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letters | schools’ language barriers persist

Boston’s failings highlight flaws in state’s English immersion law

Carmen Martinez and her son, Alonso, 6, watched first-grade teacher Lavinia Magazzu during the first open house of the school year at James Otis Elementary School in East Boston in October 2003.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/File

The Department of Justice continues to find some Boston Public Schools failing to meet the needs of their bilingual students (“Schools’ language barriers persist,” Page A1, March 30). This may be due to the fact that the Boston schools are indeed failing, but maybe these schools are implementing our laws exactly as intended.

In Massachusetts, the “English for the Children” ballot initiative effectively abolished bilingual education in 2002, replacing it with Sheltered English Immersion, an untested approach to instruction for English learners. This law mandated that children who do not speak English fluently attend SEI programs “during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one school year.” The result? Thousands of English-learning children mainstreamed into classrooms with many teachers understandably unprepared to meet these students’ needs.

After 12 years of herculean efforts by the state to regulate SEI implementation with thoughtful diligence, the federal government continues to fault how English learners are educated. Could it be that the Boston schools are actually doing a good job of implementing a flawed law, and as a result our bilingual learners continue to struggle?


The Massachusetts law is ignorant with respect to second-language acquisition, bilingualism, and the instructional approaches that support English-learning children. We need innovative and diverse program models that are specifically designed to meet the unique needs of bilingual learners.

The great irony here is that, implemented correctly, this law may decrease learning outcomes for bilingual students, ensuring visits from the US department of Justice and Education in perpetuity. Our best option is to reconsider this pernicious law that neglects our students’ learning needs.

Patrick Proctor
Mariela Páez

The writers are associate professors at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.