New report explores strategies for closing English learners’ achievement gap in math

Combine the entire K-12 student populations of Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Vermont, Wyoming and Nevada — that group of children is the same size as California’s 1.4 million English learners. To look at that number another way, consider that of California’s 6.2 million public school students, one in five is an English learner. Unfortunately, significant achievement gaps exist between ELs and their English-fluent peers. For instance, in 2017, only 12 percent of the ELs who took California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests met or exceeded standards.

A new report from the Education Trust–West, titled “Unlocking Learning II: Math as a Lever for English Learner Equity,” examines how a handful of California school districts are working to close English learners’ achievement gaps in mathematics. The report is second in a series; the first report examined science education for EL students.

Through interviews with school leaders and classroom visits at schools within five districts (Westminster School District, Rowland Unified SD, Alhambra Unified SD, San Francisco Unified SD and Kerman Unified SD), the report authors found that the best practices for supporting EL math achievement can be summarized in the following four points:

1. Honor and leverage English learner students’ backgrounds, cultures and home languages as assets for math learning

A few examples of this practice include producing welcome videos for new students in their home languages (Nogales High School) and a program where teachers shadow EL students to better understand their school experience (San Gabriel High School). One of the programs highlighted in this section of the report was Westminster School District’s Golden Bell award-winning Vietnamese Dual Immersion Program.

2. Integrate English language development with math content instruction

A collaboration between math and ELD specialists, teachers and administrators, San Francisco Unified’s K-12 math curriculum includes “math tasks” that are complex, real-world tasks designed to encourage language-rich discourse and problem solving. This curriculum helps students gain skills in more than just mathematics.

3. Offer sustained teacher professional learning opportunities to simultaneously support English language development and math achievement for English learners

The report authors discuss the importance of providing professional development opportunities related to both ELD and math. Providing time for collaboration between ELD and math teachers is another action districts can take to support EL math achievement.

4. Ensure equitable access to rigorous academic coursework with appropriate supports

EL students often find themselves in remedial courses or EL-only classes which deny them the opportunity to engage with academically rigorous content. The report recommends that districts reconsider the use of “math tracking,” something SF Unified did in 2014 (Read more about this in California Schools magazine here.)

The full Education Trust–West report offers important steps school board members can take to advocate for EL students and close their math achievement gap. Read it here.


CSBA Resources

English Learners — CSBA Resources Page

CSBA Research Spotlight: Unlocking Learning: Science as a Lever for English Learner Equity (04/17)

“Charting New Pathways For California’s English Learners”— California Schools Magazine, Winter 2017

“The Universal Language: Math Education in California’s Schools” — California Schools Magazine, Fall 2017