Boston Public Schools is delaying the rollout of its controversial inclusion plan for students learning English, just weeks after most of an expert task force created to advise the district on how to best serve such students resigned in protest over the plan.
The revised timeline will slow the pace of inclusion for most students learning English under a multipart plan by the district to overhaul its special education and multilingual programs. The plan, unveiled in October and made as part of a deal with the state to avert a takeover of the district, requires students learning English to be separated from their English-speaking peers only as needed, rather than spending their entire days in separate Sheltered English Immersion, or SEI, classrooms.
The plan was originally intended to take effect next year in grades K-8, with all English learners in grades K-12 moving to inclusive settings by the 2025-26 school year, with supports in general education classrooms.
The new guidance now asks schools to move to inclusive settings for grades 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8 by the 2025-26 school year, and for grades 3, 4, and 9-12 by 2026-27. Kindergarten and Grade 7 will still roll out next year.
The district said Monday the new guidance is based on feedback from teachers and school leaders, and better aligns with the rollout of the inclusion plan for special education students.
“All English Learners must receive systematic, explicit, and sustained ESL instruction,” the guidance says, including at least 90 minutes a day of English as a second language instruction for students with the lowest English proficiency and at least 45 minutes a day for students with higher English proficiency.
District officials have said the new inclusion plan aligns with feedback from and standards set by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the US Department of Justice. A routine monitoring assessment last summer by DESE of the district’s SEI programs found they do not meet current state requirements and that some students in these programs feel isolated from their English-speaking peers.
BPS has also defended the plan citing an August 2022 letter from the Justice Department stating the district must avoid “unnecessarily” segregating English learners.
DESE has already reviewed BPS’s inclusion plan and is providing feedback to the district in ongoing meetings. The department’s current guidance on English learner services encourages districts to use a variety of English learner programs, including SEI, dual language, and transitional bilingual programs, noting that students’ needs vary significantly.
Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, an organization that sued the district in the ‘90s for failing to adequately support its growing English learner population, notes neither the Justice Department nor DESE has actually mandated the complete dismantling of BPS’s SEI programs.
The district is “inventing a threat that doesn’t exist in order to justify something that shouldn’t exist,” he said. “This is an English-only dumping operation.”
The new guidance comes less than a month after nine of the 13 members of the BPS English Learners Task Force quit their roles, arguing that integrating English learners — who represent nearly one-third of BPS students — into general education classrooms would lead to worse outcomes, including higher dropout rates.
The task force members who resigned included Suzanne Lee, former principal of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School; education researchers Maria Serpa, Rosann Tung, and Miren Uriarte; advocates John Mudd, Paulo De Barros; Roxann Harvey; Fabián Torres-Ardila of the Gastón Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and former state representative Marie St. Fleur.
Several of the resigning members spoke out against the plan at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting last Tuesday.
“The plan that was submitted does not work,” said Serpa, a retired professor of bilingual education at Lesley University. “They are not being prepared, not only not to go to college, but they are not prepared for life.”
The English Learners Task Force was formed by the School Committee in 2009 in response to probes by the Department of Justice and US Department of Education that found the district violated the civil rights of English learners by failing to provide them with specialized instruction. In 2010, BPS reached a settlement agreement with the federal government, requiring the district to reform its programs for English learners and improve teacher training.
At the time, research by Tung and Uriarte had drawn troubling conclusions about the district’s methods for teaching students learning English. Their study looked at districtwide data in the three years following the passage of Question 2, a 2002 ballot measure that abolished bilingual education, which had allowed students to learn subjects in their native language until they were nearly fluent in English.
In 2017, the LOOK Act repealed the controversial law, giving school districts more flexibility in how they teach English learners.
Tung and Uriarte found that between 2003 and 2006 high school dropout rates for English learners in Boston almost doubled while the percentage of students learning English in middle school more than tripled. Gaps on standardized tests between English learners and their peers also widened, the study found.
The crux of the task force’s dispute with district leaders centers on the use of students’ native language in instruction. Decades of research, according to Tung, show that teaching English learners in their native language is the best way for them to learn English and perform at grade level in core academic subjects.
The district’s new inclusion plan, the resigning task force members contend, will inappropriately place the vast majority of students learning English in general education classes, regardless of their English proficiency, where they will have access to multilingual services, but not content instruction in their native language. The task force has advocated for immediately converting SEI programs to transitional bilingual programs, which would use native language instruction, but gradually phase it out as students’ English proficiency increases.
The new BPS guidance states the future of English learner education in the district could include transitional bilingual programing if schools choose to offer it.