Sink or Swim
MassInc Commonwealth Magazine
Immersion is now the way non-English-speaking students are taught. But are
they learning the language - or other subjects - any better?
By Laura Pappano
Photographs By Frank Curran
Eunji Gloria Cho Mantzouranis—Ms. Cho to her students —uses a green
to put on the whiteboard what should be a simple math problem for fifth-
sixth-graders: Find other ways to express 8 x 7. You could, for example,
(4 x 7) + (4 x 7), which might lead you to 4 x 14 or 2 x 28. The beauty
factoring is that the different combinations all yield the same result.
Numbers may be a universal language, but in Cho’s “sheltered English
immersion” classroom, that cliché does not ring true. Some students
understand the assignment, but others are lost. Cho crosses her index
fingers, forming an “X” to remind students this is multiplication. She
to clarify factor “pairs” by gesturing to her black platform heels.
“How many pieces of shoes do you need to make a pair?” asks Cho, a
Korea with long, jet-black hair, whose darting among students to provide
help leaves her nearly breathless. She glances at her aide, “Can you
Yes, the aide can translate—but only into Portuguese. In a classroom in
which students speak six different languages, that leaves many stranded,
including the new boy from Greece named Jason. He set foot in the Louis
Angelo School in Brockton for the first time today. He’s sitting beside
aide, but all he can do is lift his paper and point.
Downstairs from Cho, in second-grade teacher Silvana Resendes’s class of
all but three speak Portuguese. Resendes, herself a bilingual success
who speaks Portuguese and English with no accent, is teaching a lesson
counting money. She easily clarifies “one cent” with a quick “un
Cho, on the other hand, has 24 students who are at two grade levels
and sixth), at three reading levels (all below the fifth grade), and
backgrounds in six languages (none of which she speaks). Some are
progressing quickly. Cho singles out a Portuguese-speaking boy who is
“willing to learn English as fast as he can.” But she takes note of
child who “is not opening his mouth after months of being here. He
understand what is going on.” And there’s only so much she can do to get
through, she says.
“I use a lot of gestures and facial expressions,” says Cho, “but there
More than three years after nearly 70 percent of Massachusetts voters
approved Question 2, which did away with 31 years of bilingual education
favor of California businessman Ron Unz’s “English for the Children”
proposal, confusion reigns.
The confusion is not over the broad mandate, which is refreshingly
Teach kids English by teaching them in English. Rather, the challenge is
making it happen, given a growing non-English-speaking population,
high-pressure accountability, and the same old six-hour school day.
The simple demand that kids learn English—and quickly—is complicated by
real-life factors, including a dearth of qualified teachers, uncertainty
over who should be classified as an “English Language Learner,” and
that, in many cases, cannot differentiate between a kid who doesn’t
understand the question and a kid who simply doesn’t know the answer.
It doesn’t help that some non-English-speaking students arrive with no
previous schooling of any kind, or with no understanding that one must
down during class and not run full-out down to the cafeteria when the
bell rings. Then there is the uncertainty among some teachers about what
they are—and aren’t—allowed to do under the new law. Is pointing at the
soles of your shoes a good way to explain “pairs,” or it is an act of
“People still don’t know what sheltered English immersion is,” says
Riley, who heads the state Department of Education’s Office of Language
Acquisition, referring to the teaching model mandated by the 2002 law.
“People can’t run the video in their mind about the type of classroom
are trying to create. If you can’t envision the classroom, it is very
A VOLATILE ISSUE
Few educational issues attract as much passion as the debate over
students classified as limited English proficient (LEP) or English
learners (ELL), terms that are used interchangeably.
That’s partly because the number of LEP students has risen nationwide
following a historic burst of immigration in the 1990s. According to a
Urban Institute report, American public school pupils whose parents are
immigrants rose from 6 percent in 1970 to nearly 20 percent of students
today. A few learn English quickly, but many more —along with some whose
parents were born here but don’t speak English—comprise the LEP
Most live in a few states (Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas),
nearly all states are finding themselves with more LEP students. In
for example, the LEP school population rose 185 percent from 1990 to
In Massachusetts, 5 percent of public school students, or nearly 50,000,
English language learners, as of March 2005. They speak 112 different
languages, but for nearly 55 percent, Spanish is their first language.
