The first day of school in a new classroom can be daunting to any student. But what if it stayed that way for the entire school year?
For many English language learners (ELLs), the classroom remains—quite literally—foreign during the months or years it may take them to master the English language. And for their teachers, the language barrier makes it challenging to effectively communicate the day’s lesson.
In math class, the problem is especially acute.
EDC’s Mark Driscoll, an award-winning leader in mathematics, has developed a novel program that equips teachers with skills to help their English-learning students. His program, developed in partnership with the Lawrence Hall of Science, has provided professional development to middle school math educators who work with ELLs in three New York City schools.
Currently, in New York City, ELLs receive math instruction in their native language for a year or two before transitioning into the English-speaking classroom. The project helps teachers develop the mathematics communication skills and strategies they need to teach mathematics to English-learning students in their classrooms.
Tools for teaching
New York’s sizable ELL population puts the district at high risk of failing to meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which requires that 95 percent of the overall student population—including English learners—improve their standardized test scores.
This demand has led New York to search for a new way to help ELLs perform at the same level as the general student population. And, in the case of the EDC project, help classroom teachers take responsibility for reaching all their students.
“A major hurdle nationally is that math teachers don’t often see ways to advance the mathematics thinking of ELL students,” says Driscoll. “This project is a way to spread the ownership. ELL success is not only within the purview of an ELL specialist.”
The program is based on three principles developed by Driscoll and his colleagues, who hope that the math communication skills acquired by the teachers will improve the test scores of all students.
The first principle is to engage all ELLs in work that challenges them to reason and solve problems. The second involves making ample use of pictures, diagrams, presentations, written explanations, and gestures. The third equips math teachers with ways to develop the precise academic language necessary to succeed in teaching mathematics to ELLs.
During monthly sessions, the teachers engage in challenging math problems, which they bring back and teach in the classroom. Later, they work with trainers to analyze how their ELLs solved the problems.
Partnership for the future
So far, the project, which is still in its pilot phase, has improved the performance of English-learning students. The students—who attend two schools in Chinatown and one in Washington Heights—have already increased their grades.
The program, if formally adopted, will be implemented by low-performing schools in New York City.
Driscoll’s success in New York is just one example of his contributions to mathematics over the past four decades, which recently earned him the Ross Taylor/Glenn Gilbert National Leadership Award, given by the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics.
“Early results from the partnering schools show significant mathematic gains for middle school ELLs,” wrote Maria Santos, executive director for students with disabilities and ELLs for the New York City Department of Education, in a letter of recommendation for the award.
Inspired by New York’s accomplishments, Driscoll continues to search for other districts interested in piloting the program to turn around underperforming schools.
“We’re just happy that the schools all ended up with ‘A’ grades,” says Driscoll.
Originally published on July 16, 2010