As established across this report, English learners (ELs) bring a wealth of resources to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning, including their knowledge and interest in STEM-related content that is born out of their experiences in their homes and communities, home languages, variation in argumentation practices, and, in some cases, experiences with schooling in other countries. There are complex forces (e.g., teachers, families, administrators) including policies (e.g., state policy) and how they are interpreted and enacted that have the potential to shape ELs’ opportunities in STEM learning. This chapter presents the committee’s conclusions and recommendations for policy, practice, and research and data collection drawn as a synthesis across the full report. They are followed by a research agenda that identifies the gaps in current knowledge with respect to ELs and their success in STEM learning.
The committee organized its conclusions by first articulating issues surrounding ELs in the broader educational landscape, including estimations of academic achievement, access, and barriers to inclusion in STEM learning, and the use of ELs’ first language during STEM instruction. In the next set of conclusions, we more explicitly emphasized the interaction between STEM learning and language development; the instructional strategies that have been identified as potentially beneficial for serving ELs in STEM learning; the interaction between families, communities, and schools; and the preparation of and professional development for preservice and
in-service teachers. The committee then focused on other factors that may affect ELs participation in STEM to include large-scale and classroom-level assessment. All of these culminate into the approaches that actors at different levels of the system need to consider in building capacity to support ELs in STEM learning.
ELs and the Education System
The Promising Futures report (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017) set the overall context for this report by highlighting the diversity of ELs to include the heterogeneity in cultures, language, and experiences that may have an impact on their education (including the contexts that expose them to a number of risk factors that may have negative impacts). There are nearly 5 million students classified as ELs in U.S. public schools who combined speak more than 350 languages, with the most frequently used language being Spanish (Chapter 2). Like the previous committee, the current committee observed heterogeneity from multiple sources that have impacts on academic achievement including ELs’ English proficiency, the home languages they speak, their proficiency in their home language(s), the extent of formal schooling in their home language(s), their previous instruction in their home language(s) in STEM subjects, their STEM-related out-of-school experiences, their experience with U.S. school systems and the quality of that experience, their socioeconomic status, and other factors. Moreover, the Promising Futures report concluded that the evidence suggests that “many schools are not providing adequate instruction to ELs in acquiring English proficiency while also ensuring access to academic subjects at grade level from the time they first enter school until they reach the secondary grades” (p. 5). In addition, “many secondary schools are not able to meet the diverse needs of long-term ELs, including their linguistic, academic, and socioemotional needs” (p. 5).
Building from this report and a review of the evidence more specific to ELs and STEM learning, the committee acknowledges the important role that classification plays in helping to identify and track the progress of ELs with respect to developing English proficiency, as well as content area achievement, and to gauge the overall effectiveness of educational systems in serving ELs (see Chapters 2, 7, and 8). What was illuminating were the potential impacts that issues related to classification might have on ELs’ opportunities to engage in STEM learning and the consequent implications for academic achievement in STEM subjects. That is, ELs may have limited access to programs of language development and content learning that would be most beneficial to them. Moreover, ELs are often tracked through less rigorous STEM courses (Chapter 2). Inconsistencies in the processes for identifying ELs and failure to account for the dynamic
and developmental nature of the EL designation complicate comparisons involving ELs and reduce the coherence in designing, carrying out, or summarizing the research literature.
The evidence on different programs models (see Chapters 2 and 8), particularly in elementary contexts, shows that when bilingual education is done well, it can be beneficial. When bilingual instruction is well designed and implemented, with qualified teachers highly proficient in the languages of instruction, students, on average, develop linguistic and academic competence in English that is superior to students in English-only instruction; develop linguistic and academic competence in their first language; and experience cognitive, social, and economic benefits from being proficient bilinguals. However, simply providing instruction in their home language in addition to English is not sufficient to achieve the benefits of bilingual instruction; program quality and the focus on rigorous academic content and high levels of home language and English proficiency are essential. It would be unwise to assume that simply using students’ first language in instruction is sufficient to provide high-quality instruction. At the same time, it goes without saying that such high-quality bilingual instruction is currently not possible in all contexts. The diversity of first languages spoken in the United States, the low density of many languages in most communities, the limited availability of teachers of STEM content who are proficient in those home languages and in English, and the limited availability of STEM instructional materials in many languages reduces the chances of effective first language instruction for all ELs.
