Last November, Massachusetts voters resoundingly approved a law that made major changes to the state’s bilingual education programs. The law effectively replaced bilingual education with structured English immersion classes that teach children mostly in English. Another important provision required all teaching personnel responsible for teaching children English to be fluent in the language themselves.
As school districts prepare to comply with the law for the new school year, this sensible change is proving problematic for a troubling number of teachers. More than two-dozen teachers were dismissed this month from the Lowell Public Schools for failing to meet the English-fluency requirement. Five Somerville teachers were fired for failing the same requirement. And 20 Lawrence teachers were placed on unpaid leave for one year after failing an oral English fluency test, while their district pays for some of them to attend English classes. Several have filed discrimination complaints and threatened to sue.
The fluency requirement had actually been passed previously by the state legislature in a law, signed by the Governor last summer, that was widely viewed as an effort to prevent the referendum from gaining momentum.
The Lowell Public Schools, where the problems seemed most significant, have demonstrated serious problems in the past. A 2001 study reviewed grant data filed by the district with the federal Department of Education. It found the rate at which English Learners transitioned to English fluency to be extremely low, reaching a high point of only 15 percent in the 1999-2000 school year. Even these students compared extremely poorly with mainstream students, and according to one official report filed by the district, “even the highest-performing 26 percent of the bilingual elementary students classified as Competent English Readers and Writers would be the lowest-performing students in standard curriculum classes.”
Many Massachusetts school districts have chosen to use an oral English fluency exam recommended by the state Department of Education. This only partially satisfies the earlier law’s requirement that explicitly mandates that teachers demonstrate both oral and written English proficiency. Further, state rules allow administrators in each district to decide which teachers must take the test. According to a report published in the Lowell Sun, teachers there with at least six years experience teaching in mainstream classes were exempted from taking the fluency test.
The coming months will likely bring numerous additional reform hurdles, based upon the experiences in California and Arizona where voters approved similar laws. Meanwhile, the federal No Child Left Behind Act will bring additional improvements focused on improving English fluency. For Massachusetts’ growing population of English learners, however, the changes cannot happen soon enough.
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