English immersion, educational exclusion

By Michelle Chen Apr 15, 2009

How long does it take to make a child give up on school? Since the 2003 academic year, Boston has pushed public school students with limited English ability—who speak everything from Cantonese to Haitian Creole—into “Sheltered English Immersion” programs. The initiative, the result of a 2002 referendum, was emphasized English as the language of instruction, in contrast to traditional bilingual education that teaches students in their native language. About five years on, an analysis by the Mauricio Gaston Institute at U-Mass Boston gives the new programs poor marks:

The study found that high school drop-out rates among students in programs for English Learners almost doubled and that the proportion of English Learners in middle school who dropped out more than tripled in those three years. Finally, although there have been some gains for English Learners in both [English and math test] pass rates in 4th and 8th grade, gains for English Learners have not matched those of other groups and as a result gaps between English Learners and other [Boston Public Schools] populations have widened.

From an individual standpoint, in the years following the policy shift, an immigrant youth’s education in Boston might have looked something like this: When you arrived in the United States, you were placed in a class where you studied English alongside other subjects taught in your native language. Months later, you found yourself tongue-tied as you struggled with basic assignments, all in English, with minimal help from your teachers. Your parents, who had even more trouble with the language, knew little about your teachers or your school work. In 10th grade, you, like the majority of kids in your program, flunked the standardized English and math tests. Today, your teacher says you have to repeat your grade in order to graduate. And you’re wondering whether it would be wiser to just stop coming to class, as many of your English learner peers did. The education of immigrant youth has always posed obstacles for teachers, policymakers and students themselves, and the expansion of high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind has further narrowed options for designing real solutions. So far, the shoddy report card of Boston’s English immersion scheme doesn’t answer the question of which pedagogical approach is best. It simply underscores that although immigrant children are at least as diverse in needs and abilities as any other group, schools keep trying, and failing, to fit them into one box. Image: A student at Boston’s Mather School. (Christopher Powers / Education Week)