Efforts geared toward developing capacity to effectively educate ELs, including newcomers, through instruction in English and building upon ELs’ full range of meaning-making resources are crucial across all program models (see Chapters 2 and 8). Recognition that students’ home language and culture is a resource for cognition, for making sense of academic content, and for communication even when instruction is in English enables students to make use of all of their cognitive, linguistic, and meaning-making resources during instruction and reduces barriers to students’ understanding as they develop English proficiency (Chapter 3). Teachers providing instruction in English can facilitate their students’ access to content and classroom participation when they employ minimally restrictive language policies in instruction, thereby freeing students up to use all of their cognitive and linguistic resources in their route to developing understanding of STEM content and proficiency in English (Chapter 4).
However, too often schools operate under the incorrect assumption that proficiency in English is a prerequisite to meaningful engagement with STEM learning and fail to leverage ELs’ meaningful engagement with content and disciplinary practices as a route to language proficiency (see issues related to access in Chapters 2 and 8). Students, including newcomers, do
not need to be proficient in English to benefit from and participate in disciplinary learning. Recognition of the assets that ELs bring to the classroom, and that some deficits in student performance arise from lack of access rather than limited ability or language proficiency, or from cultural differences, will enable educators to address the particular needs of students who are learning the language of instruction while simultaneously providing students opportunities to engage meaningfully in STEM instruction. Based on these findings, the committee identified three key conclusions that apply broadly to all ELs.
CONCLUSION 1: The designation of a group of students as English learners (ELs) is important to the U.S. educational system. However, clear and consistent designations of EL and English-proficiency status are needed to reduce misperceptions of ELs’ proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics academic achievement, including misestimation of achievement gaps. Consistent identification, including the ability to report on educational attainment of ELs after they have become proficient in English, would enable a deeper understanding of academic achievement of students who begin school as ELs, as well as what program models and instructional strategies work best, and to determine whether specific approaches work best for particular EL subpopulations under specific conditions.
CONCLUSION 2: Frequently, English learners (ELs) lack full access to school-based science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning opportunities. More specifically:
- For both science and mathematics, ELs lack opportunities to engage with challenging, grade-appropriate content and disciplinary practices. Lack of opportunity arises due to barriers to full participation in classroom activities and exclusion from science and mathematics instruction with never-EL peers.
- In high school, barriers to STEM learning may also involve exclusion from rigorous science or mathematics courses, placement in remedial courses, and poor advising regarding course selection that ultimately limits access to advanced STEM subjects and STEM careers.
- There is little information about inclusion of ELs in technology- and engineering-based instruction.
CONCLUSION 3: When English learners (ELs) have the opportunity to use all of their linguistic and non-linguistic meaning-making resources
during science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction, these resources can be helpful for communication and learning.
STEM Learning and Language Development
As described in Chapter 3, the STEM disciplines are unique in that students engage in practices, procedures, and experimentation in developing STEM knowledge. Thus, not all access to meaning in STEM is directly through language, even when understanding is later communicated through language. Because STEM knowledge is gained through meaningful engagement with STEM content and practices, including observation and experimentation, the language used to describe and communicate in these disciplines can be grounded in students’ personal experiences with content that is distinct from the way that content is experienced in history, social studies, and reading/language arts. For example, in the science classroom, as students are making sense of phenomena, they engage in science practices, develop shared experience, and use multimodalities to communicate their ideas. Conducting an experiment on gravity, growing cells in a Petri dish, and solving word problems based on real-life experiences of fair shares that ground work with fractions are experiences that convey meaning to the student beyond the language encountered during the experience. In fact, students’ knowledge of and memory for the experiences help to give meaning to the language that students encountered in the experiences and will later use to convey their understanding of what was learned.
There is no language-free content—language use always presents some content—and most representations of content require some language, even with multimodal resources for meaning-making (Chapter 3). Students can and do understand concepts encountered in experiments without necessarily having the language for those concepts. Through this process of experience, their language develops and becomes refined. STEM subjects afford more opportunities for alternate routes to knowledge acquisition (e.g., experimentation, demonstration of phenomena, demonstration of practices, etc.) through which students can gain a sense of something without resorting predominantly to language to access meaning. It is through this experience that language is also learned.
As students engage with content early in their educations, they will develop rudimentary understanding of phenomena that increase in sophistication and depth. These deeper understandings are also associated with increasingly sophisticated language registers—as the language and concepts become increasingly sophisticated, support for the increasingly sophisticated language is needed. Despite the recognized developmental nature of both language and content, there is little research on learning progressions/trajectories in the STEM disciplines for ELs. The extent to which
ELs follow the same progressions/trajectories as students whose primary language is English is unknown and under-researched at this time. Homogeneity of learning progressions across students or student groups cannot be assumed. Taken together, two key conclusions from the committee’s position grounded in evidence were identified (Chapter 3).
