The Common Core Is Tough on Kids Who Are Still Learning English

How one school is adapting to the new standards

Pat Wingert

COMPTON, CALIFORNIA—Remarkable things are happening at Laurel Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. Ninety percent of its 580 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. More than 60 percent of its students are classified as English learners. And yet the school has established a stellar record of success: a national Title I Distinguished School Award in 2012 in recognition of its high academic achievement, a Golden Bell Award for its innovative writing program, and a Dispelling the Myth award from the nonprofit Education Trust. Despite years of state funding cuts and classes that average 30 or more kids apiece, an amazing 83 percent of Laurel Street’s students scored at proficient or higher on a recent state language-arts exam, and 91 percent scored that high on the math test.

Laurel Street kids tend to do better on math because it’s a kind of transitional language for students still learning to read and speak English fluently, said fourth-grade math teacher Angel Chavarin. He learned English himself while attending a Los Angeles public school years ago. Laurel Street students rarely express a typical lament of American students: “I’m not a math person.” Instead, teachers say they’re more likely to hear the opposite. “We have kids who say they’re good in math, but not in language arts,” said Chavarin. “We tell them they can be good in both.”

But this year, teachers at Laurel Street are a bit more anxious about their achievement levels than usual. That’s because they, like most schools in the country, are in the midst of transitioning to the new Common Core standards. Voluntarily adopted by 45 states, the new standards stress critical thinking, deeper learning, and more sophisticated vocabularies, with the aim of making American students more competitive with their peers from around the world.

The creators of these standards hope they will boost the achievement levels of most students, but some educators worry that the standards might inadvertently hurt one of the fastest growing groups of students in the country: students whose native language is not English. Since Laurel Street has been so successful in effectively educating these students in the past, it’s a good place to take an in-depth look at how one school is dealing with this issue. The school leadership agreed to let a reporter follow the transition over the year.

“The language demands of the Common Core are enormous,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education, which supports implementation of the new standards. “This is absolutely going to be a big challenge to English learners.”

And English learners are a big challenge to the U.S. public school system.

There are already an estimated 5.3 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are English learners: that is, students whose English skills are less than proficient. Their numbers have grown by about 50 percent nationally since the late 1990s, and they currently account for about 10 percent of all American students. That percentage is growing in most states and is expected to rise to 40 percent of the U.S. kindergarten through grade 12 population by 2030.

As a group, these largely Hispanic students have scored significantly lower than their white peers on standardized tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, despite increased attention to this “achievement gap.” How—and if—schools can overcome this hurdle will be a key measure of success for the Common Core.

This issue looms especially large in California, the state that educates one of every eight American students and has far more English learners than any other. Latinos now make up the majority of California public school children, and 37 percent of the state’s total enrollment comes from homes where a language other than English is spoken. Currently, about 23 percent of the state’s students are categorized as English learners.

While some California high schools have students with 60 different language backgrounds, more than 80 percent of the state’s English learners speak Spanish. “Almost every single teacher (in California) has English learners,” said Jeanette LaFors of Education Trust West, which is studying Common Core’s impact on these students. “It’s rare to see a class that does not have them.” California’s large number of English learners helps explain why California’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores have repeatedly come in well below the national average.

Like a lot of educators in California, Laurel Street’s leadership team is enthusiastic about the Common Core because they think the standards are research-based and encourage a better way of teaching and learning. But they also recognize that big changes are necessary if their kids, particularly their English learners, are going to do well on the new assessments linked to the new standards.

“They are absolutely our priority,’ said Principal Frank Lozier, who first came to Compton Unified School District in 2000 as a Teach for America recruit out of the University of California, Berkeley. “They are such a large part of our school.”

As Laurel Street begins the process of adapting to the new standards, much of the focus is on their math program, a traditional area of strength at the school.

California’s old state assessment was pegged to its old standards and rewarded math students with good memorization and pattern recognition skills in ways that the new standards and assessments will not. “We had students who were good at finding the right answer because they had memorized the script,” said third-grade teacher Alejandra Monroy. “They could simply add or subtract and get the right answer.”

Common Core, on the other hand, emphasizes complex word problems, in part so kids realize math’s usefulness in everyday situations. “We had our big ‘Aha!’ moment when we realized we needed to shift from an emphasis on teaching isolated math skills to integrated skills because of the tasks that would be thrown at them” by the Common Core, said Lozier. “The intent is to get the kids to have a deeper and crisper understanding of how math can be used to solve real-life problems.”

