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LOOK bill would expand options for teaching English language learners

Jule Pattison-Gordon

The Massachusetts House in late May voted 151-2 in favor of a bill that would free schools to tailor their approaches to educating English Language Learners, deviating from the current one-size-fits-all method.

Since 2002, when the state ballot measure known as Question 2 severely curtailed bilingual education, schools have been required to educate ELL students through an approach known as sheltered English immersion. Under SEI, students are expected to spend one year learning core subjects primarily in English while also receiving instruction on English language acquisition, before moving into standard English-language classrooms. Supporters of the Language Opportunity for Our Kids (LOOK) bill say that this timeline and approach may not be effective for all ELL students, whose needs and backgrounds vary widely. For instance, a young student able to read in their own language may not have the same needs as a teenager whose formal education has been interrupted.

SEI has not managed to close gaps fully: In 2009, a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education English Language Learners Subcommittee found that only 20 percent of ELL students attain English proficiency, and for many it takes five or more years in Massachusetts schools. Requiring students to learn core subjects in a language in which they are not fluent in may damage their academic performance overall.

Under the current system, families seeking an alternative to SEI must meet certain strict criteria or seek a waiver.

“Our English learner population is diverse, with students of different ages and language and educational backgrounds, and their needs are different,” said Helen Solorzano, executive director of the Massachusetts Educators of English Language Learners, also known as Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages (MATSOL), and a member of the Language Opportunity Coalition steering committee. “Currently only 2% of districts offer alternative programs.”

Such alternative programs could include options such as dual language programs, or transitional bilingual education.

An earlier version of the LOOK bill, filed by Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, cleared the House and Senate last year but legislators failed to reconcile the different versions before the legislative session ended. Now legislators are trying again. With the bill having passed in the House, eyes turn to the Senate, where legislators are considering a similar bill, based on the version filed by Sen. Sal DiDomenico that passed in the Senate last year.

Solorzano said MATSOL is hopeful that the bill will become enacted this time, thanks to “an increased understanding that we must do more to address the needs of English learners.”

The current LOOK bill establishes a 17-person commission charged with collecting ELL data, disseminating that information, and making recommendations for improvements. To engage families more effectively, English Learner Parent Advisory Councils would be established for any district that has more than 100 ELL students or in which more than 5 percent of the student population is ELL. Districts would be able to submit for state approval their own ELL education program plans, and the waiver process for parents to opt their children out of SEI would be expanded. Additionally, current reporting requirements on ELL students’ academic progress would be strengthened.

Transitional bilingual education once was more widely utilized, but the 2002 state ballot vote ushered in a requirement that public school students be taught all subjects in English and placed in English-language classrooms whenever possible. The law mandated that public school teachers should not speak a language other than English in their classrooms for extended periods of time. Advocates of this change had stated belief that it would result in quicker English acquisition.

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