CONCLUSION 4: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines offer unique learning opportunities for English learners (ELs). Not only do the disciplinary practices allow for ELs to develop disciplinary knowledge, but also they engage ELs in meaningful language use. Provided that teachers utilize promising instructional strategies, engagement in the disciplinary practices of STEM contributes to both STEM learning and language learning.
CONCLUSION 5: Each of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are developmental in nature, leading to more and more sophisticated understandings and capabilities within any given discipline. In addition, the acquisition of language proficiency in service of academic success takes time and focused effort on the parts of students and teachers. The developmental nature of STEM learning and language proficiency have substantial implications for structuring and implementing STEM instruction for English learners from the early grades.
In reviewing the evidence on instructional strategies (see Chapter 4), although the link with specific students’ outcomes is still needed, the committee determined that there are several instructional strategies that show the greatest promise for simultaneously building disciplinary content knowledge, access to practices, and language proficiency; however, less effective instructional strategies are still used.
Teachers of ELs who are more successful understand that ELs learn language through meaningful and active engagement with language in the context of authentic STEM activities and practices (see Chapter 4 and extensions in Chapters 5 and 6). They focus on supporting student understanding of STEM content, participation in disciplinary practices, and grade-level topics, instead of emphasizing remedial work or memorization of STEM facts. These teachers plan lessons—sometimes in collaboration with ESL teachers—that include ELs producing language, draw their students’ attention to language during instruction, and judiciously plan and employ explicit vocabulary instruction that allows ELs to use word mean-
ings in the context of disciplinary practices. Moreover, these teachers know that paying attention to language is more than teaching vocabulary.
Teachers of ELs not only strive to integrate an explicit focus on language into the teaching of STEM concepts and practices, but also intentionally encourage ELs to draw on their full range of linguistic and communicative competencies and resources through the use of different modalities (talk, read, write, listen, draw, etc.) and representations (symbols, texts, charts, tables, graphs, etc.) to represent and communicate their thinking, solutions, or arguments in STEM subjects. STEM curriculum that is developed considering ELs from the inception of the design process shows greater sensitivity to the role of language in STEM instruction and will integrate tools into the material that complement the language to convey meaning to learners in multiple ways. As such, these tools facilitate both the development of language in context and the acquisition of content knowledge and practices.
Furthermore, effective teachers of ELs engage in experiences that foster self-reflection about their assumptions regarding diverse students’ and families’ engagement with STEM and STEM education and consider the positioning of ELs in the classroom. These experiences facilitate teachers’ adoption of empowering attitudes and expectations for students. What follows are the six conclusions the committee has identified based upon the review of the evidence as beneficial for ELs in STEM classrooms.
CONCLUSION 6: Teachers play a critical role in positioning English learners (ELs) as competent community members in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms when they recognize that ELs, like all students, are members of social and academic communities. Teachers’ positioning of ELs can influence their learning in STEM classrooms.
CONCLUSION 7: Teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, and expectations about English learners’ (ELs’) capacity for grade-appropriate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning influence teachers’ approaches to and engagement of ELs in STEM instruction. When teachers have positive expectations for and beliefs about ELs in STEM, they are more likely to provide meaningful STEM learning opportunities for ELs.
CONCLUSION 8: There are better outcomes for English learners (ELs) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics when teachers consistently support and actively incorporate ELs in classroom activities and disciplinary discussions. To do so requires that teachers support positive social interactions among peers and incorporate explicit talk about language in disciplinary learning.
CONCLUSION 9: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum materials are more effective when English learners (ELs) are considered at the beginning of and throughout the design process, rather than being developed as supplemental accommodations. Existing exemplary STEM curricula can be annotated, revised, and expanded to promote STEM learning with ELs.
CONCLUSION 10: Teachers of English learners (ELs) that engage with families in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) based experiences are more likely to be sensitive to and have an appreciation for the cultural and linguistic differences of their EL students and work to improve communication and understanding. Engaging in these experiences can increase teachers’ comfort working with diverse families around STEM content area learning.
CONCLUSION 11: The integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content and language learning can be achieved in various ways but is facilitated when teachers of STEM content work in concert with English as a second language teachers who recognize the functional use of language in STEM instruction.
