Flexibility needed in educating English language learners

One-size-fits-all Sheltered English Immersion is not serving all students well

AS A NATIONAL leader on education, Massachusetts has the burden and privilege of leading the pack as we learn to meet the needs of our diversified student population in today’s rapidly globalizing economy. On the surface, it would appear that Massachusetts schools are overwhelmingly achieving this goal, given that our public school system has consistently been ranked best in the nation. Upon closer look, though, it’s clear that large segments of our students are not reaping the benefits of a public education in the Bay State.

The number of English language learners (ELL) in Massachusetts schools has nearly doubled since 2000 to over 85,000. We’re failing to close the achievement gap for these students. In 2015, the dropout rate for ELL students was 5.7 percent, the highest rate of any subgroup of students and three times higher than the rate for all students. Overall, only 64 percent of ELL students graduated from high school, as compared to 87 percent of all Massachusetts students.

And we’re falling behind other states: according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, English language learners in Massachusetts scored significantly lower than ELL students across the nation.

Unfortunately, this is due in part to Massachusetts’s current law mandating that one default program type, known as Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), be used when teaching ELLs. Although SEI is effective for some students, this one-size-fits-all language model has left countless others floundering in a restrictive English-only environment.

If we wish to maintain our position as a national leader in education, we simply cannot accept this status quo, the growing achievement gap, and the education policies that have been proven clearly ineffective over the past decade and a half. We have a duty – both moral and federally mandated – to ensure that every child of the Commonwealth receives the high quality education available to her peers and that she is well prepared to participate in a competitive global economy. For the sake of our English language learners, our school budgets, our workforce, and our economy, it’s time to rethink the way we deliver language education.

This is why the Massachusetts Senate has passed, with a unanimous and bipartisan vote, legislation that would remove the mandate requiring Sheltered English Immersion as the obligatory ELL teaching model in our state. The bill gives schools flexibility in establishing programs based on the specific needs of their students, and recognizes multilingualism as an asset in our future workforce rather than a deficiency.

Rather than mandate new language acquisition programs or dismantle current programs, this legislation removes the current barriers restricting schools from selecting the best programs for their specific students. This bill trusts educators to make informed decisions, for example, about appropriate tactics for a 6-year-old with some English exposure versus a 12-year-old coming from a war-torn country, who has received little formal schooling. School districts may choose from any comprehensive, researched-based instructional program. For some districts, this could mean continuing with English-only programs, while for others, this may mean offering dual language instruction or transitional bilingual education as an alternative to SEI.  Whichever language acquisition program a school district chooses, this bill ensures that teachers and administrators are fully qualified and parents have more tools for involvement in their child’s academic success.

In order to prevent ELL children from “falling between the cracks,” this bill requires greater tracking of students to evaluate how effective these programs are over the long haul and specifies that results for current and former ELL students be part of the holistic review each public school district receives from the state every six years.

Now more than ever, universities and employers are seeking out students with foreign language skills, giving multilingual students significant advantages over their peers. The bill responds to this demand by promoting multilingualism as a valuable asset, rather than a detriment to a child’s future success. It eases the way for two-way bilingual education programs and establishes a state seal of biliteracy to recognize high school graduates who speak, read, and write in two languages.

The bill celebrates the rich diversity ELL students bring to our Commonwealth and sends a message to employers and academic institutions that Massachusetts is graduating students who are fully ready to compete in a 21st century economy.

Meet the Author

Sal DiDomenico

State senator, Massachusetts
Meet the Author

Sonia Chang-Diaz

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
This session, the Massachusetts Legislature has the opportunity to empower schools and parents with the authority they need in choosing high-quality, research based programs that meet the diverse needs of their English language learners. The Senate passage of this bill is a major milestone in the long fight to update our existing laws to include the latest and best practices in serving ELLs, but our work is not over until this bill reaches the governor’s desk and receives his signature. The future of our schools, our children, and our economy depend on it.

Sal DiDomenico of Everett represents the Middlesex and Suffolk District in the Massachusetts Senate. Sonia Chang-Díaz of Boston represents the Second Suffolk District in the Massachusetts Senate.