Majority of panel resign over Boston School plan for English language learners

Eight members of a Boston Public Schools task force on English learners resigned in protest Tuesday over what they call a plan to move students from specialized “strands” into general-education classrooms in the coming years.

In a public statement, those departing from the 14-member task force said the plan ignores substantial scientific research on language learning, which “clearly points to the use of students’ native language for instruction, alongside support for learning English, as the standard for best practice.”

They also argued that the district is missing a unique opportunity to develop a more effective model for inclusive, multilingual learning in its schools.

“They have given up trying — that’s what’s disappointing,” said resigning member Miren Uriarte in an interview.

The school district disputes that characterization. In a statement sent Tuesday, district spokesperson Max Baker wrote that, under the “long-overdue” changes, “multilingual students [will still] have access to native language services … while also engaging in learning alongside their peers.”

In an Oct. 12 letter to the chairs of the task force, BPS Senior Deputy Superintendent for academics Linda Chen wrote that separate “language-specific” classrooms can leave English learners feeling “isolated,” and that state and federal authorities are pushing the district to include English learners more fully in classes with “their English-speaking peers.”

That implication worries Uriarte, who studied bilingual education at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Increased exposure to English, with less time in language-specific classrooms, may work well for the youngest children, she said.

“But I’m thinking of a ninth grader coming into Boston for the first time and having to learn science, history, social sciences in English," Uriarte asked. "How long do you think that child is going to [remain] in school?”

Under Massachusetts state law, English learners are those students deemed “not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English.” In the last school year, students bearing that label made up nearly a third of Boston’s overall enrollment.

Their academic and linguistic growth has been slow in Boston and beyond. Part of BPS's argument for the change is the fact that about a quarter of its English learners have been classified as such for at least six years, and that — in Baker's phrase — "the status quo is not working for our multilingual learners."

Uriarte doesn't deny the need for change, but promotes a very different approach.

In a 2011 study, she and her co-authors found that at Boston's best-performing schools, “large proportions of the staff … could speak [English learners’] native languages.” They recommended that the district hire educators who specialize in teaching English and are themselves bilingual or multilingual.

To her and others, the district’s new “inclusion plan” seems to go in the opposite direction.

Researcher Rosann Tung, who also resigned Tuesday, also worked on that 2011 study.

“We know that the best way for children to learn English and academic content is with the use of the native language,” Tung said. “Many, many researchers and meta-studies have shown this. To me, it’s hard to understand why they’re going against best practices.”

Tung and Uriarte were seconded by John Mudd, a longtime advocate in the district and another resigning member of the task force.

Mudd pointed to an “elegant graph” based on longitudinal research by researchers Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas at George Mason University. That graph suggests that English learners perform best over time under “two-way dual-language immersion,” in which students split the day between English and their home language.

Tung acknowledged that under the new plan, the district proposes to maintain and even expand multilingual programming, including dual-language learning. But she added that at present, only around 4% to 7% of BPS students are educated within that model, and that it doesn’t “reach the vast majority of English learners” in Boston.

All three departing members invoked Massachusetts’ troubled history with multilingual learners. Mudd pointed to the troubled era of “sheltered English immersion” as enforced by Question 2, a controversial 2002 ballot measure.

The relatively slow progress of English learners under that system led to the passage of the LOOK Act in 2017, which freed districts up to implement other models of multilingual education.

The resigning members said they had served on the task force for years in the hopes that Boston would embrace that opportunity.

Instead, Mudd argued, it seems as if the district has turned its back.

“Boston institutionalized Question 2, in its materials, in its hiring practices,” he said. “And it’s very tricky to break out of that.”


Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live