BOSTON — Fifteen years ago the question of how best to help bilingual students learn English while still succeeding in other subjects roiled Beacon Hill, culminating in a successful 2002 ballot question that established a policy of “English immersion” for Massachusetts — the idea that it’s better to immerse students in English to speed their proficiency.
This week, state lawmakers voted to largely roll back that approach, opting instead to give school districts a range of options for teaching students who are still learning English.
Educators and activists, many of whom had pushed for the new approach for years, hailed the bill, which now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who said he’s reviewing the legislation.
One of the biggest changes since the ballot question passed is the increase of bilingual students in the state’s public schools.
Since 2000, the number of so-called “English learners” in Massachusetts schools has doubled to more than 90,200 students. That’s about 9.5 percent of the entire student population. About 90 percent of all school districts have at least one English learner.
And while the statewide graduation rates for all students have risen over the past decade, the achievement gap between English-learning students and their peers has persisted.
Another change is the state’s economy, which is increasingly intertwined with the global economy where literacy in two or more languages is a clear benefit for graduating students.
Under the bill approved Wednesday, schools can continue to use the English immersion model or adopt other programs to meet the language and educational needs of students.
This bill is also designed to give parents more of a voice by increasing their involvement and letting them to choose programs that best meet their children’s needs.
Under the bill, school districts that serve significant numbers of English-learning students (100 or more students, or at least 5 percent of the student population) would be required to establish English learner parent advisory councils and consider new programs that are requested by the parents of at least 20 students.
To help identify English-learning students, the bill requires greater tracking of academic performance and directs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop additional guidelines to help support school districts.
“SEAL OF BILITERACY”
The bill, which won unanimous support in the Massachusetts Senate and passed by a 155-1 vote in the House, also seeks to celebrate the virtues of literacy in more than one language by creating a Massachusetts “Seal of Biliteracy.”
The goal of the seal is to recognize that bilingualism is a valuable economic and academic advantage for students in a 21st century world where business and cultural opportunities increasingly span borders and languages.
Under the bill the seal would be awarded by school districts to students who have attained a high level of proficiency both in English and in one or more foreign languages.
A CHANGE TO “ONE SIZE FITS ALL”
The bill’s supporters say it’s an important change to a “one size fits all” approach that wasn’t working for all students.
Helen Solorzano, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages, said “teachers have long recognized that many English learners were falling through the cracks under the current system.”
The Massachusetts Teachers Association also pushed for the bill, saying it will give parents and school districts more flexibility.
MTA President Barbara Madeloni said the bill “respects the diversity of learners and their native languages and cultures” and is especially meaningful by giving parents more of a voice in advocating for the needs of their children.
Gov. Charlie Baker said his top priority is ensuring students become proficient in English “as quickly as is reasonably possible.”
“The most important element in this for us is for many — for tens of thousands of kids — the current program we have in place in Massachusetts is working extraordinarily well. For a bunch of other kids, clearly we have work to do,” Baker said Friday.
Baker hasn’t said if he plans to sign the bill.