Nationally, such students are concentrated in urban areas, and within
areas, in particular schools. More than half of these students attend
schools in which more than 30 percent of their classmates are also LEP,
according to the Urban Institute. Half of LEP children have parents with
less than a high school education; 51 percent of children whose parents
immigrants live in low-income households.
The case is much the same here. In Lawrence, for example, where Census
Bureau figures show a per-capita income of $13,360 (about half the state
average), Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy says 90 percent of public school
children speak Spanish at home and nearly a quarter are LEP.
While Question 2 was ostensibly about educational policy, it triggered
emotionally charged debate (see “Lost in the Translation,” CW, Education
Reform Extra 2002). The English for the Children campaign seemed to tap
a “you’re in America, so speak English” attitude among voters statewide,
most of whom had little contact with immigrant communities. On the other
side, Question 2 opponents included those who believed transitional
bilingual education, even if poorly executed, represented a basic civil
right, but they campaigned under the puzzling slogan “Don’t Sue
focusing on an obscure enforcement provision in the ballot question.
There were also advocates for language minorities who saw that,
correct and culturally sensitive as it was, transitional bilingual
wasn’t working. Laboy, for one, called the old bilingual approach
“educational apartheid” for its segregation of language-minority
from their English-speaking peers.
Similarly heated debates played out in California, Arizona, and
with only Colorado rejecting the English-only approach. Jack Jennings,
president of the Center on Educational Policy in Washington, DC, says
battles have pushed mainstream practice toward English immersion in
years. An August 2005 report by the center notes that LEP students
all regular-curriculum instruction in English rose from 19 percent in
to nearly 25 percent in 2003.
Jennings says English immersion is also growing for pragmatic reasons.
communities—including small towns —experience influxes of
non-English-speaking students from far-flung places, instruction in
is the default approach for teachers who don’t speak 20 or 30 different
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
In Massachusetts, the text of Question 2 was pointed, asserting that
public schools of Massachusetts have done an inadequate job of educating
many immigrant children.” The solution? “All children in Massachusetts
public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English and
children shall be placed in English language classrooms.”
This language—now part of the Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 71A,
Section 4—states that children “who are English learners shall be
through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period
normally intended to exceed one school year.”
In some classrooms, it's hard to see much difference under the new law:
'I've never had a history book to use in their native language.'
The turnabout in educational approach could not have been more extreme.
Under the old law, which dated from 1971, local school districts with 20
more students who spoke the same non-English language were required to
“establish, for each classification, a program in transitional bilingual
education for the children therein.” These children were mandated to
“a full-time program of instruction,” which included “all those courses
subjects which a child is required by law to receive,” taught “in the
language of the children” and “also in English.” They were to be
“in reading and writing of the native language” and “in the history and
culture of the country, territory or geographic area which is the native
land of the parents of the children of limited English-speaking
While the program was called “transitional” and normally provided up to
three years of instruction before students moved into mainstream
the law also allowed a child to “continue in that program for a period
longer than three years,” and many did. Critics echoed a 2001 report by
Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.–based conservative think tank,
charging that bilingual education in the US was transitional “in name
On its face, Question 2 brought about a reversal in the way LEP children
taught. Instead of learning subjects like math, science, and social
in their native tongue while studying English separately, students now
all subjects in English. In theory, at least, children are supposed to
one year studying English intensively so that they can move into
But “supposed to” is key. “We don’t have enough [English as a Second
Language] teachers in the state to do sheltered English immersion,” says
Riley, the DOE official in charge of language acquisition. “It is a real
puzzle as to how to implement this in a way that follows the law and
children access to learning English and learning the curriculum.”
Many students 'were staying six to eight years in separate classes
being integrated and without learning English.'
Critics of the old bilingual education system say that problem is
new. Christine Rossell, professor of political science at Boston
and former co-chair of the Massachusetts campaign to pass Question 2,
that only 23 percent of LEP students were getting true bilingual
All Question 2 did, she says, was end “all this lying and cheating.” In
districts, she says, it was impossible to provide native-language
instruction for all LEP students.
