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State ELL reform bill advances

Calls against one-size-fits-all education

Jule Pattison-Gordon
State ELL reform bill advances
Jeffrey Sanchez

State legislators moved to support of a bill that could force schools away from what they say is a too limited, one-size-fits-all approach to English-language instruction as well as pave the way to more multilingual education for all students. Currently, state law requires school districts to educate their English language learners with one-year of Sheltered English Immersion instruction. These programs teach English in a specific way and on a specific timeline that may work for some, but not all, students, legislators say.

But with the proposed “Act for Language Opportunity for Our Kids” — dubbed the LOOK bill — there no longer would be a default program for ELL instruction. The expectation is that school districts then would have greater flexibility to choose teaching methods to match the specific needs presented by their particular ELL students.

Jeffrey Sanchez

“The current one-size-fits-all model has proven a failure over the past decade plus,” state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in a press release. “[This bill] will empower parents, hold districts to clear standards for progress, and trust educators to make informed decisions about appropriate tactics for a six-year-old with some English exposure versus a 12-year-old coming from a worn-torn country who has received little formal schooling.”

The proposal is making its way through the legislature. If it is enacted, parents would be able to advise on current ELL offerings and on the planning and developing of new programs through to-be-established English learner parent advisory councils for each relevant district. Additionally, the bill would require greater tracking of EL students to evaluate how effective programs for them are.

The LOOK bill also calls for measures to promote multilingualism as an asset, not a problem. It would establish a State Seal of Biliteracy, awarded to high school graduates on their diplomas or transcripts if they have “attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, writing and listening in one or more languages in addition to English.”

The LOOK bill was filed in both the House and the Senate. It passed unanimously in the Joint Committee on Education last week and moved to the committee on Senate and House Ways and Means.

Prominent ELL population

Students with languages other than English are a significant population in the state. During this school year, children with first languages other than English constitute 19 percent and English language learners 9 percent of students in the state’s district school and charter schools, according to DESE data.

In Boston, the representation is higher. During this same school year, 46 percent of K-12 students in Boston Public Schools have a first language other than English, according to BPS data. And 29 percent of all BPS students— approximately 15,500 — are classified as ELL or Limited English Proficient. In BPS, there are more than 75 different languages spoken by ELL students. The most prevalent are Spanish, Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Portuguese, Somali and French.

By the numbers

14.9 percent: Dropout rate for ELL students in MA in 2014

5.6 percent: Dropout rate for non-ELL students in MA in 2014

63.9 percent: Graduation rate for students whose first language is not English in MA in 2014

86.1 percent: Graduation rate for general student population in MA in 2014

SEI’s limitations

Massachusetts requires its schools to teach its ELL students in too uniform a way, and is failing many of them, supporters of the LOOK bill say.

Current law states that districts must provide ELL students with SEI instruction for a period of time “not normally intended to exceed one school year.” In SEI classrooms, they receive English language acquisition instruction and learn their core subjects primarily in English. After that year, the children are expected to move into regular English-language classrooms.

For some, SEI is effective, but not for all, and the one-year timeline may be a particular problem.

Moving children into English-only education too early “hurts their growth and perpetuates the growing gap in dropout rates,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez in testimony presented in May 2015. Sánchez filed the original LOOK bill in the House.

According to a 2009 report from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Sub-Committee on English Language Learners, only 20 percent of ELL students attain English proficiency. Of those students, many only achieve this level of fluency after five or more years in Massachusetts schools, the report states. Because immersion approaches require that core subject matters be taught primarily through English, this also has implications for education as a whole.

According Sánchez’s testimony, ELL students had a dropout rate of 14.9 percent in 2014, which was nearly three times higher than the average for all students in the state. Even ELL students who stayed in school often failed to graduate. In Massachusetts, the graduation rate for the general student population was 86.1 percent in 2014; for students whose first language is not English, the rates dropped to 63.9 percent.

“We know for English Language Learners that the program that works best for them is dual language [instruction],” said Kim Janey, member of BPS’ ELL task force and senior project director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “Children are acquiring English faster and doing well on their academic work when they’re in a bilingual program.”

Under the LOOK bill, school districts no longer would be obliged to focus on SEI programs, although they could still offer them. Currently students can only get access to non-SEI programs by securing a wavier or meeting other strict criteria. For instance, BPS students in grade 3 or higher who have interrupted educations can enroll in a Native Literacy Program, designed to catch them up with their peers in academic subjects through native language instruction as well as teach them English.

Other programs administrators may choose to offer include transitional bilingual education, in which instruction initially is offered in the students’ native language and, then, increasingly replaced with English. This kind of ELL program is available currently at BPS, but access is limited: Students must first obtain a waiver to exclude themselves from English-only programming.

Bilingual future

The LOOK bill extends the emphasis on language acquisition to native English speakers as well. It calls for the creation of a state Seal of Biliteracy to acknowledge high school students who have become proficient in two or more languages.

According to Kim Janey, multilingualism is an increasingly critical skill.

“The future of education, and not just for English language learners is multilingualism for all students,” she said. “This is a global economy and if we’re serious about preparing our students to be world citizens, then we have to make significant investments in expanding dual language opportunities for all students.”

Currently, BPS has five schools that are specifically structured to promote Spanish-English bilingualism. These dual-language schools mix native Spanish and of English speakers in classes that provide instruction in both.

Expanding such programs to other languages would require investment, including in recruiting and hiring teachers able to instruct in other languages, as well as creating new curricula and acquiring texts and materials in those languages.

Challenges ahead

Rep. Sánchez filed the original bill in 2003. He told the Banner that movement on the bill has faced strong barriers from its perceived association with immigration issues.

“Anything that has to do with immigrant kids stops any real discussion,” Sánchez said. “A huge majority of these students are here, have status. And unfortunately the political environment hasn’t allowed us to have a real conversation about how do we make sure that we are preparing these students for an economy that essentially should value their varied backgrounds, given that we’re in a global economy.”

The progress of the LOOK bills to the Ways and Means Committees is an encouraging step, but there is far to go to get it passed, he said.

“Overall, I’m encouraged, but I’m not jumping up and down by any means,” he said.