By David Sheridan
When retired teacher Andrei Joseph testified before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education, the legislators listened.
“I spent most of my career at Concord-Carlisle High School, supported by affluent communities. The typical ELL student there was the son or daughter of a professional who had been hired from Germany or Japan by academia or a Massachusetts-based corporation. Most students could read and write in their first language and often had parents that spoke English.
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“My daughter, on the other hand, has spent the last ten years teaching ELL students first in Dorchester and now in Roxbury…Her ELL population has typically fled poverty and violence and not infrequently includes students who have no formal education whatsoever.
“One pedagogic approach does not fit all of these students,” Joseph added.
It’s hard to argue with that.
Now the legislature has passed and the governor had signed a law that overturns the ban on bilingual education and gives school districts the flexibility to implement English Language Learner programs that best meet the needs of their students.
The old law drove many bilingual and bicultural educators out of public schools, and left many students behind by requiring that they be taught in English-only classrooms. It limited most districts to one kind of instruction—Sheltered English Immersion.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) played a major role in pushing through the new Language Opportunity for Our Kids Act by joining forces with the Massachusetts Educators of English Language Learners, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education.
“This new law respects the diversity of learners and their native languages and cultures,” says MTA President Barbara Madeloni. “It is especially meaningful that parents will have more voice in advocating for the needs of the children.”
“I am very proud of my union for supporting this new law,” says Andrei Joseph.
English Language Learners are the fastest growing population in the states’ public schools.
Massachusetts’ Sheltered English Immersion mandate was the result of the passage of a 2002 ballot initiative proposed by Ron Unz, a California millionaire and anti-bilingual-educator crusader. As education professors Claude Goldenberg and Kirstin Wagner have noted: “Resistance to bilingual education is sometimes rooted in xenophobia and ethnic prejudice… and peaks during periods of increased immigration.”
By overturning its ban on bilingual education, Massachusetts joins a number of other states, including California, who have opted for more flexibility in teaching ELL students. In 2000, 40 states prohibited or severely limited bilingual education. Thanks to the efforts of educators and their organizations, today only two states—Arizona and New Hampshire—have laws constraining the use of bilingual education programs; and nine states require “English-Only” instruction in their language instruction for ELL students—Alabama; Arkansas; Hawaii; Missouri; New Hampshire; North Dakota; West Virginia; South Carolina, and Vermont.