“The Chinese kids never were getting bilingual education,” says Rossell.
“And now they can call it what it was: sheltered English immersion.”
Indeed, in some formerly bilingual-education classrooms, it’s hard to
much difference under sheltered immersion. At Dearborn Middle School in
Roxbury, for example, 25-year veteran bilingual education teacher Maria
Leite says that not all that much has changed in how she instructs her
students, who speak Portuguese Creole. After finishing a lesson on forms
government—monarchy, dictatorship, democracy—she notes, “I’ve never had
history book to use in their native language.”
According to Riley, the “sheltered” part of sheltered English immersion
refers to teaching strategies that include language goals, time for
to practice speaking, and techniques to help students pick up English
the context of the lesson. For example, Leite discusses the roots of
like “dictatorship” as part of her lesson. One learning objective
out on the whiteboard focuses on language: “Students will be able to
sentences with new vocabulary.” She sets aside time in class for
discuss in groups and write down the different forms of government.
Similarly, Resendes’s second-grade math lesson is about counting money,
it’s just as much about language. She has children copy “Ways to make 15
cents” on their papers, including columns for “dimes,” “nickels,” and
“pennies.” She takes note of spelling, telling one child, “Look at your
‘dimes’ and look at my word ‘dimes.’” He cranes his neck, studies, and
works his eraser.
The lesson is in English, but peppered with Portuguese. Leite, too, uses
Creole to clarify and emphasize directions. She says the biggest
from the past is the amount of English she uses in place of the
In classrooms like Cho’s, in which students speak a variety of
sheltering techniques—such as developing word lists for students to draw
talking aloud with students to help them generate useful words before
writing, incorporating visual symbols into instructions (such as a
of a notebook as a reminder to “get out your notebook”), and repetition
phrases—are more critical.
Still, many teachers are not trained to teach this way. And even when
are, some students find themselves in classes without a clue about
being taught or how to begin learning it. In the past, of course, you
different problem: Students lingered for years in classrooms stewarded
well-meaning but underqualified native language teachers with no
to make sure kids learned English.
The new law tries to be—at least on the surface—everything the old law
t. But reality is muddier, beginning with the law itself. “The
sheltered English immersion is a very small part of the law,” says
That’s why, she says, “implementation has been so difficult. It’s not
specific.” She says some schools “do a terrific job and some do things
would not do with their own children.”
And, much as critics of bilingual ed charged under the old system, poor
programs generate little parental outrage. “The parents of these
not speak English and do not know what they should expect,” says Riley.
“Districts do what they wish.” While Riley says the state requires
beginning- and intermediate-level LEP students to receive at least 2.5
of English as a Second Language instruction each day, she suspects many
not getting even that.
“The abuses of the past were that kids were left in bilingual education
long,” says Jennings. “The abuses of the present are that kids are not
adequately taught English and they are sitting in English classes not
knowing what is going on. It would be nice to find some middle ground.”
GOOD INTENTIONS RUN AMOK
One true difference between the old era of bilingual education and the
era of English immersion is not related to language learning at all, but
the changed educational environment of MCAS and No Child Left Behind.
“Accountability” is the buzzword. Translated, that means data. One
criticism of the old bilingual education was the lack of information
how well (or if) kids were learning English or other subjects, and
they were really “transitioning” into English-language classrooms.
This was a problem not just in Massachusetts. The Urban Institute
that 18 percent of LEP children in pre-kindergarten through the fifth
and 29 percent in the sixth through 12th grades, are American-born
whose parents were also born in this country, suggesting that the
themselves never learned English adequately. More than half of LEP
in secondary schools are US natives who have not mastered English even
attending American schools for seven or eight years.
This situation horrifies at least one early champion of bilingual
Charles Glenn was director of what was then the Bureau of Equal
Opportunity at the state DOE when he pushed for passage of
bilingual education law, the first in the nation. “I was pressing for
bilingual education as part of a general strategy to improve equity,”
Glenn. He saw the measure as a way to ensure the rights of
non-English-speaking students to receive the same education as their
English-speaking peers. But once the law was enacted, he says, the state
created a separate bilingual education office staffed by language
educators—not individuals focused on educational equity.
