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English-learner instruction act clears Senate

The LOOK bill would enable schools to tailor ELL approaches to student needs

Jule Pattison-Gordon
English-learner instruction act clears Senate
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is among those who advocated for allowing more flexibility in selecting educational approaches to meet the varied needs of English language learners.

English language education may soon become more tailored to individual students’ backgrounds and needs. State legislators voted to undo a 15-year-old ballot measure that banned bilingual education in Massachusetts, and, supporters of new legislation say, may in fact have produced barriers to English language learners’ academic achievement.

Since 2002, schools have been required to educate their ELL students through sheltered English immersion. Under this approach, the students undergo one year of English language acquisition instruction and are taught core subjects primarily in English, then are moved into standard English-language classrooms. While the SEI method was meant to bolster English skills, later data suggests it often takes more than that one year to become fluent in English — which under an SEI model can then be an impediment to mastering core academics.

A state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education English Language Learners Subcommittee reported in 2009 that for many ELL learners in Massachusetts schools it takes five or more years to attain English language proficiency. The impact on academic achievement seems evident: In 2016, ELL students were three times more likely than average to drop out of school — the highest rate for any subgroup. While overall 87 percent of all Massachusetts students graduated from high school, the graduation rate was 64 percent for ELL students. The problem is significant — ELL comprise about 9.5 percent of the state’s current student population, and the portion of ELL students seems set to continue rising.

Supporters of An Act for Language Opportunity for Our Kids, or the LOOK bill, which passed in the Senate last week, say one particular issue is that ELL students have widely different needs but have been required to be taught in the same way. For instance, an older student who arrives in the country with little prior experience inside a classroom and no English knowledge may require different forms of support than a younger student with English exposure and literacy in her or his native language.

“The current one-size-fits-all model has proven a failure over the past decade-plus at teaching English,” Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in a statement. “[The LOOK bill] will empower parents and trust educators to make informed decisions about appropriate tactics for a six-year-old with some English exposure versus a twelve-year-old who has received little formal schooling. And in this precarious moment for our country, the bill recognizes that bilingualism is a strength — not a problem to be cured.”

Parents who wish an alternative to SEI thus far have had to seek waivers or meet certain strict criteria. Under the LOOK bill that passed in the Senate, schools and families could more flexibly select programs to meet their needs. Parents also would be engaged in choosing ELL programs, more tracking would be required on ELL students’ progress and schools would be able to recognize high school graduates for multilingual skills.

“Language should never be a barrier to a student’s academic success,” said Sen. Karen Spilka in a statement. “[The bill] also encourages biliteracy, recognizing that knowledge of other languages and cultures is a true asset in our global economy.”

While the Senate’s unanimous vote in favor of the legislation is a major step forward, it does not guarantee implementation. The House passed its own version of the LOOK bill in May, and now the two legislative groups must settle the differences, before submitting a single bill for the governor’s approval. The House version makes it easier to seek waivers from SEI instruction, while the Senate bill does away with the SEI-default and provides school districts a menu of program options, such as bilingual education and English immersion.

There have been hang-ups at this stage before — last year the House and Senate both approved an earlier version of the bill, but they failed to reconcile them before the legislative session ended.

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