When it comes to educating the surging immigrant population in Boston, many in educational and political circles ignore the evidence of failure all around them. The achievement gap for so-called English-language learners — students enrolled in school but without English proficiency — promises to haunt Boston for a generation unless the ineffective and highly unsuccessful English immersion mandate is reversed. The Boston Public Schools continue to watch these students fall through the cracks. Their dropout rates are consistently higher, and they have among the lowest MCAS scores in the city. Saving more of these students from a life without meaningful educational achievement stands as one of the signal challenges for new superintendent Tommy Chang.
Year after year, a legislative proposal to bring back other language acquisition programs such as bilingual education, and drop the “one size fits all” approach, goes nowhere on Beacon Hill. But Chang brings a fresh perspective, and even hope. He has experience dealing with English-only mandates, coming from a state with similar restrictions on English learning. In California, the number of students who have not been able to become proficient in English for six or more years has increased dramatically (giving birth to a new classification: “long-term English learners”). Study after study has dismissed the longstanding view that many parents and policy makers still hold: that English-language learners will acquire proficiency faster if they’re totally immersed in the language. For example, a recent study found that native Spanish-speaking students enrolled in the Houston school district have more success learning English when they’re enrolled in a two-way dual-language program.
That success stems from the benefits of learning in two languages. As they learn English, students also need to learn other grade-appropriate subjects in their native language. When lessons in, say, math or biology, are taught in English only, students just learning the language often absorb the content more slowly. In the long term, that contributes to the achievement gap.
In tackling the immigrant-language challenge, Chang means business. He brought from the Los Angeles district two officials who will oversee English instruction at the Boston schools: Dr. Frances Esparza will be assistant superintendent at the Office of English Learners, and Dr. Karla Estrada, who as deputy superintendent of student services will be in charge of that office.
Chang understands the need to expand dual-language program opportunities in Boston. More important, he can be a powerful advocate to fix a failed policy that has hindered the educational progress of thousands of immigrants at the public schools. Chang, himself an English-language learner, understands better than anyone the challenges of servicing that population. The new Boston school superintendent should use his voice and his own compelling personal story to galvanize public support to bring bilingual education back to Massachusetts. By doing so, he can help save the educational futures of thousands of Boston public school students.