The Podium

How do we do ELL well?

The Massachusetts Joint Education Committee chaired by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative Alice Peisch is scheduled to make a decision on a bill that seeks to transform the way English language learners are educated in Massachusetts. Our education system has failed ELLs, and as a result they are currently 1.5 times more likely to drop out than their English-proficient peers. In 2011, the Federal Department of Justice ruled that, by failing to provide adequate learning environments for ELLs, Massachusetts was violating the civil rights of ELL students. To this day, the Massachusetts education system fails to provide these students with the resources they need to succeed, and by doing this, Massachusetts is continuing to deny ELLs—who make up 7.7 percent of students in our state — their basic civil rights.

Massachusetts voters passed the English Language Education in Public Schools Initiative, also known as Question2 in 2002. The initiative outlined a system in which ELL students would be completely immersed in basic English instruction for a year before being integrated with their peers. This sounded like a great idea to many at first. However, the law resulted in the elimination of many bilingual programs and, in some cases, English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. ELL students ended up segregated in urban districts or thrown into regular classrooms without language instruction, supported only by tutors classified for special education services. ELL students were expected to pick up academic English from the routines or social environment of their classrooms, not from explicit and direct instruction by licensed ESL teachers.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that the dropout rate among ELLs is so high. Even of those ELLs who do complete high school, only 57.5 percent graduate in four years. Only about 20 perent of ELLs achieve a high enough score to no longer need ESL services. There is no debating that Question 2 failed ELLs, and it is time for Massachusetts to take action to redress an inequitable situation for these students. The bill that sits before the Joint Education Committee today aims to do just that. It would give districts flexibility and choice in the programs they offer instead of, or alongside, Sheltered English Immersion, enabling them to implement diverse research-based programs instead of using only one approach, and thus meet local needs.


Many studies have shown that there are more effective programs for ELL instruction. While Sheltered English Immersion programming is preventative in nature, it is unable to vary significantly enough for culturally diverse learners. Adding a second language and culture to the classroom is one of the most important drivers of academic success for ELLs. Two-way immersion or dual language programs integrate native English speakers and ELLs in educational programs dedicated to biliteracy and cultural understanding, creating the conditions for closing achievement gaps and developing skills for the 21st century global economy.

Our coalition of students, educators, and education policy experts is working to raise awareness around the bill and its implications for ELL education in our state. We have launched a petition requesting the Joint Education Committee’s commitment to this bill. We have spoken and collaborated with community leaders and organizations — all of whom support change for ELL education. We urge more public discourse on this issue, and we urge the Joint Education Committee to recommend the bill to the Legislature for passage. It will allow the state to finally give all students, including our fastest-growing population of public school learners, ELLs, the educational equity and opportunity that all Massachusetts residents deserve.

Nathan Schwan is a student at Boston College and State Captain of Students for Education Reform. Dr. Patricia Medeiros Landurand is a professor of special education and a board member of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education. Phyllis Hardy, Minerva Gonzalez, Yael Zakon-Bourke, and Laurie Zucker-Conde are board members of MABE. Helen Solorzano is executive director of Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages. Kathy Santo is a board member of MATSOL. Susan Eaton is research director at Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Miguel A Perez-Vargas is a senior staff attorney at META Inc. Jane Chiang is a co-coordinator at Parents for a Global Education Association. Samuel Tsoi is a program coordinator in the Community Building Unit of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants Executive Office of Health & Human Services.