By Eva Shell | Download as PDF. Between 2000 and 2010, Massachusetts saw a 51% increase in the number of public school students who are not proficient in English, called English Language Learners. Today, there are nearly 68,000 English-learners in the state. If Massachusetts is to remain competitive in the national and international market, it must invest in the growing population of English-learners by ensuring that they receive adequate education in public schools.
Prior to 2002, Massachusetts utilized a strategy for teaching English-learners called Transitional Bilingual Education. Under the transitional teaching model, English-learners were taught substantive material—such as math and science—in their first languages while simultaneously learning English. English-learners were not moved into English-language substantive classes until they became fluent in English. In 2002, voters passed a ballot initiative changing the state’s English-learner teaching strategy from the transitional model to a method called Sheltered English Immersion. Under the new model, students are taught all classes in English. English immersion requires content teachers to alter their lessons—by using simple language and providing visual learning aids, for example—so that English-learner students can understand them.
The state department of education was charged with implementing the 2002 mandate for English immersion teaching. By 2008, the department had developed a set of trainings designed to teach teachers the skills they needed to implement the English immersion method, but the trainings were not made mandatory. By 2011, the state department of education still had not trained roughly 66% (45,000) of teachers in the English immersion method.
Starting in 2003, the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating certain Massachusetts school districts to assess deficiencies in services for English-learner students. The investigations resulted in several settlement agreements between school districts and the Justice Department, after the Justice Department made findings that the districts were not in compliance with the Equal Education Opportunities Act. The state department of education is now collaborating with the Justice Department to assess the problem on a statewide level as the investigation continues. The state department of education’s board of directors is in the process of creating a task force to develop a strategy for effectively training a sufficient number of English immersion teachers, as the lack of trained teaches appears to be the crux of the problem.
The state department of education failed to adequately implement the policy outlined in the 2002 ballot initiative for three main reasons. First, the department supervises districts that are funded with an outdated school budgeting system. Each school district in Massachusetts has a “foundation budget” that is the minimum amount it needs to adequately run its schools. The foundation budgets are calculated from a set of uniform parameters, but these parameters were not adjusted after the 2002 English-learner policy change. In order to consistently fund an ongoing, comprehensive English immersion teacher-training program, the foundation budgets must be overhauled to account for the costs of such a program. Currently, there is not enough money allocated in each district’s foundation budget to pay for English immersion teacher training.
Second, the state department of education faced debate within the education community over whether English immersion is as effective as transitional instruction. One staff member within the state department of education has been publicly critical of the efficacy of English immersion teaching. Many people believe that the 2002 ballot initiative was a political rather than educational policy decision, and that properly funded transitional language education would have been a better option for the state’s English-learner students. While these are valid concerns, there is little use dwelling on them now. The democratic process in Massachusetts allows for new policies to be created by ballot initiative, and the state department of education must fulfill its obligation to Massachusetts’s English-learner students by implementing the English immersion policy in the most effective way possible.
Third, the state department of education has been unwilling to engage in the difficult negotiations with the teachers unions necessary to mandate English immersion teacher trainings. The teacher training programs currently take roughly eighty hours to complete, and it is likely that a re-vamped, improved program, which the Justice Department suggests, would take longer. In order for the state department of education to mandate the training program, it would have to negotiate with the state teachers unions to provide for payment for the teachers. As of December 2011, the department’s board of directors had not yet agreed that mandating the trainings was a necessary step in the policy implementation process.
Massachusetts has failed to adequately serve the needs of its English-learner students. While the state department of education now appears to be in the early stages of a policy implementation that it should have effectuated shortly after 2002, it is unlikely that the process will be successful unless the department addresses the underlying issues that have plagued the implementation process thus far.
Eva Shell is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School, with an interest in civil rights, education policy, criminal justice policy, and criminal defense. She received her B.A. in Communication Arts from Marymount Manhattan College in 2005. She will be interning with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office this summer as she prepares for her final year of law school.