Children do not attend schools in isolation; they are members of families and larger social communities that have helped to shape their knowledge and interest in school and STEM. These affiliations with family and community can be viewed as resources. Effective family and community engagement models for ELs in STEM recognize and make connections to families’ and communities’ cultural and linguistic practices as they relate to STEM topics. Such models can help teachers and schools shift to an asset orientation toward ELs’ STEM learning, can increase the engagement of families of ELs in other school-based activities, and can improve EL students’ motivation in their STEM learning. Deficit notions about caregivers of ELs are inaccurate, ethically indefensible, and deleterious to schools’ efforts to positively engage and educate ELs. Teacher-caregiver interactions specifically related to success for ELs in STEM education help teachers and schools move to an asset-based perspective on students and their families and communities, which ultimately benefit student learning and school success (see Chapter 5).
CONCLUSION 12: In science and mathematics, caregivers of English learners (ELs) enjoy learning disciplinary content and engaging in discussions about content and teaching. They want their voices and
experiences to be heard and validated by their children’s teachers and schools.
CONCLUSION 13: There is little research on the connections between English learners’ (ELs’) science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning outcomes and STEM-specific family-school interactions. Although findings generally support that such efforts yield positive benefits for students, families, and schools, there is limited understanding of the full potential for STEM-specific family-school interactions to influence EL STEM learning outcomes or of the specific strategies that might be most or least effective in a given context.
When examining the evidence with respect to teacher education, including preservice preparation and in-service professional development (Chapter 6), it is clear that teachers of STEM content generally are not adequately prepared to provide learning opportunities to ELs in their classrooms. Secondary STEM teachers in schools with large EL populations lack adequate preparation in STEM disciplines, strategies for teaching STEM in general, or strategies for teaching STEM to ELs in particular. Some states have initiated course requirements and teacher certification policies focused on EL instruction for content teachers. Moreover, whereas all states offer ESL certificates, only 21 states require specialized certification to teach ELs (Chapter 8).
When teachers and teacher candidates of STEM subjects are provided with ongoing field-based or community-based experiences that allow them to work with ELs in out-of-classroom settings, they are more likely to develop an asset-based orientation to teaching ELs. Opportunities for professional development and collaboration with teachers of ELs in STEM contexts and ESL teachers who are experts at integrating STEM subjects with ELs during their planning and delivery of STEM instruction may be beneficial. The committee identified four conclusions that are specific for teachers of STEM subjects and teacher educators to work with ELs.
CONCLUSION 14: Most teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects have not received adequate preparation to provide appropriate STEM-related learning opportunities to English learners (ELs) in their classrooms. There are few opportunities for teachers to learn how to integrate language into STEM learning or how to enhance curricula into the teaching of STEM concepts and practices with ELs.
CONCLUSION 15: Teachers and administrators of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) often bring biases and beliefs, reflected from bias in the wider society, to their work with English learners (ELs) that negatively affect learning outcomes with ELs. These biases can be effectively addressed through targeted teacher preparation and professional development. Specifically, when teachers and teacher candidates are provided with opportunities to examine their own cultural and linguistic backgrounds and self-perceptions in relation to their work with ELs in STEM, they are more likely to take an asset-based orientation in their classrooms, which leads to increased opportunities for ELs to engage in STEM learning opportunities and to improved STEM outcomes.
CONCLUSION 16: When teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects and English as a second language teachers come together for shared professional development about how to advance English learners (ELs’) STEM learning and how to collaborate and share their expertise with each other, both groups of teachers are more likely to learn knowledge and competencies that benefit ELs.
CONCLUSION 17: Currently, there are few opportunities for teacher educators to learn how to equip preservice teachers who will teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to English learners (ELs). Despite the lack of research on the intersection of STEM and ELs in preparing teacher educators, the research on preparing teacher educators to support teachers of ELs more generally suggests that they require
- extended professional development from other teacher educators with expertise in supporting preservice teachers who are learning to work with ELs;
- collaboration with teachers who are successfully teaching ELs in their classrooms; and
- professional development that focuses on student thinking in STEM, disciplinary practices and discourse, and curriculum materials that the teachers will actually be using in their teaching.
