Four Reasons English Learners Lack Access to Quality STEM Learning

Blog Post
Feb. 27, 2019

Jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are on the rise. These jobs offer tremendous economic opportunities and hold promise for transforming the lives of individual students, their families, and society at large. Unfortunately, K-12 schools are struggling to prepare English Learners (ELs) to become the next generation of STEM-skilled professionals, according to the latest consensus report on ELs from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The report, English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools and Lives, explains how ELs are being left behind and what stakeholders can do to ensure ELs have access to rigorous, grade-appropriate (STEM) learning.

The following four barriers and suggested solutions provide a glimpse into the report’s findings and recommendations:

1) ELs are excluded from rigorous, grade-appropriate courses

Compared to their never-EL peers, ELs are more likely to enroll in lower-level STEM courses than honors-level or college preparatory courses. The reasons for this are many. For instance, research suggests that schools with large proportions of low-income students of color (where ELs are more likely to attend) may offer less higher-level STEM courses. However, even when higher-level courses are available, having to repeat coursework as well as poor academic advising can disadvantage ELs. The authors argue that the uneven participation of ELs in rigorous courses can also be the result of district and state-level policies and practices that inadvertently penalize EL classification. For example, ELs may be isolated in EL programs that limit their access to more advanced STEM courses.

What should be done? The report suggests that school districts take a closer look at course-taking data to determine if EL students are disproportionately assigned to remedial science or mathematics courses. It’s also necessary for states and districts to minimize the isolation of ELs by revising their policies and practices. This includes ensuring that English proficiency does not serve as gatekeeper to accessing mainstream or higher-level STEM coursework. At the same time, states and districts have a responsibility to ensure that EL students are reclassified (e.g. exit EL status) in a timely manner or risk excluding them from accessing rigorous content. Both states and districts must take a lead on ensuring EL students have access to well-prepared academic advisers who can help them make informed choices about coursework, especially at the high school level.

2) Educators bring biases about ELs to their work

Beyond access to STEM coursework, teachers’ misconceptions about the capability of ELs can unknowingly impact the rigor of instruction teachers provide. The report highlights a growing body of research documenting that some educators believe ELs are not capable of engaging with rigorous content learning until they are done learning English. This deficit view of ELs can lead educators to narrow instruction by employing tasks that are repetitive and devoid of rigor. These choices, in turn, impact ELs’ ability to meet rigorous expectations in STEM subjects, creating a cycle of low-level teaching and learning that can derail ELs’ interest and curiosity in STEM.

What should be done? Districts, states, and teacher preparation programs should ensure teachers have multiple opportunities to reflect on their beliefs about ELs. Research shows that guided reflections during professional learning opportunities (in pre-service and in-service) can help teachers analyze their own beliefs and debunk deficit narratives about ELs. Professional learning opportunities should prepare educators to leverage the assets ELs bring to the STEM classroom, too. There is a great need for teacher preparation and development that confers opportunities for teachers to observe and collaborate with peers concerning culturally responsive practices, which call on teachers to draw on students’ strengths to shape learning experiences.

3) STEM and language learning happens in silos

Oftentimes language learning is seen as something that happens before, or separate from, STEM learning. As a result, many STEM teachers do not view themselves as language teachers, even though STEM subjects have many linguistic demands (e.g., vocabulary, discursive forms, and ways of constructing arguments). This is no surprise. According to the report, STEM teachers do not receive sufficient training in how to implement instructional strategies that benefit ELs into their lessons. Moreover, English as a second language (ESL) teachers and STEM teachers rarely have opportunities to collaborate and co-plan.

What should be done? More learning opportunities are needed for STEM educators, particularly in how to support students’ language skills through their subject areas. The report affirms that offering teacher candidates opportunities to engage in field experiences with ELs can help. Additionally, there is a need to train ESL teachers to share in the responsibility of weaving together disciplinary content and language instruction. Districts and preperation programs can help both STEM and ESL teachers develop these competencies by bringing them together to engage in shared learning opportunities and co-planning. Offering more opportunities for co-teaching between ESL teachers and content teachers of STEM may also be beneficial, according to the report. Resources that outline research-based instructional practices for supporting ELs’ STEM learning may also be useful for supporting STEM and ESL teachers.

4) Curriculum materials are not developed with ELs in mind

STEM materials, like all materials, are more effective for ELs when their learning needs are considered at the onset of the design process. Unfortunately, STEM materials are rarely developed in this way. As the report shows, language diversity is rarely considered when STEM materials are developed, and if it is considered at all, interventions for ELs are added as a supplement to mainstream materials. Equally troubling is that STEM instructional materials often fail to highlight the contributions of all ethnic and racial groups in science, math, and beyond. Nor do they include the contexts and experiences that diverse students are familiar with. What’s more, materials rarely promote both STEM learning and language development. For instance, curricula often do not lend way to speaking, listening, reading, and writing—even though research illustrates that ELs need many opportunities to become proficient these four language domains.

What should be done? EL researchers, curriculum developers, educators, and districts need to work together to develop materials that attend to the needs of ELs. These stakeholders should ensure that materials invite ELs to read, write, and engage in discourse. Additionally, the report recommends that curricula is editable such that it can be further annotated and revised to better support ELs. Teachers should receive professional development that prepares them to work with curriculum materials they will actually be using in their teaching. As one example, New America has previously spotlighted a district that has developed STEM open educational resources (OER) with ELs in mind while training their teachers to use these materials. OER curricula holds particular promise for ELs because these resources must be free and modifiable.

Failing to prepare ELs in STEM subjects is not fair to ELs, who lose a critical avenue to social and economic prosperity. It is also not smart for the STEM sector. Research is clear that leveraging the talents of a diverse STEM workforce can promote innovation. As the NASEM report affirms, taking advantage of these benefits will require a momentous, multi-prong effort to better support ELs' STEM learning.

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