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English language learners need help, not an inflexible state mandate

IN 2002, when Massachusetts passed a ballot measure restricting bilingual education and mandating English-only immersion as the official policy for students with limited English, it substituted one inflexible, state-mandated approach for another. The hope was that most students placed in so-called sheltered immersion programs would learn English far faster — indeed, within a year. That presumption proved too optimistic in many cases. Now, lawmakers need to reconsider the immersion-only requirement and enact a policy aimed at producing the best academic results for students.

In its ideal form, bilingual education teaches students key subjects in their native language, even as they learn English. Before 2002, Massachusetts districts with more than 20 students using any foreign language were required to provide students with transitional instruction in that language. In practice, districts often struggled to find qualified teachers, and students came out lacking a firm grounding in either English or their native language. Question 2 was a reaction to those failures. But those problems also demonstrated the folly of writing any one specific instructional strategy into state law. Like bilingual education and other practices, English immersion can fail to deliver on its promise when delivered on a large scale.


The current law states that students are not supposed to stay more than a year in sheltered English immersion. But according to a 2009 study for the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, this strategy leads to proficiency for just 20 percent of English language learners. And even for them, it may take five years or more to achieve English proficiency. In the meantime, dropout rates for English language learners, or ELLs, are three times higher than for non-ELL students. Between 2009 and 2013, MCAS tests showed persistent achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students. And as with bilingual education, districts have struggled to find properly trained teachers for immersion programs.

The growth in the number of English-language learners brings a real sense of urgency to the issue. Between 2001 and 2012, the number of ELLs in Massachusetts districts increased 64 percent — to about 7.9 percent of all students. That proportion is expected to rise, because immigrants account for much of the state’s population growth. Many of tomorrow’s English-language learners will be native Spanish speakers, but their ages and level of educational preparedness will vary widely. Some will be speakers of other languages, such as Arabic or Somali, that very few Massachusetts teachers know. It’s unlikely that any one mandated model for language instruction will prove appropriate for all of these students. At this point, a more constructive role for the state would be to present districts with a menu of approaches — and then gather data on how each performs in practice.


On Beacon Hill recently, the Joint Education Committee, chaired by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative Alice Peisch, took up a bill by Representative Jeffrey Sanchez that would push for a broader set of approaches for ELLs. The proposal would have given school districts options such as dual-language programs, transitional bilingual education, and newcomer models, which specifically target ELLs who are recent immigrants and who enter the school system at the high school level with very limited literacy skills in their native language. Sanchez’s bill was banished to a study committee, the legislative equivalent of Siberia. But Massachusetts really needs a better informed approach to this issue.


Besides Massachusetts, only Arizona and California have English-only approaches written into law. Recognizing the limitation of the mandated approach, the San Francisco school district has aggressively pushed for parents to get waivers. Almost 30 percent of the city’s English-language learners are now enrolled in bilingual education; according to a Stanford University study, the graduation rate for those students is 6 percentage points higher than the state average of 62 percent for ELLs.

Up to now, Massachusetts education officials have been laid-back about assessing whether the immersion approach is working, and lawmakers may be reluctant to steer away from a policy that voters approved. But after more than a decade, it’s worth finding out whether other alternatives might work better.