Celebrating Innovation in Math Curriculum Development

One of the most common challenges in our work is the ways in which the education system categorizes and “others” English Learners. We’ve seen time and time again that ELs aren’t taken into consideration when instructional materials and curricula are being developed. This is especially true when it comes to core instruction, such as mathematics. This approach is harmful. It doesn’t set our teachers up for success. It doesn’t set our students up for success.

That’s why we were so excited to see the Gates Foundation not only put out the call for interventions to support Black, Latinx, and low socioeconomic status students with skills and content learning around the all important Algebra 1, but also to do so with a specific focus on ELs. After the notice went out about this effort, ELSF was honored to be invited to join several partners with their proposals. We were thrilled when two of the proposals that we were a part of were selected to move forward with phase 1 of this effort.

Since March 2021 we’ve been working with Amplify and with the Rhode Island Department of Education to support their efforts to create innovative, new math materials that help ensure all students are given the tools they need to succeed in Algebra 1. ELSF has been providing advisory support to these grantees to ensure that the needs of ELs remain front and center in their curriculum and materials designs. We’re committed to ensuring that the materials have an asset-based approach in their framing that reflect the cultures of the students they’re trying to target.

While we’re still in the beginning stages of this work, we’ve already seen some promising trends:

  • Curricula and problem sets that are relevant to students' lives. Currently, Amplify is developing materials utilizing data illustrating the human impact on climate change to help students understand statistics. Content designed around real world issues and problems students are currently facing helps them stay engaged and better understand the relevancy of the material they’re studying.
  • Math materials that are more interactive and collaborative. It is critical that ELs are given the opportunity to discuss, collaborate, and utilize their language skills in each subject area. This does more than help ELs. We know that collaborative learning is beneficial for all students, especially when it comes to difficult subject matter like algebra.
  • A willingness to think boldly to reimagine a new, better way of doing things. Perhaps most importantly, what we’ve seen through this Gates project is a willingness to take risks and support innovation when it comes to instructional materials. Historically math materials have lacked relevance to students' lives; they’ve been light on collaboration and language-based activities and exercises; and they often rely on a method of learning that is very analytical. As part of its work, Amplify is working with Desmos to implement a series of interactive visual activities and learning modules into their curriculum. This will give students the ability to manipulate the data, and to visually understand the concepts being discussed. This versatility of approaches is a gamechanger, not just for ELs, but for any student who may process information differently or benefit from more visual learning.

The program proposals that we’ve worked with Amplify and the Rhode Island Department of Education to design and strengthen are only the first step. Next comes the long and hard work of building out these programs, implementing them, measuring progress, and taking that data to refine and continue learning what works so we can provide the best learning opportunities for students.

But, we’re heartened by what these grants demonstrate - a shift in thinking around how materials should be developed with equity at the forefront. And an understanding that we must be willing to innovate if we want to change outcomes for ELs and other students who traditionally haven’t been served well by the curricula being used by our teachers.

Materials drive instruction. They are the fundamental building block upon which teachers teach and students learn. Ensuring that materials are innovative, strategic, and, most importantly, equity centered, is essential for the future success of not only ELs, but the success of all students.

The mission of the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) is to collaborate with field-leading researchers, district leaders, teachers, content creators, and education funders to improve the supply and accessibility of high-quality K-12 mainstream instructional materials that address the linguistic and cultural needs of ELs while building smart demand to reach educators at scale – all with the goal of providing ELs full access to grade-level content and quality learning. Unlike most efforts that aim to improve EL learning outcomes, ELSF focuses exclusively on ensuring that full-year core instructional materials guide teachers in addressing these students’ varying needs.

We do this by connecting English learner experts and quality curriculum developers through participatory review cycles that leverage specific language criteria in ELA and mathematics to improve materials. We also provide concrete examples and clear guidance to those developing content, including districts, schools, teachers, and curricula developers.


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