English-language learners (ELL) are one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States. Unfortunately, due to the a lack of English-language proficiency, they are also one of the lowest scoring in standardized tests.
This school year, the Massachusetts Department of Education is rolling out a new program that aims to train thousands of teachers to help non-English-speaking students.
The mandated teacher training program has grand ambitions to improve student performance, but the changes come with a long, complicated history. In order to understand why the state is training some 30,000 teachers, you have to look back at 2002.
Eleven years ago, voters in Massachusetts approved a ballot referendum that essentially banned bilingual education for kids who enter the public school system and don’t speak English. It passed overwhelmingly, with almost 70 percent of the vote.
Rosalie Porter was one of the ballot initiative’s leading supporters. She used to direct the bilingual program for Newton Public Schools.
“We tried that native language approach,” Porter said. “In fact, I believed in it. But over 20 or 30 years, the program simply didn’t work for the students.”
So with Porter’s help Massachusetts became one of only three states in the country to mandate Sheltered English Immersion. That system — called SEI for short — means public school children are taught all subjects exclusively in English.
Those who cannot understand are placed in a special classroom with a curriculum designed for children learning English. All the textbooks, all the teaching, is in English.
“We expected that within one to two years of such help, they would be able to do everything — you know, speak, read, write in English,” Porter said.
She believed in this model, but she said it was implemented terribly here in Massachusetts.
“I did not see evidence of developing new curriculum, training teachers,” Porter explained.
Then in July 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened. It had been almost a decade since English immersion had become the law and it wasn’t working. Most students were not learning English within a year. Many were falling behind, being put in special education classes, or dropping out of school entirely.
The DOJ condemned the Massachusetts Department of Education, saying it had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act because the state never required teachers who worked with English-language learners to receive any sort of training.
In response to the DOJ complaint, the state agreed to train 30,000 teachers. Any teacher, with even one English-language learning student, is expected to complete a special course on how to work with kids who don’t speak English as their first language.
In a district such as Boston, where about a third of kids are English-language learners, the challenge is magnified.
“We need to do two things at once,” said Antonieta Bolomey, assistant superintendent in the office of English-language learners for BPS. “Students need to learn the content and they need to learn the English. And that’s very challenging for any teacher.”