Educational Reform, Mathematics, & Diverse Learners: Meeting the Needs of All Students

By Ernst-Slavit, Gisela; Slavit, David | Multicultural Education, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Educational Reform, Mathematics, & Diverse Learners: Meeting the Needs of All Students


Ernst-Slavit, Gisela, Slavit, David, Multicultural Education


In a preservice mathematics methods class, David, a mathematics educator, shows the video "Good Morning Miss Toliver" (Toliver, 1993). This film features a public middle school teacher and her mathematics students from East Harlem in New York. The film depicts Miss Toliver using a variety of pedagogical strategies to arouse her students' interests in math.

Some of the strategies she uses include problem posing, integrating language arts into the teaching of mathematics, small group work, the application of mathematics to everyday real-world contexts, project-based learning, family involvement, and current event analysis and application to mathematics.

After viewing this short film, Becky raises her hand and states:

That's all very nice but I can't be a Miss Toliver if I have a classroom like my practicum with eight ELLs who speak five different languages. How can I teach math if the students don't know their numbers in English? How can I plan lessons around the EALRs [state standards] and NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) standards if many of my students can only speak in two-word phrases? They are supposed to communicate their understandings. How can I help my students learn to love math?

Becky's words express her frustration and concern about reaching all her students. Becky, now in her early 30s, has come to school to pursue a masters degree with K-8 teacher certification after spending ten years as a successful professional in marketing. Becky is a very dedicated and thoughtful preservice student with strong math skills who has had prior success engaging small groups of English language learners (ELLs), low-income, and homeless students in mathematics during a summer school program. Although she has always appeared confident and resourceful, her comments today reflect the challenges she now faces in her practicum classroom.

Becky's worries are not unique. As teacher educators specializing in ESL/Bilingual Education (first author) and Mathematics Education (second author) we have heard many of these concerns from our preservice students and from teachers and administrators in K-12 schools. Throughout the years, as we taught in K-12 classrooms, carried out research in schools, taught or team taught methods and other teacher education courses, and worked with teachers and school administrators in professional development efforts, we have learned the importance of the interplay of language and culture in the teaching of mathematics.

This is particularly significant if we consider the increasing numbers of ELLs in today's classrooms. Current census data indicate that school districts throughout the United States are increasingly serving a student population whose home languages and cultures are diverse. For the 1993-94 school year, the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) reported a national ELL student enrollment of 3,552,497. Ten years later, there were 4,999,481 school-aged ELLs in the U.S., reflecting approximately 10.3% of the student body.

States with historically large percentages of ELLs continue to show increases in this student population (e.g., Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas). However, current data also show large and unexpected growth of school-aged ELLs in states with historically low numbers (e.g., Tennessee, Indiana, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Carolina). While the number of linguistically and culturally diverse students is growing, the number of teachers with diverse backgrounds is not growing proportionally (Mercado, 2001; Nieto, 2004).

In part, because of this asynchronous aspect of public schooling, the challenges of understanding and incorporating students' linguistic and cultural capital into the instructional process intensifies for both individual teachers and school systems as a whole. But simultaneously, the demands of teaching mathematics to all children are also presenting their own specific challenges. …

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