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Boston needs legislative fix to aid English-language learners

The Boston School Committee met to select the new superintendent of public schools earlier this month. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file 2015/Globe Freelance

Boston schools are failing to properly educate a large segment of schoolchildren, the growing population of English-language learners that accounts for approximately one-third of the city’s public school students. Even after the federal government intervened almost five years ago, the problem endures. The solution will require funding, new policies, and, most important, a legislative fix to a law that undermined bilingual education over 10 years ago.

The Globe’s James Vaznis reported on Monday that the US departments of Justice and Education contacted the Boston Public Schools outlining several irregularities in the way the district is teaching, or failing to teach, English learners. In 2010, the school system entered a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice after federal authorities found that, since 2003, the Boston schools hadn’t properly identified or adequately served thousands of English learners. Now, in its latest review, the federal government has found many instances of noncompliance all over the system, particularly in middle schools and high schools. According to the federal agencies, 49 percent of English learners in Boston’s secondary-level education are receiving not enough specialized instruction, or none at all.


But the solution may lie beyond the Boston school system — more specifically, on Beacon Hill. Massachusetts’ school districts have been restricted in the way they teach English learners since 2002, when a ballot question crippled bilingual education. Districts were required to use “Sheltered English Immersion,” a method that focuses on teaching academic content in English, limiting the help students can receive in their native language.

English immersion has proved to be effective with some groups of students, but the mandated “one-size-fits-all” approach can leave others — particularly older students — floundering in an English-only environment. And the needs of schools vary widely, even within the same district: Foreign students in the Boston Public Schools come from more than 100 different countries. Earlier this year, State Representative Jeffrey Sánchez filed a legislative proposal that would allow school districts to offer students who are English learners access to other instructional programs, such as transitional bilingual education and dual-language education. The bill, which was referred to the Joint Committee on Education earlier this month, would allow school districts to choose one or more programs based on the linguistic and demographic needs of their students.


There is promise in the arrival of new superintendent Tommy Chang — who himself learned English as an elementary-school student, and found success as an educator in California, where bilingual education is also banned — but Massachusetts legislators have a responsibility as well. Sánchez’s bill represents the best opportunity to offer better instruction for students learning English — and a chance at a better educational future.


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