At NYU Steinhardt, $4.5 Million NSF Grant Supports Improving Science Instruction for English Language Learners

More than 41 percent of New York City students report speaking a language other than English at home. According to the New York City Department of Education, 154,466 students are classified as English Language Learners (ELLs), roughly equivalent to the population of Salem, Oregon. As New York City seeks to produce the next generation of innovators in its quest to become a scientific and technological hub, ensuring quality science instruction and assessment at the K-12 level is critical, especially for the growing population; ELLs in the city and nationally.

“English Language Learners often do not receive science instruction due to the perceived urgency of developing literacy and numeracy skills; and when science is not tested, it tends to be ignored,” said Okhee Lee, a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning , and recent recipient of a $4.5- million National Science Foundation grant dedicated to the study of improving science achievement among ELLs. “This phenomenon is prevalent in those states when science is not part of accountability policies, and in urban and rural schools where racial and ethnic minorities, who have traditionally been underserved in the education system, are the majority.”

Lee, whose native language is Korean, and her NYU Steinhardt colleagues, Lorena Llosa and Susan Kirch, manage the NSF-funded project titled, “Promoting Science among English Language Learners (P-SELL) Scale-Up.” The four-year study will address science standards and assessment for fifth graders looking closely at science curriculum and ways to enhance teachers’ science knowledge, teaching practices, and instructional resources in order to improve science achievement of all students, especially ELLs. The study will also address how science instruction supports English language learning of ELLs.

The study will examine 64 elementary schools from Florida school districts in Jacksonville, Fort Meyers, and Orlando. According to the Florida Department of Education, Florida ELLs total more than 260,000 and surpass most states in the nation. The state is ranked third in ELL population with a total of 300 different languages spoken.

Half of the participating schools will receive the P-SELL intervention that includes specialized science curriculum and teacher professional development, whereas the remaining half will use the district-adopted science curriculum. The results can potentially serve as a prototype for new science standards in Florida and across the nation.

“Professor Lee’s research can help New York implement similar intervention models or adopt our own policies so that our teachers can better educate the diverse learners of our state,” said Steinhardt School Dean Mary Brabeck. “This project could potentially provide pathways to equitable learning, narrow the achievement gap, measure teacher effectiveness, and meet national efforts to keep all students academically competitive.”

“P-SELL” is currently underway and expected to conclude by the summer of 2015.

(Photo: Okhee Lee, professor of childhood education at NYU Steinhardt)