Massachusetts: Bilingual law fails first test

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 23 12:02:42 UTC 2006

Bilingual law fails first test;  Most students not learning English

By Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan, Boston Globe Staff  |  May 21, 2006

Three years after Massachusetts ended statewide bilingual education, most
non-native English speakers are not fluent enough to function in a regular
classroom, state test results show. The tests, along with survey data and
other reports reviewed by the Boston Globe, suggest that the new law is
falling short of its main goal: quickly teaching children English so they
can join their peers in regular classes after a year. Eighty-three percent
of children in grades 3 through 12 could not read, write, speak, or
understand English well enough for regular classes after their first year
in Massachusetts schools, the test showed. Of students who had been in
school for at least three years, more than half were not fluent, according
to the test, given for the first time last year.

Four years ago, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that required
public schools to teach students primarily in English. The law, which
Governor Mitt Romney campaigned for, requires non-native English speakers
to be placed in a separate program that teaches English as a second
language for a period ''not normally intended to exceed one school year,"
then enter regular academic classes. It did not include money for training
teachers. The Globe found a system riddled with inconsistencies in how the
children were being taught. A state survey in December and January, which
the Globe obtained, found that more than half of the 52 school systems
educating the vast majority of non-native English speakers did not set up
separate classes to teach English as a second language.

Some children received three or more hours of instruction in English as a
second language each day, as the law envisioned, while others had less
than an hour daily. Some children are immediately thrust into regular
classes where classmates, who are better at English, are asked to
translate for them, interviews with teachers and school officials
revealed. Others stay in separate classes for as long as four years.
Statewide, thousands of teachers lack the training they need to work with
non-native English speakers in regular classrooms.

The problems, particularly in Boston, where test results have been among
the lowest, are raising concerns about the law's effectiveness among its
supporters as well as opponents. ''English immersion is a superior
approach to the old, broken bilingual system that we used to have in
Massachusetts," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney. ''While we
have more work to do, I think everyone can agree that in order to be
successful in today's competitive job marketplace our kids must be taught
in English." The state has tried to push school districts to improve
instruction. In 2004, a fifth of the state's limited-English students,
10,859 students, were not getting instruction in English as a second
language, a violation of federal civil rights law. By this year, that
number fell to 1,779 students.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said it is too soon
to judge school systems since only one year of fluency test scores is
available. The state evaluated 24,000 students in grades three and above
-- nearly half of the limited-English students in the state -- on the
Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment. ''You can't just snap your
fingers, and have it happen," Driscoll said.  ''We've got a law that some
would say had a certain intention, and for those that felt the intention
should have been realized, they would and should be disappointed."
Massachusetts has roughly 52,000 limited-English speaking students, about
5 percent of the state's students. A majority of the students' first
language is Spanish, and most are clustered in urban areas.

Under the bilingual education system, which the state had for 31 years,
students would study English, but at the same time take some or all of
their academic subjects in their native language. The old law recommended
students transition into regular classrooms within three years. But school
officials and professors who studied bilingual education said the old
system lacked enough qualified teachers and resources to succeed.  Some
children stayed in bilingual classes for up to eight years. Under the new
law, teachers can use a student's native language only sparingly to
clarify instructions. Parents can get waivers to keep students in
bilingual programs, but that rarely happens.

''Empirically, kids are definitely worse off now," said Maria de Lourdes
Serpa, a Lesley University education professor and bilingual education
supporter. ''Many children are placed in classrooms where teachers don't
know what to do with them. They don't understand the students, and the
students don't understand them." Ron Unz, who led the charge to abolish
bilingual education in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, said the
state's fluency test raises questions about the quality of instruction,
not the law. In California and Arizona, students have also struggled to
achieve fluency quickly, according to test results and studies.

In Massachusetts, school systems in the better-off suburban areas, such as
Brookline and Newton, had the highest fluency test scores, but also tend
to have a much lower proportion of limited English students. In Newton,
more than half of its non-native English speakers became fluent within a
year. Newton immerses elementary students into regular academic classes
immediately and provides extra help, a school system official said. In
Boston, which educates nearly a fifth of the state's limited-English
students, just 6 percent of those students passed the state fluency test
after a year in school. MCAS scores in English have been dropping in most
grades among limited-English speaking students, and more than 60 percent
failed those tests in fourth and seventh grade last year.

''We didn't teach the kids as well as we were supposed to," said Chris
Coxon, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. ''That's the blunt
and short answer." In Boston, Coxon and some principals say a lack of
money and time for teachers to be trained has hampered children's
progress. Numerous teachers are ill-equipped to distinguish between
language difficulties and learning disabilities, and some have mistakenly
categorized some limited-English speakers as special education students.
More training is planned. Some principals say they're more inclined to
keep a child longer than a year in a separate class because of the lack of
trained teachers in regular classrooms, and a belief that the children
need more time to understand nuanced English that teachers may use as part
of instruction.

''I said, 'Just ignore that one year,' " said Suzanne Lee, principal of
the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston's Chinatown, where some
children stay in separate classes for as long as four years. ''I challenge
anybody to come and say what I'm doing is wrong, even if I'm not following
the letter of the law." Lee said the lack of teacher training in a regular
classroom can mean students take years to fully understand what they're
supposed to be learning. Most children are placed in regular classes
immediately at parents' request. Christine Rossell, a Boston University
professor who helped write the Massachusetts law and co-chaired the
campaign to pass it, said schools that keep children in separate classes
for several years are ''making a big mistake." ''They should be in a
mainstream classroom long before they are fluent in English," Rossell
said. ''You need to have these fluent English-speaking role models."

Some parents said they're dismayed that their children have been separated
from other students for so long. ''I thought she'd be in a regular class
by now," said Olivia Vargas, whose third-grade daughter was born in Boston
and has been in a separate English immersion class since kindergarten at
an East Boston school. In Lawrence, where 22 percent of the students are
learning English as their second language, fluency test scores also are
low. But Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy and some parents said the school
system has taken the best approach by immersing all limited English
speakers in regular classes right away, and providing separate ESL
instruction in groups. Each child also is assigned an ''English buddy," --
a classmate who knows both Spanish and English and can translate.

But some Lawrence teachers say they aren't confident that throwing
non-English speakers in immediately with other students works for every
child. Keri Ryan, a sixth-grade teacher at the Oliver School in Lawrence,
said the children's ability to follow along varies widely. On a recent
day, she asked students to write an essay. While most of the class,
already fluent, began writing in English, Edwin Guzman doodled in his
notebook. Edwin, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic last fall,
hardly speaks, and when he writes, it is typically in Spanish. ''When you
see someone like Edwin looking completely lost and you can't help them,
you wonder if this is the right placement," Ryan said.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti at Tracy Jan can be
reached at tjan at

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