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Feds Prompt Massachusetts to Review ELL Programs

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 27, 2011 4 min read
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The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is reviewing its program for English-language learners after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that it was violating those students’ civil rights, largely by placing them in classes with inadequately trained teachers.

According to the federal investigators, the state education department reported this year that more than 45,000 teachers in 275 school districts across the state “continued to need training” in teaching English-language learners. The Justice Department’s July 22 letter says the problems stem from the implementation of the state’s sheltered-English-immersion program, in which ELLs may spend some time learning English as a second language but get all their content instruction in English. Certification is required for teachers of ESL classes, but training for content-area teachers is not mandated, is often difficult for teachers to obtain, and is potentially out of date, according to the federal agency.

The state education department “failed to take appropriate action” by not mandating training in the program it had chosen, wrote Emily H. McCarthy, the deputy chief of the federal agency’s educational opportunities section.

The Justice Department had previously investigated ELL programs in Boston, Worcester, and Somerset, Mass., and launched its statewide investigation after concluding that shortcomings there were related to state policy. (“Boston Settles With Federal Officials in ELL Probe,” Oct. 1, 2010.)

Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester last week released a memo spelling out his department’s timeline for review of ELL programs. The schedule calls for changes to the program to be proposed in February 2012 and passed by June of next year. The state board of education was slated to consider that schedule at its Sept. 27 meeting.

Mr. Chester said that new training requirements would be enacted through licensure and relicensure standards for teachers. Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the union agreed with the federal findings and “had always supported training” teachers of English-language learners: “We think the state should mandate the training and assist districts in paying for it.”

However, funding that training may be an issue. According to the federal agency’s letter, the state education department requested $1 million in state funds in the 2009 fiscal year to help deliver sheltered-English-immersion training to teachers but received less than half that amount that year.

At least 50,000 Massachusetts teachers serve English-language learners in their classrooms, according to state officials. Commissioner Chester said that while Massachusetts’ student population has hovered near 1 million, the proportion of ELLs has continued to rise, continually increasing the need for more training. “We have been very, very focused on ELLs in the almost four years that I’ve been here,” he added.

Roger L. Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, of Somerville, Mass., said that the Justice Department was “absolutely correct in finding a massive civil rights violation” in Massachusetts and that, as the report indicates, the program itself should be evaluated, not just the number of teachers who are trained. In a state that prides itself on academic achievement, he noted, “ELL kids are not closing the achievement gap.”

The current system is the result of a 2002 state ballot initiative that replaced bilingual education with sheltered-English immersion and “up-ended the infrastructure for serving ELLs,” Mr. Chester said. He added that evidence did not clearly demonstrate whether the current program or its predecessor had been more successful, but he pointed to a slow increase in ELL students’ scores over time on state exams.

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Mr. Stutman said his union was “distressed” to hear of the report’s finding that the training might not be high-quality. “That suggests that some of the training”—which took more than 80 hours—“may have been in vain,” he said.

The Justice Department’s Ms. McCarthy said the federal agency’s expectations for the state were clear: “The state’s obligation under EEOA [the Equal Education Opportunities Act] is to ensure that the program it mandates is implemented appropriately. If you don’t have the teachers trained, obviously you can’t implement the program. But if you mandate training that doesn’t allow teachers to implement the mandated program, that’s also a problem.”

Mr. Chester said his agency would address these concerns by searching for the “best methodologies and approaches” to teaching ELLs. In the meantime, Massachusetts teachers will continue teaching the state’s ELL students using the system currently in place.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as Federal Probe Spurs Mass. to Review Its ELL Programs

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