Total Immersion: Assessing English-Only Education In Massachusetts

By Andrea Smardon

June 13, 2011

Massachusetts voters decided in 2002 that public school teachers could not speak any language other than English in their classrooms for extended periods of time. This week, WGBH’s Andrea Smardon investigates the impact of the ballot measure known as Question 2. In today’s story, we look at how the law came to displace the bilingual approach used for decades in schools, and how that change affects students across the state.

Spelling charts hang in a second-grade classroom at the Paul A. Dever School in Dorchester. The classroom is part of a dual-language program the school uses — allowed under the English Immersion law — that we'll look at later this week. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

BOSTON — Rosalie Porter was all for bilingual education when she started teaching a predominantly Puerto Rican population in Springfield. She emigrated from Italy to the U.S. when she was six years old, and knew firsthand the struggles of trying to learn when you don’t speak the language. She thought a bilingual approach, where the teacher is able to speak to the children in their native language, would be helpful.
“But as a teacher, I discovered that it didn’t work well in practice. My problem with that idea is it segregated our students from the English-speaking children far too long. So I began to look around for better ideas,” Porter said.
So Porter began exploring the idea of English Immersion. In her next job, as the Director of Bilingual and ESL Programs for the city of Newton, she ordered schools to teach students mostly in English, using a minimal amount of their native language.
“We found within two years, most students had learned enough English not to need a special program. They were in regular classroom with other kids,” Porter said.
Porter felt the program was so successful, she wanted to expand it statewide, but that required changing state law. She testified at the State House, but no bill altering bilingual education ever made it past committee. Finally, Porter took the idea to voters. She joined forces with former businessman Ron Unz — who successfully passed an English-only law in California. Unz traveled around Massachusetts, talking about the dramatic improvements seen in California schools.
At a debate at Harvard, Unz cited statistics showing average test scores of over one million immigrant students had gone up by 50 percent in less than three years.
“The war is over, or it should be over if academics were willing to look at the reality of the world rather than their own research,” Unz said.
Massachusetts voters went for it. They approved the ballot measure by an overwhelming majority of 68 percent.
But now, almost ten years later, did Question 2 do all that it promised to do?

Vocabulary words hang in a second-grade classroom at the Paul A. Dever School in Dorchester. The classroom is part of a dual-language program the school uses — allowed under the English Immersion law — that we'll look at later this week. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Assessing Question 2
Gabriel Maldondo says English Immersion worked for him. He moved to Somerville from El Salvador five years ago, and says he didn’t understand a word on his first day at Winter Hill Junior High.
“To be honest, nothing. I was like, what are they talking about? If there is someone that can help me, I would be really pleased,” Maldondo recalled.
Maldonado was given one period of help learning English every day. And all other classes were taught in English. By the time he was a sophomore, he was transitioned fully into General Ed. He just graduated from Somerville High School in the National Honors Society.
“Now I feel it was a great experience,” Maldondo said. “I think it’s the best way to approach for new people in this country, speaking English, so you can get used to it.”
But statistics suggest that Maldonado’s experience is not the norm. According to a report from a UMass Boston research institute, only 20 percent of English Language Learners in Massachusetts achieve at grade level on the MCAS after five years in an English Immersion program.  UMass Professor Miren Uriarte says Question 2 has not narrowed the achievement gap between English Language Learners and other students. In fact, she says, it may have had some detrimental effects.
“It depends on what side of the coin you’re looking at. We’ve had a lot of kids that never made it, that have dropped out. To me that is worrisome,” Uriarte said.
Uriarte found a slight rise in MCAS scores, but that the dropout rate doubled statewide, and tripled in some parts of Boston among English Language Learners in three years after the passage of Question 2.
“What was happening is that children were showing up in community-based organizations to take ESL classes and Adult Basic Education. And parents were very concerned about the numbers of English Language Learners that were dropping out,” Uriarte said.
But Uriarte says she can’t say for sure if dropout rates are tied to Question 2. In fact, she says, it is difficult to draw conclusions because the state hasn’t provided the data.
“We had a major policy change in policy 2002, that has yet to be evaluated at the state level. There has not been a statewide assessment of the impact of Question 2,” Uriarte said.
Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester concedes that’s true, but says the department is tracking how English Language Learners are performing in school and on state exams.
“When I look at the trend data that’s available to me prior to 2002 and since 2002, it’s not at all clear to me that there’s been a major change in a positive or negative direction,” Chester said.
Rosalie Porter says that’s not good enough.
“There can not be a judgment on this unless you have a good study that will chart the progress of children. It’s my understanding that most of the districts in this state have put in English Immersion programs, but we don’t have a clear idea of how they’re working.  Our students deserve better,” Porter said.
Commissioner Chester says the state has no plans to do an assessment of the impact of Question 2.

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