Teaching Common Core Standards to Students Learning English

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Teachers are having some anxiety this year about maintaining test scores while teaching common core standards to students learning English.  In the past, schools serving these students have received honors and high scores, due largely to innovative programs. The Atlantic is following the progress of one such school throughout the year.  

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.

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.” 

Common Core and English Language Learners

Teaching Common Core Standards to Students Learning English

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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.

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