The inclusion of ELs in high-stakes assessment (see Chapter 7) for accountability and the alignment of language proficiency objectives with the language demands of content area achievement create significant social responsibility to provide assessments that provide fair, valid, and reliable
inferences about what ELs know and can do. Efforts to fulfill this responsibility have been insufficient, and, in some instances, have led to solutions that can be detrimental to student performance when applied indiscriminately. For example, while allowed by recent federal legislation, testing ELs in their first language does not give students an opportunity to exhibit their STEM knowledge when students have not received content instruction in their first language. Even when ELs have received their content instruction in their first language, testing in their first language can result in invalid inferences when sufficient time and resources are not allocated to properly translate and adapt standards-based assessments from English to other languages. Similarly, one cannot assume that students are literate in their first language, even if they are proficient speakers in that language; in such situations, translating an assessment into the child’s first language will not improve assessment of the student’s knowledge. The policies to include ELs in accountability assessments and to disaggregate results for ELs are generally viewed as positive developments in education because they have drawn attention to the education of ELs and the responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers in bringing about desired educational outcomes for ELs. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done to ensure that the assessments used with ELs yield inferences that are fair, valid, and reliable.
Moreover, critical to promoting fair and valid STEM assessment for ELs is the design of tasks and the features intended to support ELs’ access to the content of items. Static visuals (e.g., pictures) and dynamic visuals (e.g., videos) are examples of accommodations that have the potential to support ELs in gaining access to content of items, provided that they are carefully developed. An important consideration in interpreting ELs performance on STEM tasks is the fact that, when they are effective, assessment accommodations tend to benefit all students, not only the EL students for which they are originally created. Moreover, ELs with higher levels of English proficiency are more likely to benefit from effective accommodations than ELs with lower levels of English proficiency, because the former have better linguistic resources than the latter to benefit from those accommodations. An important consequence of this fact is that there is a limit to the extent to which accommodations can eliminate English proficiency as a factor that affects the validity of interpretations of ELs’ performance on STEM tasks. As such, these limitations of assessments and accommodations necessitate using multiple pieces of information to ensure that the best decision can be made.
Findings that effective classroom summative assessments use visuals to make content accessible to ELs are comparable to findings in the large-scale summative assessment literature that have found visuals to be an effective test accommodation. Unfortunately, classroom summative assessment
approaches still have important challenges to address, particularly how best to assess the STEM learning of students with lower levels of English proficiency, because those ELs who were more likely to demonstrate STEM knowledge in studies of effective classroom summative assessment were predominantly students at higher levels of English proficiency. The role of feedback while learning is taking place is a key aspect of formative assessment.
Based upon the review of the existing evidence in Chapter 7, the committee identified the following four key conclusions.
CONCLUSION 18: Because of the linguistic heterogeneity of ELs, obtaining accurate measures of academic achievement for ELs is more difficult than for never-EL students. More accurate decisions concerning ELs’ STEM academic achievement are possible when those decisions are based on multiple sources of information, multiple test scores, and/or qualitative forms of assessment.
CONCLUSION 19: Large-scale STEM assessments yield better-informed decisions about ELs’ STEM achievement when accommodations are selected to meet the individual needs of students and when test scores are used in combination with other information about STEM performance.
CONCLUSION 20: Classroom summative assessment of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects was found to produce fairer and more valid interpretations of English learner performance when keeping the following task design considerations in mind: incorporating static visuals (e.g., graphics, pictures), incorporating dynamic visuals (e.g., video), dividing tasks into multiple parts, and engaging students in collaborative tasks.
CONCLUSION 21: The incorporation of formative assessment practices in the classroom can lead to a richer language environment for all learners and English learners (ELs) specifically. Although the use of formative assessment has led to documented positive outcomes that are not science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) specific (i.e., literacy), the outcomes from the use of formative assessments in STEM and, relatedly, learning progressions to inform assessment interpretation, is presently under study and has not generated sufficient evidence to definitively conclude that these positive outcomes generalize to STEM subjects with ELs; there are no theoretical reasons or empirical evidence to suggest that formative assessment does not also work for STEM disciplines and ELs’ learning.
Policies at the federal, state, and local levels can either facilitate ELs’ opportunities in STEM or constrain teaching and learning in ways that are detrimental to ELs’ access to and success in STEM learning. School districts demonstrating success with teaching ELs in STEM have leaders who attend to system coherence and do so by designing and implementing organizational structures that enable the integration of language and content within and between levels (i.e., state, district, school) and components of the system (e.g., instruction, curriculum, assessment, professional development, policies for categorization of ELs).
