No (English-Speaking) Child Left Behind

Why Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) is failing in Massachusetts

Alika Gillard, Managing Editor

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For 15 years, equating just over an entire primary and secondary education, Massachusetts has implemented and committed to Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) in public schools.

Question 2, the ballot measure that enacted SEI, was first introduced in 2002, restricting public education to English-only instruction and eliminating the prior efforts to embrace bilingualism. This ballot measure was approved effortlessly when 62 percent of respondents voted to replace the current state law providing for transitional bilingual education in public schools with a law requiring that, with limited exceptions, “all public school children must be taught English by being taught all subjects in English and being placed in English language classrooms.”

Now that a decade and a half has passed, it is evident that this law has failed to decrease the achievement gap between English Language Learning (ELL) students, due to the one-size-fits-all construction and the lack of effective instruction from teachers.

SEI is a method of teaching that integrates both language and content instruction, and is intended to last no more than one year. Within this year, ELL students are separated into a class with other ELL students to learn appropriate material for their age and grade, while developing and strengthening English skills.

Critics of the law argue that it takes somewhere between five to seven years to build academic fluency in a language, and that teachers have failed to provide adequate instruction for students in large, urban schools where the number of ELL students continues to rise. Proponents of Question 2 present the rhetoric that bilingual education impedes the English learning process of non-English speakers, which in turn complicates the learning process in the classroom. However, the contrary has been interpreted from research on ELL students–research on English-only education has shown that SEI does not improve the performance of ELL on standardized tests and even widens the achievement gap in some schools (source).

Despite the liberal associations of the state, Massachusetts remains one of the very few states in the nation that upholds a bilingual restriction, accompanied by much more conservative states, such as Arizona. Other Western states (Oregon, Colorado, California) have been successful in striking down English-only instruction laws that were formerly in place, but Massachusetts’ Question 2 law still prevails, though not without pushback.

Many have criticized the fact that campaigns for the SEI laws in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Massachusetts were led by a single man, Ron Unz, a lucrative software engineer and entrepreneur. The law has been challenged three times since its implementation, including the most recent effort to repeal it in August of this year.

Since English is the majority language, it is crucial for students to become fluent in it, as there are no federal regulations for requiring foreign language documents and alternatives. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 proposed strict laws on standardized testing, including language restriction on standardized tests, emphasizing the importance of students’ academic fluency in English.

Though only 15 years have passed since the bill was introduced, the number of ELL students in public schools has nearly doubled, bringing attention to this bill yet again. There are roughly 41 million Spanish-speakers in the United states, meaning that the nation contains the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, second only to Mexico. Not only is this bill becoming outdated as the national demographic evolves, it is detrimental to ESL students and widens the achievement gap that already exists in public school education.

Although there has been no proven success to this bill, one possible amendment would be to increase the program time to more than one year–in many schools, this is already the case, though the SEI program is constructed for a shorter amount of time. More importantly, the lingual composition of these classrooms is not ideal for ELL students. Instead of integrating them into a classroom with English speaking students, they are put in classrooms specifically for non-English speaking children. This may have been more effective for predominantly Spanish-speaking ELL students in Arizona, California, and Colorado, but Massachusetts has a different situation.

The main problem that has been addressed by policy makers is that the bill was derived from Unz’s former laws that are implemented in states where there is an overwhelming majority of ELL students who speak Spanish. Massachusetts offers unique challenges because a large proportion of  ELL students speak Portuguese, Cantonese, and other languages along with Spanish, creating unseen challenges for the teachers.

When considering federal law, there is no official language in the United States–it is within the discretion of the states to decide whether public schools will provide bilingual education or English-only education. The problem with Question 2 is that it treats bilingualism as a detriment or barrier to a student’s success, which research suggests is the opposite of the truth. Many psychological and neurological studies have shown that there are cognitive and developmental benefits to bilingualism, yet the American public school system has failed to embrace this evidence (NCBI).

Lawmakers and their constituents are faced with the uncomfortable reality that there is no single language that represents America. Laws such as Question 2 are rooted in the mindset that America is a monolinguistic nation and disregard the incredibly abundant and colorful languages spoken by our diverse population.