Seven Steps to Ensure English Learners Aren’t Left Out of STEM

English Language Learning

Seven Steps to Ensure English Learners Aren’t Left Out of STEM

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Feb 14, 2019

Seven Steps to Ensure English Learners Aren’t Left Out of STEM

As demand for professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields continues to surge, a significant population of potential workers is being left out of these career opportunities: English learners.

This population is large and fast-growing, representing 4.6 million students, or about 9.4 percent of the school-aged population, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Obstacles to English learners participating in STEM subjects and careers do not include lack of interest or ability, according to the report, “English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools and Lives.” Rather, it stems from a lack of access to rigorous, age-appropriate instruction in the field. The problem can be attributed to a variety of reasons; one is that many schools assume English learners cannot participate in rigorous STEM content learning before reaching a certain level of English proficiency—an assumption that research has disproven, according to the authors.

“If we have a large segment of our population that is not participating in those careers, that’s a problem for the country, it’s a problem for the communities and it’s a problem for the children themselves,” said David Francis, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston and chair of the committee that authored the report.

“If those are the high-paying jobs, then we’re also segregating English learners into lower levels of the economy, and that’s not desirable either,” added Francis, who presented the findings of the report at an event this week in Washington, D.C.

Because mastery of the English language does not necessarily determine one’s ability to grasp STEM concepts, English learners may in fact be well-suited to more advanced materials in science, math and coding.

“While there is no language without content, there is some content that is less dependent on language,” the report reads. “STEM subjects include alternative routes to acquiring knowledge—experimentation, demonstration of phenomena, and demonstration of practices—through which students can gain a sense of STEM content without resorting mainly to language to access meaning.”

In other words, not all STEM content is best learned by reading (sometimes dense) text. Alternative approaches, the authors add, can lead to hands-on learning and shared experiences among students, which in turn can precipitate better language comprehension.

To create better opportunities for English learners and ensure they are represented in STEM fields, the report recommends seven steps that educators, school and district leaders and state and federal policymakers can take.

1. Evaluate existing policies, strategies and tools to understand whether they may be having a negative impact on English learners’ access to STEM opportunities

Policies across the federal, state and district levels should be reconsidered, spawned by questions such as: Can there be better training programs for educators teaching English as a second language (ESL)? Should more qualified ESL teachers be available to teach STEM? How is an English learner defined, and should there be better entry and exit supports? How might state assessments be unfairly disadvantaging English learners?

2. Establish a system for identifying and eliminating obstacles to English learners’ participation in STEM learning opportunities

School and district leaders should agree on and assign responsibilities for setting up students for success in STEM education. Part of this work should include developing a framework to spot and remove barriers to English learners’ participation in STEM.

3. Provide educators with the necessary tools and training to set up English learners for success in STEM subject areas

These tools and preparation could vary, but some suggestions involve schools and districts ensuring that teachers engage in field experiences and learn research-backed best practices for supporting English learners in STEM. Others include professional development and collaboration between ESL teachers and STEM teachers.

4. Create high-quality curriculum and assessments for English learners in STEM

Curriculum developers, teachers and researchers should work together to develop instructional materials and resources that take into account the range of English learners’ needs. Those individuals should then collaborate to come up with formative assessments that better measure English learners’ competencies and growth in STEM subjects over time.

5. Tap into English learners’ existing and potential local support networks

Families of English learners are often well-positioned to encourage and support their children’s STEM needs and opportunities. School, districts and educators can better engage with students’ families about what’s happening in the classroom. They can also partner with community organizations that offer services and support to English learners and their families.

6. Design assessments that consider the needs of English learners

As the population of U.S. students becomes more linguistically heterogeneous, assessment developers should take the necessary steps to include representative samples of English learners in test design and analysis. Researchers and funding agencies, in turn, should establish standards that hold assessment developers accountable.

7. Review accessibility and accommodation policies

If existing policies for assessment accommodation do not consider the diversity of challenges and needs of English learners, policies should be revised. States, schools and districts should work together to develop and implement new or better policies for English learners. Examples including allowing extra time to English learners during testing, providing translation assistance or ensuring that computer-administered tests are equipped with language accessibility tools.

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