For data to be maximally informative about the performance of ELs, achievement data need to be disaggregated based on ELs’ level of English proficiency in order to minimize the confounding influence of language proficiency on achievement. A second data practice that leads to better inferences about EL STEM performance is the inclusion of students who began school as ELs but are now no longer categorized as ELs. Including a category such as “Ever EL” and disaggregating achievement results by English language proficiency allow data users to better understand how well individual schools, districts, and entire states are serving ELs. That is, they have a clearer picture of the academic achievement outcomes of ELs at each grade, including ELs who are not yet proficient in English and students who are recently proficient in English and need access to STEM courses and instruction.
The following set of conclusions reflects the state of evidence on issues around building capacity to support ELs in STEM learning. Overall, the research suggests that integration of STEM learning and English language learning is possible and, in some instances, may require adjustment to the allocation of fiscal and human resources. Some systems that have succeeded in supporting ELs in STEM have demonstrated flexibility in allocating and aligning fiscal and human resources in service of their desired objectives.
CONCLUSION 22: When system leaders within schools, districts, and states look at data pertaining to English learner (EL) access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coursework and content, they are better equipped to make data-driven decisions related to teaching ELs in STEM.
CONCLUSION 23: There are a few states that have systemic policies or programs in place that attend to the professional development of teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who work with English learners (ELs). Careful consideration of the types and quality of experiences as well as specialized certifications to teach ELs is necessary.
CONCLUSION 24: School systems that cohere around an asset-orientation that articulates high expectations for English learners (ELs) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been successful in teaching ELs in STEM. School district leadership is critical in facilitating this coherence.
A prevailing issue acknowledged by this committee and by previous efforts is the lack of a consistent definition of “English learner” both within and across states. This lack of consistency has pervasive impacts at all levels of the education system and for understanding the true potential of ELs broadly and more specifically in STEM. Having a consistent definition at least across districts within a state, as well as consistent accounting practices that include ELs who have gained proficiency in English and been reclassified, would enable states, districts, and schools to adopt methods of collecting and analyzing data in ways that would allow for a clear understanding of ELs’ long-term outcomes writ large and with respect to STEM, their time to achieve proficiency in English, and their academic performance in STEM throughout their time in the school system, not just during their time developing proficiency in English. Informative methods of examining STEM data will also enable schools, districts, states, and caregivers to determine how each aspect of the system is serving students in STEM at different levels of English proficiency, as well as how the system is performing in advancing students’ proficiency in English.
Overall, it is imperative that ELs have the same quality of STEM-related learning opportunities as their never-EL peers. Based upon the committee’s conclusions and the vision that ELs should be afforded the same learning opportunities in STEM, the following set of recommendations are intended to be steps to meeting this objective.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Evaluate current policies, approaches, and resources that have the potential to negatively affect English learners’ (ELs’) access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning opportunities, including classification and reclassification, course-taking, classroom instruction, program models offered, professional development, staffing, and fiscal resources, etc.
- Federal agencies should evaluate the ways in which funds are allocated for research and development that would enhance teaching and learning in STEM for ELs, including efforts that foster pipeline and training programs to increase the number of teachers qualified to teach STEM to ELs.
- States should evaluate their definition of EL, including proper specification of entrance and exit procedures and criteria for districts. Districts should examine the policies and procedures that are in place for consistently implementing these state procedures/criteria for classifying/reclassifying ELs.
- States should evaluate policies associated with the timing of large-scale state assessments and waivers for assessment (i.e., waivers for science assessment), frameworks for teacher certification, and the distribution of financial and human resources.
- District leaders and school personnel should examine (a) the program models and placement of ELs in STEM courses with particular attention to grade bands as well as issues associated with overrepresentation of ELs in remedial courses, (b) preparation of STEM teachers with attention to schools with large EL populations, (c) the opportunities for teacher collaboration and professional development, and (d) the distribution of financial and human resources.
- Schools should evaluate ELs’ success in STEM classes, the quality of STEM classroom instruction and the positioning of ELs in the classroom, the qualifications of teachers hired, the professional development opportunities offered to teachers, and the resources (e.g., time and space) allocated to STEM learning.
RECOMMENDATION 2: Develop a high-quality framework to identify and remove barriers to English learners’ (ELs) participation in rigorous science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning opportunities.
- District and school leaders should identify and enact norms of shared responsibility for success of ELs in STEM both within the district central office and within schools, developed by teams of district and school leaders associated with STEM and English language development/English as a second language education.
- States should take an active role in collecting and sharing resources across schools and districts.
- Leaders in states, districts, and schools should continuously evaluate, monitor, and refine policies to ensure that ELs’ STEM learning outcomes are comparable to their never-EL peers.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Equip teachers and teacher candidates with the requisite tools and preparation to effectively engage and positively position English learners (ELs) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content learning.
