I remember the day in ninth grade algebra when I asked my math teacher the question most students ask: When would I ever use y=mx+b in my “real life?” He did not provide a compelling answer. Like many students, I had a negative relationship with the subject, and I regularly stated that I was not a “math person.” My textbooks, filled with problem sets that failed to unveil any relevance to my life, did nothing to dissuade me from my negative perspective. If I, as a fluent English speaker, did not see relevance and connection to math, I can only imagine the negative relationship that California’s 1.1 million English learners experience with math when it is taught in a language and culture they are not yet fluent in.
I wonder about the mathematical identities and potential of English learners in California who, unfortunately, scored below basic in eighth grade mathematics assessments (NAEP, 2022) and are disproportionately underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. This is concerning for California because the state has about “13% of the nation’s overall STEM-related workforce.”
One reason we fail to provide English learners with the opportunity to succeed in math is the misguided belief that students must be English proficient to engage in rigorous grade-level learning. This mentality results in low expectations for English learners. We also continue placing these students in “sink or swim” grade-level classes without providing teachers with the resources needed to develop mathematical reading, writing and spoken language alongside content. Thus, English learners are often left behind from learning the core content and then excluded from higher-level math. We must ensure that language status is not a barrier to success in learning and potential STEM careers. This means removing the lost opportunities and disparities in math achievement.
One often overlooked, but cost-effective, way to improve student outcomes is to adopt high-quality mathematics instructional materials. These materials can guide teachers to use instructional practices that integrate language development and content knowledge. They can provide coherent, asset-based learning experiences that support student agency for thinking and learning about math. If our materials are accessible, relevant and engaging, it empowers English learners — and all students.
District and state leaders spend significant time, money and human resources during the materials-adoption process. It is essential that we provide them with practical tools and resources to maximize the costly adoption process so they make the best decisions for their English learners and all students.
A new educator-friendly rubric from the California Curriculum Collaborative does just that. It provides California state and district leaders with practical criteria to evaluate whether the materials they are considering for adoption address the language and content needs in math of English learners. The rubric brings together expertise from the English Learners Success Forum, EdReports, EdSolutions, and Pivot Learning (now merged with UnboundEd), who share a commitment to ensuring districts use high-quality instructional materials, including English learners.
The rubric outlines five specific design elements that are essential criteria for materials to truly support English learners. These include simultaneously teaching content, math practices and language development; incorporating language features associated with math tasks; providing language supports; leveraging students’ assets; and consistently using formative assessment of content, math practices and language in order to build and improve learning. These elements have been proven to improve teaching and learning and positively impact the way English learners experience and engage with math.
When announcing the initiative to strengthen STEM education nationwide for students disproportionately excluded from those fields, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten said, “Today, we are saying unequivocally to all students and educators that they belong in STEM and that they deserve to have rigorous and relevant educational experiences that inspire and empower them to reach their full potential as productive, contributing members of our nation’s workforce.”
I wish that this clarion call had reached me and my ninth grade algebra teacher. However, we can still make sure that today’s educational environments support that growth mindset in mathematics for all students, including English learners. If we are to realize this vision in California where the knowledge economy represents a large share of the STEM careers, we must advance equity for the large number of English learners in California’s schools. We cannot afford to allow this persistent opportunity gap to continue. The adoptions of instructional materials are million-dollar decisions that affect education leaders, teachers and students on a daily basis for years to come. Now is the time for California to invest wisely in the mathematical futures of its students. These criteria can help do just that.
Renae Skarin is senior director, content, at the English Learners Success Forum, a collaboration of researchers, teachers, district leaders and funders working to improve the quality and accessibility of instructional materials for English learners.
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