Last fall, for the first time in our nation’s history, the majority of public school students were minorities. According to the Pew Research Center, of about 50 million students, approximately 49.7 percent were white (down from 65 percent in 1997). Many of these students (over 4 million) were English language (ELL) learners. Almost 70 percent of the children of immigrants spoke a language other than English in the home. Also for the first time in 2014, the majority of public school students was eligible for free and reduced lunch. The strongest correlation to achievement is a student’s economic level (ASCD). It’s clear that achievement gaps are growing, and the resources of districts—especially in rural areas—are stretched to the limit.
On Friday, March 6, NSTA participated in a special panel on bilingual education at the annual conference of the National Association of Bilingual Educators. Why were we there? First and foremost, we believe in our mission statement… “promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.” We also believe NSTA has the necessary tools and resources to help in the nationwide effort to narrow the achievement gap.
Since the curriculum development glory days of the 1960s, educators have developed tools for supporting students who show early promise for college and career science. The equally effective projects that have brought underrepresented groups to success in both science and citizenship have received less attention. A Citizen Science effort in south Texas, an effort to embed literacy into science in Cleveland, a preschool in Omaha—in today’s challenging educational environment, programs like these represent shining guideposts to a better and more equitable future.
Better Science and Language Learning
What works to accelerate language learning? Data from many great initiatives in diverse communities show that integrated STEM programs at the earliest levels can foster both better science and language learning. But to prove that to skeptical school systems and communities, we must first dig into the commonalities of program successes in diverse communities with varying needs.
Research from The Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence at Berkeley (CREDE) emphasizes that “Making Meaning” is one of the most important principles of a program that helps students learn language and mathematics at the same time they accomplish in science and social studies in an integrated way:
“‘Understanding means connecting new learning to previous knowledge. Assisting students to make these connections strengthens newly acquired knowledge and increases student engagement with learning activities…Effective education teaches how school abstractions are drawn from and applied to the everyday world. Collaboration with parents and communities can reveal appropriate patterns of participation, conversation, knowledge, and interests that will make literacy, numeracy, and science meaningful to all students.”
While the CREDE standards don’t specify STEM as the linchpin of an effective effort, they describe the components of a program rich in the practices of science. NSTA has identified many programs, such as Citizen Science or other locally-relevant STEM activities that show far greater-than-average potential for narrowing the achievement gap. In these programs language learning becomes the means rather than the end; motivation and social contacts enhance the curriculum and empower students.
At NABE, NSTA Multicultural Division Director Jerry Valadez and I participated in a panel on “what works.” Jerry talked about recruiting more diverse teachers and mentors. My presentation included snapshots of programs in which students learn their language faster through STEM, and I discussed the structural and cultural barriers that prevent this from becoming the norm in many systems.
At the same NABE conference NYU Professor Okhee Lee (a featured speaker at the NSTA National Conference on Science Education this March) presented information on the effectiveness of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) practices in empowering students to achieve in not just science but all areas. In her book Diversity and Equity in Science Education (with Cory A. Buxton, Columbia University, 2010) Lee summarizes research that indicates: “An emerging body of research on instructional intervention indicates the benefit to ELL students of engaging in inquiry-based science…(a few studies) have shown…promise for increasing outcomes in both science and literacy.” (p. 74). This book provides a great deal of data to support the assertions of the authors.
So with a small but growing body of research forming the wind at our backs, NSTA has joined the nation’s bilingual educators to encourage integrated, three-dimensional learning (NGSS) that provides a rich environment for empowering all learners. With the support of National Geographic we will be hosting a number of multicultural events and a share-a-thon in Chicago, and we won’t stop there. Next month NSTA is convening a “National Conversation on Equity through STEM” with 10 other educational associations, where we hope to identify programs, research, and models that are accessible to districts everywhere. Stay tuned!
Dr. Juliana Texley is the president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). She began serving her one-year term on June 1, 2014. Texley is currently an instructor at Lesley University, Palm Beach State College, and Central Michigan University. Most recently, Texley worked with a number of stakeholder groups to review the Next Generation Science Standards and developed curriculum for JASON/National Geographic.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.