In recent months, several federal reports and resources related to English learner (EL) learning and education related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been released.
First, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) released its third “data story” about ELs in US schools. This story, which builds on two previously released stories about the characteristics and educational experiences of ELs, focuses specifically on ELs’ NAEP performance and high school graduation rates. Through interactive infographics (many of which are built on data from the National Center for Education Statistics), the story shows that higher percentages of ELs are proficient in math than in reading, but that nearly half of all states experienced declines in the number of ELs who scored proficient in math between 2009 and 2017. The story also shows that graduation rates for ELs improved by 10 percentage points between 2010-11 and 2015-16 (from 57 percent to 67 percent), but still fall well below the rates for non-ELs (84 percent). While interesting and informative, the data story also underscores the necessity of research and development to produce better resources and information to support EL learning.
In that vein, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives. This report examines what we know about ELs’ learning, teaching, and assessment in STEM subjects and provides guidance on how to improve STEM learning outcomes for these students. It reflects the consensus of a committee of EL experts that was chaired by NCER and NCSER grantee Dr. David Francis and included past grantees Dr. Okhee Lee and Dr. Mary Schleppegrell alongside a dozen other experts in EL education, STEM education, and teaching. One of the report’s central conclusions is that ELs develop proficiency in both STEM subjects and language when their classroom teachers provide them with opportunities for meaningful interaction and actively support both content and language learning. Given that many STEM teachers do not receive preparation to teach in this way, the report provides several recommendations to improve pre-service and in-service training. It also includes recommendations for how developers and publishers might produce better instructional materials and assessments to help both teachers and EL students.
Efforts of both types – instructional preparation and development of new materials – may be further supported by two new toolkits released by the Office of Education Technology. The toolkits are designed for educators and developers, and each is organized around five specific guiding principles to help the targeted group approach education technology with ELs’ unique needs in mind. The principles for developers emphasize the importance of thinking ahead about EL needs for those who wish to make products for this population. Meanwhile, the educator principles center on issues of awareness, and encourage teachers to learn more about the features, platforms, and resources that are available for ELs in the world of education technology. The principles also complement one another – for example, developers are encouraged to offer instruction-focused professional development, and educators are encouraged to seek out the same.
Brought together, these resources provide a snapshot of ELs’ mathematics achievement, a summary of research evidence about learning and instruction for ELs in STEM, and a set of principles to guide instruction and development efforts in the technology space moving forward. They also make a clear case for continued investment in R&D efforts to support STEM learning for both EL students and their teachers. Since 2010, the National Center for Education Research has invested nearly $20 million across 13 research and researcher-practioner partnership grants that have focused on STEM learning and ELs. Several such grants are coming to a close in the 2019 fiscal year; watch this space for future blog posts about the products and findings from these projects.