MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now to something you've been hearing a lot about if you are involved in K-12 education. It's that new set of educational standards known as the Common Core. American public schools in more than 40 states are now implementing these. Supporters of these new standards say it's long past time to move away from the memorization and repetitive drills, and instead to move toward teaching students critical thinking skills and an understanding of how their lessons apply in real life. But that shift could present a challenge to students whose English skills are not yet proficient, so-called English learners.
It turns out that that number is not small. Public schools serve more than 5 million of these children and that's approximately 1 in 10 students right now. And their numbers are expected to surge in the coming years. Education writer Pat Wingert has been writing about this issue for the Hechinger Report. That's a nonprofit news organization that focuses on educational issues. And she recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled "The Common Core Is Tough on Kids Who Are Still Learning English."And Pat Wingert is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
PAT WINGERT: It's nice to be here.
MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about who English learners are.
WINGERT: English learners are often children of immigrants or people who have another language other than English as their primary language at home. About 37 percent of California's students, for example, are English learners.
MARTIN: And you were saying that, actually, math is often an area of success for these students before they achieve proficiency in English. I think that might be surprising to some people. So why is that?
WINGERT: Well, when I talked to the people at some schools in California, they were telling me that math can be kind of an international language. Numbers are the same in almost every language.
MARTIN: So math is its own language in a way.
MARTIN: I mean, you can kind of figure out a math problem even if you don't know the English. So why would these new standards work against that kind of early success?
WINGERT: Because the new standards stress more vocabulary. So instead of just having a series of equations, they're more likely to give kids a word problem that has some link to their everyday life. So you're going to need language to figure out the math problem.
MARTIN: Well, what is the purpose of doing math in that way? Why do the supporters of these new standards think that that's a preferred way to teach it?
WINGERT: There's a couple of reasons, but one thing you often hear from students is they don't understand why math has any impact on their everyday life. So this makes that connection much stronger. But more importantly, when kids learn math skills, the point of it isn't just to learn these skills abstractly. The idea is that you're going to be able to use this in technology or in engineering or in medicine. And they want to make that connection strong right from the beginning.
MARTIN: So why are people worried about this? What is the concern here that you are writing about in the piece or that educators who work more closely with this population of English learners - what is it that they're worried about?
WINGERT: What we've seen in the past, is that a lot of these kids tend to do better in math to begin with. And that gives them confidence to go on and be successful in school. But if math becomes more vocabulary based, they're afraid that these kids will fall behind in that traditional area of strength, and they won't be able to do the problems on the test. So, for example, in the past, kids have been able to memorize strategies or they've been able to recognize patterns even if they didn't understand English very well. But in the future, if they can't read the problem, if they don't understand the vocabulary in word problem, even if they know the skill, they won't be able to get the right answer.
MARTIN: And also, a big part of Common Core is show me how you got to this result.
WINGERT: Not only show me, but explain to me in writing.
MARTIN: You reported on an elementary school in Compton, California, Laurel Street Elementary School, where more than 60 percent of the students are classified as English learners. What did you find in terms of how the teachers - the parents, for that matter, are navigating this new concern?
WINGERT: Well, this is a school that has done extraordinarily well with English learners in the past. Ninety percent of their kids are eligible for reduced or free lunches and yet more than 80 percent of their kids are proficient on the California test in language arts, and more than 90 percent are proficient in math. That puts them on par with kids that live in Bel Air, for example. So this is an extraordinary school.
And yet, going into this fall, they're anxious about whether or not their kids are going to start falling behind. They're big fans of the Common Core. I should say that right from the beginning. They think that this is a smarter way of teaching, but they also realize that they're going to have to rethink how they're teaching so that they do it in a more effective way.
MARTIN: And what is the key to their success now? I mean, we're constantly hearing about how the resources make all the difference, not just the resources in the school, but the resources at home. So what is it that they're already doing right?
WINGERT: Right. And let me add to that. A lot of these parents don't speak English so they can't help their kids with their homework. So that is another obstacle for these kids. But one of the things that they're doing right is this school has had the tradition of very strong principles. So this school works together as a team much more than a lot of other places. I mean, one of the things that's really striking about this school is they also do a lot of testing that is directly aimed at the kind of skills they're trying to teach. So every week, these kids have a test - the same test in every classroom. And the teachers get together and analyze the results.
And if one of the teachers is more effective in teaching that skill that week, they talk about what that teacher did and they change their own strategies to reflect that. The data, the success is what drives their teaching techniques rather than their own specific beliefs.
MARTIN: Well, what else, though? I mean, what else, though, to achieve that level of proficiency...
WINGERT: They're also extremely focused on every kid in the classroom. So what they tell me is they're looking at those test results every week. And they are saying, OK, Pedro is falling behind so they pull Pedro aside and they work with him every day - before school, after school at lunchtime, until they feel like he's caught up. So they also have really focused on educational strategies that are effective.
For example, when they're teaching a new skill, for these kids, they really stress vocabulary. So they make sure that everybody's in the same place. They break down the skills in very specific ways to make sure that the kids understand each piece as they're moving along. So often in math, kids kind of memorize the answer or how to get the answer, but they don't really understand it. If they don't really understand it, when they move to the next level, you lose a lot of people because they don't have that foundation.
MARTIN: What are they worried about?
WINGERT: Well, they're worried about - in the past, what kids had to do in math to be successful was they had to be able to memorize the different strategies for different tests and they had to recognize the patterns. But that's not enough now with the Common Core. So what they're doing now is they're changing their strategy so that they're not so focused on the individual skills you need to get a problem right. They're looking at it as an integrated thing. They understand that you have to - for example, they start a lesson by stressing the new vocabulary.
MARTIN: Pat, let me just stop you, though, because this is being presented as a problem, but the fact is English proficiency is a goal anyway.
MARTIN: So if this is another thing that pushes kids toward English proficiency, why is this a problem?
WINGERT: You know, you have focused in on exactly what they thought was a problem, but is turning out to be the solution. They didn't really - when people started working on this, they were just afraid that these kids were going to fall behind. But now they're beginning to realize that by pushing vocabulary in math, they're going to end up with kids that are stronger in vocabulary period. And instead of this being a problem, this may be another step toward the solution. And that's very exciting.
MARTIN: So if you're going to continue to follow this story, what is the next thing we should be looking at?
WINGERT: I focused on math in the first story. The next story I'm going focus on language arts, and how they're trying to change things at their school so that their kids are stronger in language arts. And as you may know, Common Core is stressing nonfiction more than fiction. In a lot of English classes, kids tend to read a lot of literature. Common Core is pushing the idea that nonfiction should be a bigger piece of this. And...
WINGERT: Well, because they think that in college and in careers, so much of what we read is nonfiction. And a lot of kids, even after they get out of high school, they don't have enough strength of vocabulary and exposure to nonfiction that they can read technical brochures. They don't understand - they don't have enough background knowledge in some different eras. So they want to make sure the kids are stronger in that area.
And when I started talking to these teachers at Laurel Street in Compton, they were beginning to realize that this could be a real plus for English learners as well because the more background knowledge these kids have, the more vocabulary they have and the more proficient they will be in English. They hadn't really thought that this was going to be a plus for them, but I think it's going to turn out to be that way.
MARTIN: Pat Wingert is a reporter for the Hechinger Report. That's a nonprofit organization that focuses on education news. Her peace about the Common Core and English learners appeared in The Atlantic titled "The Common Core Is Tough on Kids Who Are Still Learning English." And she joined us here in our Washington, D.C studios. Pat Wingert, keep us posted. Thanks so much for joining us.
WINGERT: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.