- Preservice teacher education programs should require courses that include learning research-based practices on how to best support ELs in learning STEM subjects.
- Preservice teacher education programs and providers of in-service professional development should provide opportunities to engage in field experiences that include ELs in both classroom settings and informal learning environments.
- English as a second language teacher education programs and providers of in-service professional development should design programs that include collaboration with teachers of STEM content to support ELs’ grade-appropriate content and language learning in STEM.
- Teacher educators and professionals involved in pre- and in-service teacher learning should develop resources for teachers, teacher educators, and school and district leaders that illustrate productive, research-based instructional practices for supporting ELs in STEM learning.
- Preservice teacher education and teacher credentialing programs should take account of teacher knowledge of large-scale STEM assessment interpretation, classroom summative task design, and formative assessment practices with ELs.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Develop high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricular materials and integrate formative assessment into classroom practice to both facilitate and assess English learners’ (ELs’) progress through the curriculum.
- Curriculum developers, educators, and EL researchers should work together to develop curricular materials and resources that consider the diversity of ELs’ needs as the materials are being developed and throughout the design process.
- EL researchers, curriculum developers, assessment professionals, teacher educators, professional learning providers, and teachers should work collaboratively to strengthen teachers’ formative assessment skills to improve STEM instruction and promote ELs’ learning.
RECOMMENDATION 5: Encourage and facilitate engagement with stakeholders in English learners’ (ELs’) local environment to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning.
- Schools and districts should reach out to families and caregivers to help them understand the available instructional programs in STEM and the different academic and occupational opportunities
- related to STEM, including what resources might be available in the community.
- Schools and districts should collaborate with community organizations and form external partnerships with organizations that focus on informal STEM learning to make an active effort to directly engage ELs and their caregivers in STEM-related learning activities in an effort to understand their EL families’ and communities’ assets and needs.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Design comprehensive and cohesive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) assessment systems that consider English learners (ELs) and the impact of those assessments on STEM academic achievement for all students.
- Developers of large-scale STEM assessments need to develop and use population sampling frameworks that better reflect the heterogeneity of EL populations to ensure the proper inclusion of statistically representative samples of ELs in the process of test development according to sociodemographic variables including language proficiency, first language, geographical distribution, and socioeconomic status.
- Decision makers, researchers, funding agencies, and professionals in the relevant fields need to develop standards on the numbers and characteristics of students that need to be documented and reported in projects and contracts involving EL STEM assessment.
RECOMMENDATION 7: Review existing assessment accommodation policies and develop accessibility resources.
- States, districts, and schools need to review their existing policies regarding the use of accommodations during accountability assessments to ensure that English learners (ELs) are afforded access to those linguistic accommodations that best meet their needs during instruction as well as during assessment.
- States, districts, and schools should also examine their implementation of accommodations to ensure that accommodations are implemented with high fidelity for all ELs, take steps to improve implementation when high fidelity is not realized, and improve poor implementation when it is present.
- States and districts involved in developing new computer-administered assessments or revising existing computer-administered assessments, should develop those assessments to incorporate accessibility resources rather than rely on accommodations.
- States involved in the development of new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics assessments should apply universal design principles in the initial development and consider ELs from the beginning.
As described in previous reports by the National Academies (National Research Council, 1992) on bilingual education, the field needs research that utilizes proper statistical designs and that rely on empirically supported theory. That is, the field needs to continue to build from promising practices to more robust models of how instructional practices operate in the complex policy, resource, institutional, and community contexts of schools. To achieve this goal, the field must undertake extensive longitudinal and retrospective research, coupled with qualitative research of various kinds (e.g., ethnographic, discourse analytic) that will elucidate similarities and differences in the trajectories of students learning STEM and the experiences for ELs and never-ELs. This research is needed to describe successful pathways for ELs into STEM careers and postsecondary training, including when and how they can succeed. That is, longitudinal research is needed that identifies early practices that lead to success from elementary to middle school to high school, including influences (e.g., reform curricula, teacher preparation, teacher professional development, frequency of classroom discussions, access to disciplinary practices, etc.) that take place in the early grades that lead to success in the later grades for ELs in STEM. This research must be sensitive to the classification of ELs and especially to the reclassification of ELs to ensure that ELs who have become proficient in English are not excluded from such research, or have their data aggregated into the data for English-only students. The following are a set of broader questions that remain unanswered.
