Education

COMMENTARY: California’s math framework matters to English learners. Here’s how we can get it right

Credit: Portales Municipal Schools in Portales, New Mexico

Curriculum development and adoption hardly gets the attention it deserves.

Every few years, California goes through an extensive process to decide California’s math, language arts, history and science curricula, often without much fanfare. But the outcomes of these adoption processes have a tremendous impact on the experience students have in the classroom and their learning outcomes.

This year, California’s focus is on mathematics. Here’s why we should pay more attention to what is happening.

Aside from their students, what do teachers look at and interact with every day? Their curriculum. It’s what teachers use to plan their lessons, create materials and activities and guide their instruction in the classroom. Yet, too often, teachers must rely on a curriculum that doesn’t reflect the diversity in their classrooms. Nor was that curriculum developed with California’s largest growing and most marginalized population of students in mind — students whose home language is not English.

To understand a concept, students need to know the words — or language — to communicate it. If students aren’t given the language to engage with math content, then they can’t understand the actual math itself. As teachers plan lessons, they need to consider language that is familiar and unfamiliar to students.

This includes knowing when to dedicate time to helping students understanding math language that has multiple meanings such as “change in your pocket” versus “rate of change” or when to encourage students to communicate in their home language to support creating and negotiating meaning.

English learners need the time and space to explain their thinking and practice math concepts through language. Explicitly focusing on language in one’s learning isn’t just good for English learners, it’s good for all students. And for English learners, it’s a must-have to accelerate their learning.

Teachers deserve to have a curriculum that clearly and consistently guides them in how and when to focus on the math language that students need to understand the content. For example, a curriculum should indicate when and which words need investment in time for group discussions, when pictures or stories may be useful or what the critical words and phrases are that create the building blocks to other math concepts and thus need deeper exploration.

Without this clear guidance, teachers are left on their own to figure out how to support their English learners to not just learn math, but be able to explain the logic and reasoning that goes into it. And in some cases, it’s the English learners who are left on their own to figure out the meaning of the language behind math concepts.

Neither of these scenarios is acceptable. Our teachers — and the growing population of English learners in California — deserve better.

California has a unique opportunity, as it implements a new math framework that will drive curriculum adoptions across districts, to ensure its more than 1 million English learners get the best education possible. It’s well documented that English learners in California were among the students most impacted by the pandemic — further widening the education gap.

Now is the opportunity to finally ensure that learning materials reflect the equitable practices we want in our classrooms. Only then can we begin to give all students the quality education they deserve.

To facilitate this discussion, we have built out research-based guidelines and resources that outline the design features of inclusive math materials. We believe it is essential to give the people developing curricula clarity and detailed guidance throughout this framework of when and how to explicitly focus on language concepts to build math knowledge.

Guidance in the framework will define the type of instructional materials that content developers create — and thus the quality of instructional materials the state can choose from in the coming adoptions.

Luckily, California’s math framework is in its 60-day review process until the end of July. We need to make our voices heard and let California’s framework writers know via email that English learners, the state’s largest population of students, need to be intentionally included in the framework guidelines. Let’s clearly define what a high-quality curriculum looks like.

A lot is at stake in this iteration of California’s math framework. California cannot afford to further widen educational inequities for one of its largest and growing populations of students. Now is the time to get it right.

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Crystal Gonzales is the executive director of the English Learners Success Forum, a collaboration of researchers, teachers, district leaders, and funders working to improve the quality and accessibility of instructional materials for English learners.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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