We Need to Rethink Language Immersion in Schools

By Senator Sal DiDomenico

One of the most important priorities for our Commonwealth’s schools is to ensure that our students have the tools to succeed – both academically and vocationally – in today’s rapidly globalizing economy.  And yet, far too often, I hear from families and educators in my district about students who struggle in school simply because English is not their first language.

This is unfortunately due in part to Massachusetts’s current law that mandates one program type, known as Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), be used when teaching the Commonwealth’s English Language Learners (ELLs). While created with good intentions, this inflexible, English-only education policy has been unable to meet the diverse needs of our ELL students.

For some children, moving into an English-only program too soon can stunt academic growth and have major implications on future educational success. This has become an ever-growing problem, especially as the number of ELL students in Massachusetts continues to rise. Since the year 2000, the number of ELL students in Massachusetts has almost doubled, meaning that more and more students are at risk of being left behind.

As the ELL student population continues to grow, so does the achievement gap between them and their English as a first language peers; in 2015, only 64% of ELL students graduated from high school, as compared to 87% of all Massachusetts students. Of the 64% who graduated, only 34% enrolled in college, and 27% finished.

My colleagues and I in the Legislature have a duty to ensure that every child in this Commonwealth receives the high quality education that he or she deserves and is well prepared to participate in a 21st  century workforce. To do this, we must rethink the way we approach educating our English Language Learners. This is why I have filed legislation that would remove the mandate requiring Sheltered English Immersion as the sole ELL teaching model in Massachusetts to ensure that every student has a fair chance at educational success.

This bill, “An Act for Language Opportunities for our Kids,” also known as the LOOK bill, allows school districts the flexibility to determine which method is best suited to their students’ unique needs. For some districts, this could mean continuing with English-only programs, while for others, this may mean offering dual language instruction as an alternative to SEI. Whichever language acquisition program a school district chooses, this bill ensures that teachers and administrators are fully qualified and parents remain actively engaged along the way.

To prevent ELL children from being left behind, this bill requires greater tracking of students to evaluate how effective these programs are for each child and specifies that results for current and former ELL students be part of the holistic review each public school district receives from the state.

This legislation also recognizes that multilingualism is a valuable asset in today’s global economy, rather than a detriment to a child’s future success. Now, more than ever, universities and employers are seeking out students with foreign language skills, giving bilingual and multilingual students significant advantages over their peers. By establishing a State Seal of Biliteracy to recognize high school graduates who speak, read, and write in two languages, this bill celebrates the rich diversity ELL students bring to our Commonwealth and sends a message to employers and academic institutions that Massachusetts students are fully qualified to compete in a 21st century economy.

The reforms laid out in this legislation are not only the right thing to do; they are the smart thing to do. By allowing our schools to use programs that best serve the needs of their ELL students, we prevent the achievement gap from widening any further and safeguard Massachusetts’s standing as a national and global leader in academic achievement. By equipping our future workforce with the tools needed to participate in an increasingly interconnected and international economy, we ensure that Massachusetts remains competitive in a future job market. Most importantly, however, this bill ensures that each and every child in the Commonwealth has access to an equal education.

With this bill, my colleagues and I in the legislature have an opportunity to prevent any more students from falling through the cracks of a broken ELL education system. Recently, this legislation was reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Education, advancing to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. This is an important step in the right direction, but it is now time to finish our work.

This session, the Massachusetts Legislature should take action and pass the LOOK bill. The futures of thousands of Massachusetts students are depending on it.

Senator Sal DiDomenico is Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means and the lead Senate sponsor of “An Act for language opportunity for our kids.” He has represented the Middlesex and Suffolk District since 2010.

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