Bilingual law fails first test
Boston Globe 
May 21, 2006

Most students not learning English quickly
By Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan, Globe Staff  | 

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 Tracy Jan can be reached at