Learning science — and English

In California’s wine country, elementary schoolers are learning science and developing English proficiency at the same time, reports Ed Week. The Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum, has partnered with the Sonoma school district.

A pilot project was launched in 2008 at El Verano Elementary, which has the highest poverty rate and the highest number of English Language Learners. With a federal Investing in Innovation grant, the project has expanded to all five of the district’s elementary schools.

Victoria Silberman’s 1st graders sit on a brightly colored carpet, staring attentively at the whiteboard.

“Where have you seen worms?” asks Ms. Silberman.

In my backyard, in the garden, in the dirt, her pupils respond. She writes those words on the board.

“What do worms need?” she asks.

Dirt. Shelter. Water. Food.

On a recent day, pupils first learn the words to talk about the long brown-and-gray earthworms slithering in Petri dishes on their desks before they’re allowed to observe them. Seeing, hearing, and discussing the science helps them with the vocabulary to label drawings in their science journals and talk about what they and their partners find examining the worms when the full class reconvenes.

Most schools don’t teach content in English till students test as proficient. Often, ELLs are pulled  out of science or social studies lessons to learn English skills in isolation, says Lynn Rankin, who runs the project for the museum. They fall farther and farther behind.

“There seems to be the misperception that children have to have a certain level of language proficiency to understand science, but we have a different view,” Rankin added. “Science provides a perfect opportunity for language development,” she said, “because students want to make sense of their experiences and communicate their ideas. Science instead provides a context for learning language.”

Students are more interested in science, teachers say. The state tests science in fifth grade: 59 percent of the school’s fifth graders test as “proficient,” up from 37 percent in 2008. Scores also are rising on the state’s English-language-proficiency tests.

Under pressure to raise reading and math scores, many elementary schools spend little time on science. Forty percent of California elementary teachers spent 60 minutes or less on science instruction a week, reports WestEd. In addition, 85 percent of teachers “received no science professional development within the past three years.”

Poor English skills cost adults $3,000 a year

The 16.5 million Spanish-speaking adults who aren’t proficient in English forego $37.7 billion a year in earnings, estimates the Lexington Institute. That’s about $3,000 a year in earnings per worker.

Up to 59 percent of California’s English Learners — students who don’t test proficient in English — have been enrolled in U.S. schools for six years or more, according to Californians Together. California is now focusing on “long-term English Learners.”

Hispanic students aren't catching up

Hispanic fourth and eighth graders didn’t catch up in math and reading from 1990 to 2009, concludes Achievement Gaps, a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report issued yesterday. Hispanic students improved, but so did non-Hispanic whites.

Nationwide, the average Hispanic student is working two or more grade levels below the average white student, notes the Christian Science Monitor.  (Ten points on NAEP is the equivalent of one grade level.)

In fourth-grade math in 2009, the average Hispanic score of 227 corresponds with the “basic” skill level, and it indicates that students can make a pictograph of given information, and can determine, in a multiple-choice question, how many given pieces cover a shape.

The white average score of 248, on the other hand, is just one point shy of reaching the “proficient” skill level, and it indicates that these students can subtract a two-digit number from a three-digit number and solve a word problem involving quarts and cups.

Hispanic school enrollment in grades 4 and 8 tripled in the last two decades, growing from 7 percent to 22 percent by 2009.  Some 77 percent of Hispanic students come from low-income families.

Thirty-seven percent in fourth grade and 21 percent in eighth grade are not fully proficient in reading English. Not surprisingly, Hispanic students who’ve achieved proficiency — which is measured by scoring well on tests — do much better than those who aren’t proficient.

For Hispanics who already know English, the gaps with whites have narrowed. That gap was 15 points in Grade 8 reading, for instance, while ELL Hispanics scored 39 points lower than non-ELL Hispanics.

Among low-income students, the gaps between Hispanics and whites have narrowed in reading and eighth-grade math since 2003.

Florida boasts a significantly smaller Hispanic-white achievement gap. Other school systems with smaller-than-average gaps are Kentucky, Missouri, Wyoming and the Department of Defense schools. California, sadly, has a larger-than-average achievement gap.