Glenn—who sent his own five children to the two-way bilingual education
program at the Rafael Hernandez School in Roxbury, a model exempted from
English immersion requirement by the Legislature soon after Question 2
approved—insists that he is not a foe of bilingual education, when it’s
right. But in bilingual education as it was actually practiced, Glenn
he saw good intentions run amok.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings I had with my colleagues in the
bilingual office, asking them to do what the law required: To adopt a
to be given to kids in the bilingual program to ensure they learned
English,” recalls Glenn, now a professor of educational policy at
University. “This was met with, ‘That would be hard on the self-esteem
In the meantime, LEP students were exempted from basic skills tests for
years after entering school. As a result, there was little pressure to
sure they learned English—or anything else, for that matter.
In the 1980s, federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity, overseeing
Boston school desegregation orders, asked why pupils remained so long in
bilingual education. When Glenn analyzed the careers of
pupils, he says, he found that “hundreds and hundreds of them were
six to eight years in separate classes without being integrated and
He remembers a visit he made to a bilingual-ed classroom in the basement
a Lynn school. The teacher was “a very nice Cambodian gentleman whose
training was as an engineer,” Glenn says. The teacher’s English was very
limited and he had been given “no direction about what to teach or how
teach.” The man seemed to care a lot about the kids. But, recalls Glenn,
was doing make-work things.”
Over time, bilingual education ossified further, becoming almost a
educational establishment, with its own institutional interests.
of the Center for Educational Policy, blames bilingual educators of the
for not focusing enough on student progress, instead turning “the
more into a job protection program” than an approach to teaching
By the 1990s, time was running out. When Glenn, who left DOE in 1991,
appointed to Gov. William Weld’s commission on bilingual education, he
he had no choice but to report that “there wasn’t any data to tell
bilingual education had been a success or a failure.” In 1997, Weld
allowing the state to take over any school district that failed to move
students out of bilingual education after three years. The idea died in
Legislature’s Education Committee, but it served as a pre-Question 2
across the bow.
PUTTING IMMERSION TO THE TEST
There is no longer a dearth of data. Credit, in part, Question 2, which
required that English language learners in the second grade and above
“nationally normed written test of academic matter given in English” and
“nationally normed test of English proficiency.” LEP students now take
English speaking-and-listening tests at least once a year and an English
reading-and-writing skills test in the fall and spring. They also now
This sea change, however, is not the result of Question 2 alone. The
of No Child Left Behind in 2002 heightened accountability of schools to
federal standards, raising the bar on work begun in Massachusetts under
Education Reform Act of 1993.
When it comes to accountability for educating English language learners,
however, two sets of legal roots apply. One is education law, which aims
include LEP students in all aspects of accountability. The second is
rights law, which mandates access to services. This second strand was
asserted in the landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols. The
court ruled that the San Francisco school system’s “failure to provide
English language instruction to approximately 1,800 students of Chinese
ancestry who do not speak English” effectively “denies them a meaningful
opportunity to participate in the public educational program” in
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination “on the
of race, color, or national origin.” The important part of this law as
stands today is that an LEP child’s services can’t be limited to one
instruction in sheltered English immersion. So even though Question 2
for the one-year transition, it can’t legally require it to happen.
There is, however, more to scrutinizing education than looking at
compliance. Schools may provide services, but that doesn’t mean they are
right services or that children are learning. NCLB aims to address this
by requiring that teachers be “certified as English language proficient”
that all states “set standards and benchmarks for raising the level of
English proficiency.” NCLB demands that states hold schools accountable
making “adequate yearly progress” toward the federal goal of having all
students score “proficient” on state standardized tests by 2014.
All these provisions also require the generation of data, where once
was none. The problem is that the numbers aren’t very encouraging.
