An Opportunity to Improve Education for All Massachusetts Students

On April 9, 2013 the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education will take testimony on legislation essential to closing the achievement gap in education and improving quality for native English speaking learners as well as new English Language Learners (ELL) alike – HB479/SB225, An Act Relative to Enhancing English Opportunities for all Students of the Commonwealth.

In 2002, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative essentially mandating that Bay State classrooms adhere to an English-only teaching model. Under this law, M.G.L . 71 A, English is the only language to be spoken and taught in the classroom for an extended period of time. Teaching, curriculum and testing must be in English starting in the second grade, with limited exception. The law does allow for waivers to be granted in some instances.

The premise behind this model, called Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), is that students will acquire English skills through subject-based immersion in an English speaking environment. Unfortunately, the unintended results of this law have been devastating for ELL students, and our educational system as a whole. Since the 2002 SEI law went into effect, LEP students have become nine times more likely to drop-out of school and suffer the long-term social consequences of doing so, as does the Commonwealth. These students have also demonstrated higher rates of disengagement in schools in terms of attendance and participation in extracurricular activities. More poignantly, however, English acquisition among LEP students has not improved. Over 57,000 students lacked English proficiency in 2009, an increase of more than a quarter since 1999. Why is this so? Part of the reason has to do with the difference between ability to conversationally speak a language and academic mastery of it. Studies show that the latter can take up to six to seven years – unnecessarily setting students behind in math, science and other subjects that they could continue to show progress in if taught in their native language while acquiring English skills. What’s more, LEP students come to school with varying academic backgrounds and experience. Capacities to learn are built – science tells us that children must learn to learn! For LEP and ELL students, many children of immigrants or refugees, the opportunities available to build the social, emotional, cognitive and physical foundation for learning vary depending on the norms, infrastructure, and entree into the United States. Mastery of a first language and learning abilities significantly impact the ability to master a second language. Therefore, so should our approach.

American public schools also emphasize and value parental involvement. Family engagement with a child’s school in the United States has proven to produce beneficial outcomes for overall educational achievement and attainment. Given that LEP students are likely to be the children of non-English speaking parents, language presents a barrier for engagement as do cultural differences. The expectations around parental engagement in the United States are not internationally universal. Research shows that these parents-many who have sacrificed social status and even safety to provide their children with opportunities (i.e. education) for a better life-can benefit from coaching around expectations of their role within a school. This is a need many schools, afterschool, early education programs and more recognize and try to meet.

Better implementation of the SEI law will hopefully address some of its unintended consequences. However, legislation is also needed to change aspects of the law that just simply are not working. The legislation will require districts with 20 or more LEP students in any one language group to offer a basic ESOL program. Schools will also be given flexibility to determine the English language options they offer to students, and parental involvement and choice over the course their child’s English learning should take will be improved under the legislation. In addition, annual student evaluations and individualized plans will be required to ensure students are on track and the strategies being used are as effective as possible. Together, these provisions will enable LEP and ELL students to acquire English skills and participate in regular education in a way suited to their individual needs and strengths – maximizing investments in terms of dollars, time and long-term outcomes.

The truth is all students are English learners. The 2002 English-only law not only hurts non-native English speakers, but native English speaking students by limiting opportunities for foreign language exposure and diverting teacher time to LEP students who require extra support in classrooms. By enhancing English language opportunities through HB479/SB225, the Massachusetts legislature can enhance opportunities and improve education for all students now and in the future. The MA Jt. Committee on Education has scheduled a hearing for this legislation on April 9th at 10 a.m. in State House hearing room A-1. Both oral and written testimony can be submitted to the Committee in regards to this issue.

Julie BolducJulie Bolduc is a graduate student at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. She previously served as a Massachusetts state lobbyist at Charles Group Consulting, representing nonprofit organizations, associations and groups whose public policy and budget priorities serve the public good. As the Director of Grassroots Advocacy for Horizons for Homeless Children, Julie developed and launched “the Campaign for Young Homeless Children” in 2011. She began her career as an associate at the Dewey Square Group’s Washington DC and Boston offices, managing grassroots campaigns. She currently works in Wheelock College’s Office of Government & External Affairs