The new standards also require students to explain in writing how they got their answer, and that requires a broader and more sophisticated vocabulary than many English learners have. “If they don’t have the words, it’s hard to read and listen and speak and write,” Chavarin said. “Vocabulary is the pillar to all of this.”

To address these new challenges, Monroy, who was born in Chile and was once an English learner herself, said teachers at Laurel Street are trying to incorporate more strategies into their math lessons that have proved effective for teaching English and expanding vocabularies.

Those efforts were apparent on a recent Tuesday afternoon, as Monroy introduced the use of “repeated addition” as a strategy for solving multiplication problems. She started with a vocabulary lesson. “There are very important words you need to know,” she told her class. “If you’re doing a multiplication problem — 3 x 4 = 12 — the numbers `3’ and ‘4’ are the FACTORS and the ‘12’ is the PRODUCT. All the numbers and symbols together—3 x 4 =12—is a “MULTIPLICATION SENTENCE.”

“What is this?” Monroy asked, pointing to the equation.

“A multiplication sentence,” the class echoed back.

Next, Monroy stressed that repeated addition involves “patterns,” in this case, 4+4+4 = 12

“We need to know that a pattern is a regular or repeated sequence,” she said. “A pattern can be something like red/blue/red/blue, right? A sequence that repeats. When you count by skipping numbers—2-4-6—you’re doing a PATTERN.”

Once she was sure they understood the vocabulary, Monroy introduced “sentence frames,” pared-down phrases the students will need to learn in order to clearly describe what they’re doing. In this case, using repeated addition to solve a multiplication sentence involving 3 x 4 means “three groups of four.”  As the class worked through a series of equations — first as a group, then with a partner, and finally as individuals — the kids got repeated opportunities to use their new vocabulary words. Even when they were working on their own, Monroy urged them to talk their way through it. “I hear you saying the steps,” she said as she walked up and down the aisles, checking the students’ progress. “That’s very good.”

As the class neared its end, Monroy introduced an associated word problem involving the total number of wheels on four tricycles. She wanted to check that the kids would recognize how their new skill might be used in the real world. She also wanted to establish that they understood instructions that use phrases like “repeated addition” and “multiplication sentence.” As the kids set to work, Monroy did a quick check to see how they were doing.

“Is this hard?” she asked the group.

“Easy, easy,” the kids responded.

“Repetition is very important for English language learners,” Monroy said later. “Learning those sentences is like learning a recipe. The way I explain a solution is like a recipe to solving the problem. Then they have to practice doing it and saying it and writing it. This is a huge difference, but this is good practice and good teaching.”

Laurel Street started this transition with an advantage because its district uses a structured curriculum called Swun Math. It’s a widely praised program developed by Si Swun, a Long Beach, California, math teacher who was inspired to combine some of the best of American education techniques with methods used in Singapore, long a world leader in math achievement. Both Common Core and Singapore-style math emphasize a deep study of the most basic elements of math before moving on to more advanced math. Swun Math also encourages collaboration and talking through the problem-solving process. With the introduction of Common Core, Swun said he is working with schools to supplement and adjust the original curriculum to make it more effective, and to strengthen students’ reasoning and writing skills.

To determine if the changes they’re making are on the right track, Laurel Street teachers monitor their kids’ performance in class and on weekly assessments that grade-level teacher teams create together. Each student’s score is then added to a spreadsheet and scrutinized by the principal, all the teachers, and even parents and students.

If one class gets better scores than the others, teachers compare notes and incorporate the most effective strategies into their own lesson plans, said fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Harris. It’s about collaboration, not competition, she said. “We learn from each other.”

“It’s a very transparent process,” Lozier said. “We have a culture where we make decisions based on evidence and results and data, rather than opinions. Mine included. We do more of what works and less of what doesn’t work.”

The work is challenging. But the deeper they get into it, the more school leaders are becoming convinced that the methods encouraged by the Common Core will help all their students get better at math as well English.

“I see a lot of things in the Common Core that we should have been doing in math all along,” said Harris, “because it will help our students get to a better place in math as well as language.”

Swun agrees. As a former English learner, Swun, whose native language is Chinese, said he’s “super sensitive to this issue.” But he believes more emphasis on language in math will likely lead to more success for everyone.  “Some teachers don’t want their kids to talk a lot,” he said. “But to me, that is productive noise.”

That confidence is an important first step, and while they don’t have all the answers yet, Lozier said they feel good about the outlines they’re seeing of the path forward.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.