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U.S. schools primarily define English learners (ELs) by their emerging bilingualism. This is understandable, given that federal law requires that schools identify these students based upon their linguistic abilities. And yet, on too many campuses, this leads educators to treat ELs’ linguistic development as a project separate and apart from their academic development. Research suggests that this is a mistake — ELs do best when they learn languages in tandem with academic vocabulary and content. 

This is why, in California, home to nearly 20 percent of the country’s ELs, activists are gearing up to ensure that these students have equitable access to rigorous, high-quality math instruction. On March 10, 2021, the Education Trust-West virtually convened educators, advocates, researchers, and other English learner (EL) stakeholders to discuss the state’s ongoing revisions to California’s Mathematics Framework.  Participants shared expertise, feedback, and recommendations for participating in the revisions process in the coming weeks.

In sessions with EL advocates and experts from California and across the country, participants explored a number of key themes. For instance, math equity for ELs requires teachers to see, understand, and build upon connections between math and language learning. This is particularly important in the context of the Framework’s shift towards math investigations — learning experiences that, as the fourth chapter of the document’s most recent draft puts it, “allow students to experience mathematics as a set of lenses for understanding, explaining, predicting, and affecting authentic contexts.” These broad, “big idea” lessons offer opportunities for educators to connect math concepts to students’ experiences, interests, languages, and cultures. As such, many discussions focused on linkages between linguistic development and math equity — particularly how ELs’ home languages and cultures must be treated as valuable resources for these students’ academic development. Since ELs have a wide variety of linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds, participants noted that this will require educators and policymakers to design and implement culturally responsive policies and practices. 

Others discussed how math is not an inborn skill or ability, but a growth process whereby students build knowledge and skills. To that end, participants explored ways that the revised Framework could push teachers to give ELs and other students multiple points of access to rigorous mathematical learning and multiple ways of demonstrating mastery. 

The revisions process for the Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools offers a unique opportunity to ensure that all California students have access to standards-aligned, high-quality curriculum and instruction. In particular, the revisions offer a chance for California to recognize that ELs’ prior knowledge and experiences include rich, diverse cultural assets that can support stronger math development in schools. Delivering on this promise requires that state leaders — including the members of the Instructional Quality Commission — make equity for ELs a guiding goal and driving force in every step of the revisions process, from development to content design to implementation. 

How? In one of the convening’s early sessions, Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg of LULAC Florida and Dr. Luis Reyes of Hunter College recommended that advocates start early and engage with every step of the policymaking process from design to revisions to implementation. They also urged convening participants to think of advocacy not as an adversarial project, but as a process of relationship-building. EL advocates should, they said, consult experts and researchers as they develop their agenda, and then seek to involve as many stakeholders as they can, including business interests, teachers unions, local officials, families, and political operatives. Each new member of a coalition can contribute trusted messengers who can open new political opportunities and share new language for discussing the coalition’s agenda that may broaden its appeal.

The revised Framework’s language will only advance the cause of equity if it is fully implemented. If the document’s equity principles are sufficiently clear and appropriately emphasized, they could guide districts’ curriculum adoption processes, professional development choices, and family engagement strategies in coming years. They could guide the state’s allocation of resources to build educators’ ability to shift their — and their schools’ — practice to align with those principles.

That’s why it’s critical that the Framework reflect California’s best thinking on ELs’ strengths and needs. Fortunately, EL advocates still have time to ensure that their voices are heard — and that these students’ needs are prioritized in the document. 

Conor WIlliams

Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Previously, Williams was the founding director of New America's Dual Language Learners National Work Group. He began his career as a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College.

Rachel Ruffalo

As Director of Educator Engagement, Rachel leads Ed Trust–West’s engagements with school districts through a multi-year process that involves a mixed-methods research study to identify opportunity gaps and systemic inequities and a closely facilitated planning process to develop actions that address the root causes of the inequities. She also contributes to research and policy advocacy related to college and career readiness, English learners, STEM equity, and the equitable implementation of standards-based curricula through a set of assignment analysis tools. Rachel holds a B.A. in history and an M.A. in education (Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies) from Stanford University and an M.Ed. in teaching and curriculum from Harvard University.