Statewide, 90 percent of LEP students were scored as “needs improvement”
“failing” on the 2005 MCAS for 10th-grade English, as opposed to
“proficient.” In 10th- grade math, 76 percent were in the bottom two
categories. In the fourth grade, 86 percent of LEP students were scored
“needs improvement” or “warning” in English, compared with only 39
of other students. In math, 86 percent of LEP students and 53 percent of
other students earned scores below “proficient.” Similar results play
across subjects and grades.
Most telling, perhaps, is that LEP students made state goals for
in English and math MCAS scores—also known as Annual Yearly Progress—in
34 percent of schools in English, and only 38 percent of schools in
MCAS scores make plain the gap between regular and LEP students. But,
Rossell of BU, isn’t that the point? In her September 2005 study, Making
Uneven Strides, which looks at seven states’ efforts to get LEP students
proficiency under NCLB, Rossell notes that “limited English proficient”
means, by definition, student who are not proficient enough in English
score “proficient” or “advanced.” If they were, they wouldn’t be LEP
This doesn’t excuse students from learning English or from being tested
their progress toward meeting state subject matter goals. But Rossell
that the state’s expectations under NCLB are so unrealistic as to be
useless. Instead, she advocates exempting LEP students from meeting
proficiency standards for five years and, instead, she says, “progress
should be assessed for individual students.”
The state is just now beginning to do some of that, for the first time
charting the scores of individual students on twice-yearly English
proficiency tests. Unfortunately, the results are no advertisement for
sheltered English immersion, and scarcely better than the critics’ worst
imaginings about the old bilingual education system. Posted without
(no press release or press conference) on the DOE Web site in late
were results from the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment in
school districts statewide with large concentrations of English language
learners. These results showed that 57 percent of LEP students in third
through 12th grades made at least two steps of progress on a seven-step
proficiency scale between fall 2004 and spring 2005, exceeding the
state goal of 50 percent. Among LEP students with three or more years in
schools, 48 percent reached the highest level (“transitioning”), more
meeting the state goal of 40 percent.
Of course, those results mean that 43 percent of LEP students spent last
school year in classes in which they made only one step of progress, no
progress, or, as Riley observed, “they may have regressed.” And 52
of LEP students were not ready to join mainstream classrooms even after
three or more years of bilingual and sheltered English education.
The news is even grimmer in many individual districts (see table). In
Lawrence, for instance, just 46 percent of students made two steps of
progress last year, and only 26 percent had reached “transitioning”
three or more years in US schools (though Lawrence did meet its NCLB
Adequate Yearly Progress goal in English for LEP students). In Holyoke,
percent made two steps of progress, while 30 percent reached
after three or more years. At 48 percent, Boston nearly reached the
benchmark of half of LEP students making two steps of progress, but only
percent of students made it to the “transitioning” level. While New
met state standards in progress (53 percent moving up at least two
it fell just short of the three-year “transitioning” goal, with 39
Of the 15 districts with the largest numbers of English language
Lowell and Quincy reported the best results, exceeding state goals and
statewide averages in both progress and attainment. (Some other
including Springfield, Lynn, Brockton, Framingham, Fitchburg, Chelsea,
Somerville, met state targets for progress and attainment after three
but missed the lower “transitioning” goals of 10 percent for first-year
students and 25 percent for second-year students.) But even in these
higher-performing districts, at least 30 percent of LEP students failed
make two steps of progress, and a third or more (32 percent in Quincy;
percent in Lowell) were still not ready for mainstream classrooms after
three years or more.
On a late October morning, Suzanne Lee, principal of the Josiah Quincy
School in Boston’s Chinatown, thrusts her hands deep into the pockets of
green parka as a cold wind cuts across the concrete playdecks atop the
school. She hardly notices a soccer ball skitter across her path. It is
recess for the children, but Lee’s not having fun. In fact, her body
language is transparent: She’s ticked off.
