said Naomi Hupert, a senior research scientist with the Education Development Center and co-director of the Center for Children and Technology.
Nationwide, EL students account for about 10% of the total student population. Spanish is the most common native language spoken by ELs, but there are more than 400 languages represented in U.S. public schools, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
The number of unique native languages spoken by ELs can vary from state-to-state and district-to-district. For example, five languages are represented by ELs in Mississippi, compared to 225 in Pennsylvania, Ed Department data shows.
While there are examples of innovative and inspiring approaches by schools to continue language development programs and give EL students access to the full academic curriculum, Hupert said roadblocks remain, including the difficulty of adapting language development instruction to online learning platforms — or in socially distanced in-person classes where students' and teachers’ masks hide their lips and muffle their voices. Spontaneous, peer-to-peer interactions and conversation are also missing, she said.
“The informal opportunities to be exposed to English and to use it are slowly disappearing,” Hupert said.
While providing language development instruction to English learners in remote settings has been challenging, EL administrators say another obstacle is the lack of valid, high-quality annual proficiency assessments that can be proctored online.
Those annual assessments measure a student’s progress toward English proficiency and can also help guide the individual placements and supports each student needs to move toward complete proficiency, said David Holbrook, executive director of the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators.
Megan Alubicki Flick, the Connecticut Department of Education’s English learner consultant and NAELPA’s president, said her state, like others, is grappling with how to administer tests safely in-person and reliably online. There are 44,000 ELs in Connecticut representing 160 native languages. The value in the annual assessment is it directly influences an individual student’s learning program and EL status, she said.
The annual assessments are federally required, though states have flexibility to develop their own tests and testing timelines. Schools must also conduct an initial assessment within 30 days after a new student’s enrollment to determine if that child qualifies for EL services.
Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education in May said schools may use temporary entrance procedures that allow for the presumption of EL identificationbased on a home language survey and rely on appropriate follow up, including discussions with students and parents.
Although the department did allow state waivers to annual English language proficiency assessments for the 2019-20 school year, states should not expect the same flexibility this year, according to a Sept. 3 letter from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. A FAQ document recently issued by the department's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education explains some state-level flexibility for accountability purposes regarding the annual proficiency assessments. But, Holbrook said, the document doesn't help districts and schools with the immediate issue of identifying and serving EL students.
“The informal opportunities to be exposed to English and to use it are slowly disappearing."
Senior research scientist, Education Development Center and co-director, Center for Children and Technology
Many educators in districts with distance learning-only formats this fall are so eager to measure the proficiency levels of EL students, especially if end-of-year testing data is missing, they are inviting small groups of EL students to take the assessments in-person.
That’s whatEdward K. Downing Elementary School in Odessa, Texas, is doing to get foundational scores to develop individual learning programs, said Principal Marcos Lopez. "If we don’t have a benchmark test, it’s like shooting in the dark. You don't know where you’re aiming and you can’t see your target."
‘Whole other level of difficulty’
In addition to annual assessments, EL educators must expose non-English-speaking students to language development instruction, as well as to the full academic curriculum. Balancing language development instruction and general content lessons in online learning formats is an area of struggle for EL programs.
“This is a novel situation for all of us, and so we can’t really utilize past best practices or research-based approaches to this situation,” said Alubicki Flick. “Of course, we can apply research-based strategies, but we don’t know exactly how things will look for COVID-19 because we haven’t gone through this.”
Azusa Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California, is attempting to meet this balance by inviting EL students to attend language development classes 45 minutes before and after the regular school day, which is all online, said school board member Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez.
The extra supports were created so EL students don’t miss instructional time in their regular academic courses. The twice-a-day tutoring also allows ELs who receive special education services to get extra help in both English proficiency and special education interventions, Cruz-Gonzalez said.
“They’ll be able to get that rich language when they’re in social studies classes, when they’re in science classes, and that helps them become more proficient in English than when it’s just focusing on the grammar or mechanics of learning English,” Cruz-Gonzalez said.
The district also recently started bringing special education and English learners back on to campuses for one-on-one assessments, Cruz-Gonzalez said.
In Texas, despite Regalado’s ability to help her shy student make progress, she saidshe’s having difficulty providing online small group instruction for the various academic and language development levels represented by her students.
“I don’t yet quite have a handle on how I can group those kids and provide those effectively, the small group lessons,” Regalado said. “It’s hard to level students and plan lessons to meet their needs in-person, but doing it online adds a whole other level of difficulty.”
