Under pressure from federal civil rights officials to improve schooling for English-language learners, education leaders in Massachusetts are forging ahead with major changes that will require intensive training for thousands of academic-content teachers with ELLs in their classrooms.
Massachusetts—more accustomed to being lauded for its student-achievement results than criticized—is overhauling its programs for the state’s growing population of English-learners. After a civil rights investigation last year, U.S. Department of Justice officials determined those programs.
found that as many as 45,000 teachers in districts across the state had not received specialized training to effectively work with English-language learners.
At the heart ofto better serve ELL students is a new mandate for teachers at all grade levels in the core areas of mathematics, English/language arts, social studies, and science to earn an “endorsement” in sheltered English immersion, by taking a three-credit course that has been developed by language-acquisition experts. The course is being tested with a small number of teachers in the Springfield district this summer and will be piloted in a handful of other districts in the fall.
The training also will be required for all prospective core-content teachers as a condition for licensing, starting in July 2016.
The goal is that by fall 2016, all English-learners will be assigned to classrooms with teachers who have had the training, said Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of education. At the same time, administrators who supervise teachers with ELLs in their classrooms must also receive specialized training, he said.
Massachusetts education officials have agreed to a multifaceted plan to improve achievement for the state’s English-language learners, prompted by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found that tens of thousands of teachers had not been trained adequately to work with English-learners.
• Required training in “sheltered English immersion” instructional approaches and strategies for core-content teachers who work with English-learners;
• Adoption of English-language-development standards and assessments from the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, made up of 28 states;
• Required training in sheltered English immersion for administrators who supervise core-content teachers working with ELLs;
• Professional learning communities and continued coaching on sheltered English immersion for teachers who have received the SEI training; and
• Setting goals in the state’s new teacher-evaluation system for English-learners’ growth.
SOURCE: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
“Short of a comprehensive approach, we are not going to be able to make the improvements that we need to really serve our ELL students,” Mr. Chester said. “Training teachers and administrators is just part of it.”
Massachusetts’was just over 950,000 students in 2011-12. were English-language learners, and their proportion grows each year, Mr. Chester said. Federal scrutiny of the state’s record with English-learners has been ongoing since 2009, when the Justice Department and two other districts and found widespread deficiencies.
Sheltered English immersion, which involves strategies and methods for teaching English to students at the same time they are learning academic content, has been Massachusetts’ main instructional approach to teaching English-learners since a voter-approved initiative a decade ago all but banned bilingual education programs in public schools.
Other major pieces ofinclude scrapping the state’s current standards for English-language development and tests used to judge students’ levels of English-language proficiency. Now, Massachusetts will use the English-language-development standards and assessments of proficiency devised by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium. Twenty-seven other states also use WIDA standards and assessments.
Ongoing coaching of teachers in using sheltered English instruction is also part of the effort and will be offered through a half-dozen district assistance centers around the state, Mr. Chester said.
The state school board gave the overall improvement plan a final stamp of approval in late June. Mr. Chester said that the Justice Department has not yet signed off on it. Department officials have been reviewing the state’s revised regulations for teacher training and will continue to monitor whether the new training course will be adequate and reach large numbers of teachers within a reasonable time frame, a Justice Department spokesman said.
Too Much, Too Soon?
The scope of changes involved, especially the four-year timeline for training as many as 25,000 current teachers, has raised concerns about the state agency’s ability to both meet the deadline and provide training substantive enough to change practice.
“There is no question that many, many of our teachers need this training because they have English-learners in their classrooms but they’ve never been trained on how to educate them unless they are a specialist,” said Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “But getting to 7,500 teachers each year over the next four years is extremely ambitious.”
For now, plans call for the course to be taught in districts by teachers trained by the state education agency. Teachers working in districts with high percentages of English-learners and low performance will be trained first.
Mr. Toner, a high school social studies teacher who taught in a school where half the students are English-learners, said he would want the training if he were still in the classroom. But teachers already face time demands in meeting other professional-development requirements for relicensing every five years. He also said many teachers should be given an option of testing out of the endorsement course.
The overhaul is also coming at the same time that the state is preparing teachers for the common-core standards in English/language arts and mathematics, and as it implements a new teacher-evaluation system.
Lilia I. Bartolome, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has partnered with Diane Staehr Fenner, an independent consultant who is a former English-as-a-second-language teacher in the Fairfax County, Va., school system, to create the training course.
It is broken into three sections: The first focuses on getting teachers to understand and embrace their responsibility for teaching language to ELLs, the second centers on understanding how language is acquired, and the third describes the instructional strategies and practices that make up sheltered English immersion, the course developers said.
“When you don’t know another language or haven’t had the experience of learning another language, it’s difficult to imagine the challenges that students experience as they acquire English,” Ms. Bartolome said.
The course will also include training on the diversity of English-learners, who can range from U.S.-born students with conversational English that belie their struggles with formal, academic discourse, to immigrant students with low literacy skills in their native language, Ms. Bartolome said.
Roger L. Rice, a civil rights lawyer and a tough critic of the Massachusetts’ programs for English-learners, said he thinks the training for teachers must go beyond core-content teachers.
“What about the shop teacher?” said Mr. Rice, the executive director of the group Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, based in Somerville, Mass. “The fact is, all teachers have English-learners in their classrooms, and need to know how to most effectively teach them.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Mass. Requires ELL Training for Regular Teachers