Research Area 1: ELs and the Educational Context
- What program models and instructional strategies in STEM work for particular EL groups and under what conditions?
- How does the social organization of different settings (e.g., classrooms, laboratories, schools, districts), structure of the school day, and different forms of mediation support, facilitate, or interfere with ELs developing understanding of STEM concepts and engagement in STEM practices?
- What does the performance of ELs look like across different grade bands and what scaffolding is needed across critical transition points?
- How is learning in the areas of engineering, technology, and computational thinking similar to and different from mathematics and science, and to what extent do these differences generalize to ELs and never-ELs? Do these disciplines offer specific advantages to ELs as areas of STEM learning? In what ways can informal technology-based learning settings after school increase our understanding?
- What does a STEM agenda that privileges and centers the culture, language, and experiences of ELs look like? What is afforded for ELs when they are centered in a STEM agenda in more holistic ways? How does the nature of STEM change?
Research Area 2: STEM Learning and Language Development
- How do different proficiencies in a first language (oral, reading, writing) and previous STEM instruction in a first language affect students’ learning of STEM subjects in English?
- How effective are interventions designed to promote asset-based views of ELs and communities in changing ELs’ STEM achievement outcomes?
- What are the language learning opportunities and challenges for ELs through engagement in disciplinary practices? What are the barriers to providing high-value language-learning experiences to ELs at different levels of English proficiency within STEM learning contexts, and how do these vary across developmental periods throughout schooling?
- What is the role of the use of the first language and translanguaging in concept formation for ELs in STEM, and how does this role vary across students’ academic and linguistic development and across STEM fields?
Research Area 3: Instructional Strategies
- What do learning progressions in science or trajectories in mathematics look like for ELs and to what extent do they differ from the learning professions of never-ELs?
- What forms of metatalk develop ELs language and communication skills while also building scientific and mathematical understanding? What are effective teaching strategies that can help amplify the successful use of metatalk in classrooms so ELs build robust STEM understanding and language?
- How do differences in student participation and positioning affect how students see themselves as more or less competent in STEM subjects?
- How do teachers provide interaction, scaffolding, and other supports for learning STEM language?
- What are the best strategies for implementing team-teaching and collaboration in STEM classrooms?
- How does including ELs during the design and testing phases of curriculum development lead to high-quality materials that serve linguistically diverse students?
Research Area 4: School-Home-Community Interactions
- In what ways can research-practice partnerships and other collaborative research models be leveraged to identify elements of the school-home-community system that are working well and elements that are not?
- Under what conditions are schools successful at building deep and lasting partnerships with families of communities of EL students that have positive impacts on those students’ STEM learning? For example, how can shared STEM learning experiences both in and out of school contexts support EL students and their families in gaining knowledge about and motivation toward STEM academic and occupational pathways?
Research Area 5: Teacher Education
- How can preparation of teachers of STEM who work with ELs support teachers’ developing knowledge of STEM talk, language, and discourse? How can this be translated to developing knowledge of how to draw on ELs’ full range of linguistic competencies and resources, using different modalities and language registers?
- How can preparation of teachers of STEM who work with ELs support teachers’ developing knowledge of culturally sustaining pedagogies and strategies for enhancing family and community engagement? How can this work assess and challenge beliefs about ELs?
- What are the best ways to prepare ESL teachers to understand the role of language in content area learning, to structure language development opportunities in content area settings, to collaborate with content area teachers?
Research Area 6: Assessment
- What properties of large-scale STEM assessments for use with ELs, and the various sources of heterogeneity in the EL population,
- might affect the psychometric properties of STEM assessments for use with ELs?
- What is the effectiveness of classroom summative and formative assessment of STEM (and learning progressions) with EL students? Are bilingually constructed assessments beneficial?
- What are the implications of allowing students to use any language resources at their disposal in judging student learning, progress, and in predicting student success in STEM courses and/or performance on assessments of STEM content?
Research Area 7: Building Systemic Capacity
- How does the adoption of policies and the use of data-based decision making for ELs lead to improved student outcomes in STEM learning? Can the potential findings be replicated across other districts and states?
- What are the precise conditions needed to obtain positive effects through aligning policies to open opportunities for ELs? How does improving data-based decision making through more nuanced categories affect opportunities? In what ways does providing systematic professional development for STEM teachers and increasing collaboration between ESL and STEM teachers lead to positive effects?
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (1992). Assessing Evaluation Studies: The Case of Bilingual Education Strategies. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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