The South End News has published the school’s MCAS scores along with the
state’s assertion that her students—80 percent of whom are low-income
percent of whom do not speak English as a first language—had barely
the NCLB-required Adequate Yearly Progress target for improvement in
What bothers Lee—besides the fact that parents are upset—is that her
has never before missed Adequate Yearly Progress goals. Despite the
economic and language disadvantages her students face, they consistently
perform near the state average. On the 2005 English MCAS, for example,
percent of fourth-graders earned “advanced” and 34 percent “proficient”
scores. The state average was 10 percent “advanced” and 40 percent
The pressure on Lee is clear. And yet, with new non-English speaking
students arriving in the school each year, how will she ever get all
students to “proficient?”
Question 2 may have put a halt to kids being warehoused in bilingual
education programs that failed to teach them English. But it left behind
new question: How fast can a kid who doesn’t speak English get in synch
In overcoming the language barrier, Quincy School students suffer from
same deficit as children from other close-knit immigrant communities,
one that schools alone have a tough time compensating for. Third-grade
sheltered English immersion teacher Lai Lai Sheung puts it simply:
to the language.”
“If you live in Chinatown, you don’t need to speak English to survive,”
Sheung. “You wake up, you hear the news in Chinese, you go to school for
hours, you go home and speak Chinese.” In that respect, she says, things
getting harder, not easier. “Before, children would go home and watch
Street in English. Now, with cable and VCR, it’s all in Chinese.”
There might be no better argument for English immersion than this
phenomenon. And Sheung, an immigrant from Hong Kong who spends summers
volunteer lab work for Earthwatch Institute and sends students home with
English-language story tapes, likes the new approach. She knows her kids
must learn English.
But she also knows that there is not enough time in the school day to
the results she is expected to get. When third-graders take the MCAS
test in the spring, Sheung estimates that only half of her 24 pupils
Several miles away, but still in Boston, is the Paul A. Dever School.
the 2005 MCAS shows 75 percent of fourth-grade students scoring “Needs
Improvement” or “Warning” in math while 72 percent earned similar scores
English. In the third grade, 80 percent failed to earn “proficient.” The
school did make Annual Yearly Progress goals in math in 2004 and
only times since 1999. It has never met these goals in English.
Like the Josiah Quincy School, the Dever has a student body that is
poor—nearly 90 percent come from low- income households. Some 36 percent
the students are LEP, and nearly half speak English as a second
Most are Hispanic.
In a second-grade classroom, the benefits, and challenges, of the new
are apparent as teacher Christine Cronin calls a reading group to the
table and passes out a slim book about things people like to do “alone”
“together.” After children offer examples from their own lives, she asks
them to “read in your brains”—that is, silently.
A boy named Luis, who is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, inadvertently
demonstrates why it is more difficult for a child from a different
background to learn English than for those born into English-speaking
households. As he moves his fingers along the text, some words make no
to him; he can’t even guess at them. One that stumps him is “enjoy.”
Luis looks at the “j” over and over, each time making an “h” sound—the
“j” is pronounced in Spanish. An English native learning to read would
a hard “j” and might easily figure out that “en-j” might be “enjoy,” in
from the context. Luis doesn’t make the same connection and, frustrated,
just turns the page.
“Things don’t sound wrong to these kids,” observes Cronin, who has
bilingual education for nine years and has degrees from University of
Vermont and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Cronin was
when Question 2 passed, but concedes that “there were a number of
where too much of the native language was being spoken.”
The new law, says Cronin, has brought more English exposure. She says
helps about two-thirds of her 18 students. The other six, she says, are
to the country and, some of them, new to schooling. These students, she
says, need more than “clarification” in Spanish, their native language.
“They have no English vocabulary skills, and of those six, I have three
have no literacy skills. They don’t know letters, don’t know sounds.
don’t know that letters make sounds,” she says. Cronin tries to teach
letters in English, but they look at an apple for “A” and say “manzana.”
has a set of flash cards with English and Spanish words corresponding to
same letters and sounds—like “leon” and “lion” for “L” and “tortuga” and
“turtle” for “T”—but the supply of such examples barely covers the
“They are not learning-disabled,” says Cronin of these students. But
might as well be. “These are six kids who don’t know what they are
How much Spanish can she use in class, under the law? Cronin doesn’t
Cronin is not the only teacher who is confused. “There is a general lack
understanding of what the law actually did,” says Kathy Kelley,
the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in
mostly urban districts, including Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn.
it passed, there was very little done in terms of preparing teachers.
they have students mainstreamed into their classrooms.”