Resources and new ideas for EL educators
NAELPA is providing professional development opportunities, including training and resources for general education teachers, on effective EL strategies. The association is also studying what methods are working — and not working — across the country, Holbrook said.
Several state education departments and other groups have issued guidance to districts to support ELs during the pandemic. In Virginia, for example, the Virginia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and the Virginia ESL Supervisors’ Association created a resource bank for schools that includes coronavirus information in multiple languages and lesson planning ideas.
Local, state and federal education systems are also providing more training and resources to parents so they can better support their child’s language development, both in their native language and English.
School districts in California are reporting an uptick in participation of parents at virtual English learner advisory committee meetings at the school and district levels because the adults can attend meetings using their phones, computers or school-issued devices, said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an advocacy organization.
That’s a welcome trend, “Because now, parents are expected to play a bigger role,” Hernandez said.
Educators also are implementing new methods to reach their online students. For example, Nisha Patel, an EL teacher at Lew Wallace School 107 in Indianapolis, tried to relate to her elementary-aged students by remembering what it was like for her as a child learning English. The native Gujarati speaker said she would have been sad if she couldn’t have gone to school when she was young.
“It was difficult in the beginning but now we’re getting into a groove.”
EL teacher, Lew Wallace School 107, Indianapolis
Those thoughts propelled Patel to spend hours outside of the regular school day last spring developing strategies to keep students progressing. She would create and deliver in-person learning packets to students who didn’t have devices, and for children who did have devices, she would sit on the sidewalk outside of their homes to show them how to navigate the learning platforms.
“I didn’t want them to fall behind,” Patel said.
Every child now has a device, and the school has welcomed students back for in-person learning for those who choose that option. Patel teaches students in-person and virtually. Teaching students in-person is much easier, she said, but added her online teaching skills are much stronger than in the spring.
“It was difficult in the beginning but now we’re getting into a groove,” she said.
Supporting progress, acknowledging challenges
All these efforts, however, still don’t erase the disproportionate impact the novel coronavirus is having on ELs. At Edward K. Downing Elementary School, one-third of Regalado’s students do not have home internet access, though devices have been provided to all 800 students in the Title I school. There is additional pressure on educators to help families access basic needs, such as food, and to recover students’ learning losses.
“After March, I absolutely know that our gaps got bigger, and bigger, and bigger because some of [the students] didn’t have high-quality school for five months,” Regalado said.
“As long as they are growing either a tiny bit or a lot ... the paramount part is that they keep moving forward and improving.”
EL teacher, Aycock Elementary School, North Carolina
Staff at Aycock Elementary School in Vance County, North Carolina, is also concerned about learning gaps for EL students. The school is trying to prioritize the needs of ELs by continuously scrutinizing data about student proficiency and performance levels. A new online library gives EL students greater access to books at their individual skill levels and some students have progressed one or two reading levels, said Casey Jackson, a multi-class leader at the school.
The school is also developing its master schedule for hybrid learning around the learning needs of ELs and their teachers, as well as being more intentional about collaborations between general education and EL teachers, Jackson said.
Liliana Soto, an EL teacher at Aycock, said she’s been providing extra tutoring time to help students make up missed assignments or get additional supports for hard-to-understand concepts. The extra effort and students’ progression in skills has caught the attention of the subject teachers who have shared their praise with the students, Soto said.
The EL teacher also uses a growth mindset, meaning she and students measure progress by focusing on small, interim achievements rather than a large end goal. “Although there are score goals to meet, for me, as long as they are growing either a tiny bit or a lot, I consider the paramount part is that they keep moving forward and improving,” Soto said.
Like Soto, Regalado is optimistic about her efforts to help students progress during this unusual school year.
“We don’t have 50-plus years of research and pedagogy on best practices for online learning, but good teachers will find a way to deliver quality instruction even with a piece of chalk and a slate,” Regalado said.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Nisha Patel
Improving academic outcomes for english learning students
English learners are among the student groups most disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While school closures highlighted pre-existing challenges for these groups, educators nationwide have strived to innovate and transcend these hurdles, seeing some progress along the way.
included in this trendline
Review of 41 California districts finds lack of adequate EL learning continuity plans
Ed Dept report documents pandemic's toll on underserved students
Analysis: Detailed, frequent chronic absenteeism data can inform interventions
Our Trendlines go deep on the biggest trends. These special reports, produced by our team of award-winning journalists, help business leaders understand how their industries are changing.
Davide SavenijeEditor-in-Chief at Industry Dive.