English-language learners in the U.S. need better access to STEM education, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds.

The report is based on a consensus study by researchers at universities across the country, who investigated how underprepared educators and schools with inadequate resources can hinder English learners’ access to high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

Some key findings

According to the report, some schools operate under the misconception that students must be proficient in English in order to achieve meaningful engagement with STEM learning. In reality, language proficiency isn’t always needed to access meaning.

STEM subjects provide a great opportunity for alternative paths to knowledge acquisition—such as through experimentation and the observation and demonstration of phenomena and practices.

As the report puts it, “Whereas there is no language without content, there is some content that is less dependent on language.” And in turn, there is a symbiotic relationship between “active engagement in content area learning [and] the development of language.”

Accordingly, the research indicates that lack of access leads to some deficits in student performance that cannot be explained by language proficiency, cultural differences, or limited ability on the learner’s part.

In many cases, STEM educators aren’t prepared to “provide robust learning opportunities that foster simultaneous content knowledge and language development in their classrooms.” This is understandably a formidable task, for which teachers often have inadequate resources and support.

Other barriers to STEM education for English learners detailed in the report include “exclusion from rigorous science or math courses, placement in remedial courses, and poor advising regarding course selection.”

Recommendations for improvement

The report outlines seven recommendations for how school districts can help English learners enjoy the same access to quality STEM education as their peers:

1. Assess current approaches, resources, and policies, and how these can negatively affect English learners’ access to STEM education.

– Includes: classification and reclassification of English learners, course placement, program models available, staffing, professional development opportunities, and other resources.

2. Establish a framework to identify and eliminate barriers that impede English learners’ participation in high-quality STEM learning opportunities, and continuously evaluate and refine policies to ensure that English learners (ELs) and their never-EL peers have comparable learning outcomes.

3. Provide teachers and teacher candidates with the tools and preparation they need to effectively engage English learners and position them positively in STEM content learning.

– For instance, teacher education programs should include courses that train preservice teachers in how to best support English learners in STEM subjects.

– Resources that detail effective, research-based instructional practices to support English learners in STEM learning should be developed for in-service educators as well as school and district leaders.

4. Develop high-quality curricular materials for STEM subjects, and incorporate formative assessment into classroom practice so teachers can better facilitate and assess English learners’ progress through the curriculum.

5. Improve communication and engagement with parents and caregivers of English learners to better support STEM learning.

– For example, schools can help families discover STEM instructional programs, understand the various career opportunities in STEM fields, and identify other resources in the community

6. Ensure that STEM assessment systems consider English learners under a comprehensive framework that also takes into account the impact of those assessments on all students’ academic achievement in STEM.

– The development of large-scale STEM assessments should use population sampling frameworks that better reflect the diversity of English learners, so that statistically representative samples of English learners are included.

7. Evaluate existing accommodation policies for English learners when it comes to assessment as well as instruction, and create additional accessibility resources where needed.







Image credit: “Science labs” by NazWeb (CC BY-SA 3.0)