DOE has issued guidelines and provides on its Web site lists of
and how-to documents like the one titled “Identifying Limited English
Proficient (LEP) Students,” issued in October 2004. But other things
not been as clear.
Some school districts, for example, were initially confused about
not they had to provide services to LEP students who didn’t choose to
a school that already had an English immersion class. In a few
large numbers of LEP students were effectively categorized as having
out” of any language support whatsoever. The Department of Education has
since explained that LEP students have a right to English immersion,
regardless of which school they choose to attend. Confusion has also
for example, over teacher qualifications and how to decide when a
no longer LEP.
It is also a challenge to dovetail English immersion rules with common
sense, notes James Crawford, executive director of the National
of Bilingual Education in Washington, DC. Crawford says research shows
takes years—not months—to learn English, especially for academic
Immersion, he says, does nothing to change that fact.
“This approach has not had the effect of speeding up the acquisition of
English,” says Crawford. A 2005 University of Arizona study examining
state’s stringent English-only law showed that more than 70 percent of
students tracked during the 2003-04 school year made no gain in English
acquisition; some even lost ground.
Students may speak English in the hallways, but 'they need more time' to
it in class.
What happens to kids who have had a year of English immersion and are
expected to keep up, academically, in the language of their new country?
Students in the US for six months may speak English in the hallways, and
able “to navigate our city,” says Guadalupe Guerrero, principal of the
School. “But when it comes to academic language, they need more time.”
At Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, Leite says most of her
sheltered English immersion pupils aren’t ready to move on after one
“Even at this grade, we have students who come in with a second-grade
education, third-grade reading,” she says. The task is not just to teach
them English, but also to catch them up.
One of her top students, Nuria Teixeira, arrived from Cape Verde in
September 2004. A 14-year-old with a wide smile and wavy black hair
back into a ponytail, Nuria decided to be a doctor when she was six. She
practices English with her brother and uncle and displays all the marks
an academically driven student: Her hand is always raised and she cares
lot about her grades. But even as she works hard at school, Nuria
“Sometimes I don’t understand.”
That’s a worry shared by Chris Coxon, Boston Public Schools deputy
superintendent for teaching and learning, who oversees bilingual
and professional development. Coxon sees LEP students struggling with
scores “much worse than other years,” leading him to pinpoint a
new problem in the post-bilingual education era: the large number of
students who are English language learners but are not in sheltered
Since Boston places students in school by choice, not mandatory
Coxon believes nearly all the district’s 4,000 classrooms must become,
effect, sheltered English immersion, or SEI, classes.
“Every classroom that has at least one ELL child is entitled to SEI
instruction,” he says. Coxon says LEP students who have completed a year
English immersion, or even more, still may not be capable of functioning
a mainstream English-speaking classroom. All Boston classrooms must be
to serve LEP kids, says Coxon, but that’s easier said than done.
“If you walk around our schools, there are still [teachers] who are not
about how to develop good content objectives” for their regular lessons,
says. “Then, if you ask them to plan a good language objective [required
SEI classes], that is a challenge.”
Coxon says the confusion has been at many levels. He says the state “did
define a program” for sheltered English immersion, leaving districts to
search for one. And until last summer, he says, districts didn’t know
the state meant by the requirement that they have a “qualified teacher”
every sheltered English immersion classroom. Only later did Coxon learn
a “qualified” teacher is one who uses SEI pedagogical approaches and has
hours of specific training. But that did not solve his problem.
“I control 18 hours a year of my teachers’ professional development,”
Coxon. “You can imagine how long it will take me to get everyone
Meanwhile, Coxon is also looking for better ways to track LEP students.
much and what kind of support do they need as they enter mainstream
Then there is the matter of definitions. “We are in the process now of
trying to clarify, ‘How do we figure out when a child is no longer an
English language learner?’” observes Coxon.
But more to the point: Are kids learning English any better now than
Coxon doesn’t know. “The fact that I can’t answer that,” he says, “is
of the challenge.”