English-Language Learners

Mass. Teachers Learn Hard Lesson: Flunk the English Test, Get Fired

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 03, 2003 3 min read
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Teachers in Massachusetts who have failed fluency tests in English are fighting to keep their jobs, even though a new anti-bilingual-education law in the state says they must give them up.

The law, called Question 2, was approved as a ballot measure by 68 percent of Massachusetts voters last November. The mandate calls for bilingual education classes to be replaced by English-immersion classes starting this school year and requires all teachers of such classes to be “fluent and literate in English.”

While similar laws targeting bilingual education have been adopted in California and Arizona, those measures stated only that teachers in the “English-language classroom” should “possess good knowledge of the English language.” When those states curtailed bilingual education, teachers’ English fluency didn’t become an issue as it has in Massachusetts.

In several Massachusetts districts, some teachers who speak a native language other than English have been laid off or fired because they were unable to pass English- fluency tests they took last school year or during the summer.

Some of the teachers have hired lawyers or fought through teachers’ unions to earn a grace period in which they may be reinstated if they are able to improve their English skills and pass the crucial tests—if not to keep their jobs at the moment.

The Somerville district, for example, has guaranteed a teaching job next school year to any of the five teachers who failed the English-fluency test if they can pass it by next spring. For this school year, though, they are out of jobs.

“We would really like to see them pass,” said Anthony C. Caliri, the human-resources manager of the 6,000-student district, pointing out that “we didn’t write the law.” At the same time, he said, “I can’t hire teachers who aren’t certified.”

The Boston Teachers Union was on the verge of signing an agreement with the city’s school board late last week that would permit four teachers who had flunked the test to work in a nonteaching “professional capacity” in the 62,000-student school system, according to Richard Stutman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

He said the teachers would keep their same salaries and benefits for the current school year, but would have to pass the English- fluency test before next school year to continue working for the district.

Superintendent Flap

In Lawrence, meanwhile, the debate over how such teachers should be dealt with became particularly heated after local newspapers reported that the district’s superintendent, Wilfredo Laboy, had failed a state-required English-literacy test three times.

The papers also noted that Mr. Laboy, a native of Puerto Rico, had suspended 20 teachers without pay who hadn’t passed their English-fluency tests at the same time he had flunked his exam.

In a letter to Mr. Laboy last month, Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said he would recommend that the superintendent be fired if he didn’t pass the English-literacy exam by Dec. 31.

Mr. Laboy did not return Education Week‘s phone calls.

Meanwhile, 15 teachers from the 12,000-student Lawrence district who had failed their English-fluency tests have filed a complaint in a state superior court. They argued that they were unfairly singled out to be tested in the language, and they asked Mr. Laboy, among others, to reinstate them.

But Jennifer B. Rieker, the Boston lawyer representing the teachers, said she expects that they won’t have to argue their case in court because the Lawrence school board has tentatively agreed to give them alternative jobs, such as those of substitutes or teachers’ assistants. Her law firm filed the Aug. 22 complaint in court on behalf of the teachers, she said, just in case the agreement with the school board falls through.

Rejection in Court

Four Cambodian teachers from Lowell public schools who failed the test and lost their jobs didn’t have much luck in court. A superior court judge last month rejected their argument that they had been discriminated against, and upheld the school system’s right to fire them. The teachers have filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Karla B. Baehr, the superintendent of the 16,000-student Lowell school system, said that because her district is slashing its budget, she couldn’t offer other jobs to the 21 teachers who failed the test.

Ms. Baehr said that the district has been fair with the teachers involved.

“We’ve done in a responsible way,” she said, “what we have to do under the law in Massachusetts.”

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