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Why we resigned from the Boston School Committee’s English Learners Task Force

We leave pained but unable to endorse the compromised direction that Boston Public Schools has chosen. The current plan is incomprehensible in its ignorance of what constitutes optimal educational practice.

Four-year-olds at Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan learn in both English and Haitian Creole on Nov. 18, 2022.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

On Tuesday, eight members of the Boston School Committee-appointed English Learners Task Force, including us, resigned in protest of the direction that Boston Public Schools is taking with the education of English learners. Our perspective into this issue is somewhat unique. In 2008 we documented the impact of English-only educational policies first implemented in BPS in 2003-04 after the passage of Question 2, which ended bilingual education in Massachusetts. Community leaders had asked us to examine why increasing numbers of English learners were enrolling in community-based programs after dropping out of school in Boston.

We confirmed their suspicions that large numbers of students learning the English language, including middle schoolers, were dropping out of Boston schools. We documented wide disparities in outcomes for those in general education when compared to those in programs for English learners, including lower MCAS scores and higher dropout rates. Students in programs that used their primary language in instruction, such as dual language programs, showed the strongest outcomes. In schools successful with ELs, leaders were themselves English learners, bilingual, and had hired educators who shared the language and culture of the school’s students.


Research has shown that both English acquisition and grade level mastery are best achieved when students are able to understand the content being taught. Acquiring academic English is a multifaceted process that takes from five to seven years and greatly depends on the student’s age and prior schooling in the student’s own language. In the meantime, students need support in their own language to master core academic subjects. This can be accomplished through additive approaches such as dual language programs or through transitional approaches such as transitional bilingual education. In its guidance for programs for English learners, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stated in June 2023 that programs with instruction in primary languages have the best outcomes in English achievement. There is agreement though that immersion programs that place students in situations where they are not able to comprehend their teachers and the work of the classroom and receive minimal support in their own language are inferior.

Yet at the Oct. 18 Boston School Committee meeting, district leadership shared the Inclusive Education Plan submitted to DESE. It proposed moving all English learning students, including new ELs and ELs with disabilities, to general education settings where all lessons are taught only in English. After a brief stay in ill-defined “newcomer programs,” most new English learning students will be expected to learn content such as history or science with only sporadic English as a second language support offered by teachers who speak only English.


The education of English learners in Boston requires profound changes. These students make up one-third of the district’s enrollment and current programs are not preparing more than 90 percent of them to achieve at passing levels or graduate ready for college and career. But we know from BPS’s past that the plan to place new English learners in general education will result in a lack of access to learning, reduced English language development, and a dramatic rise in the dropout rate, especially among older students who will encounter middle and high school curricula without understanding English.


The 2017 LOOK Act provided districts with the opportunity to expand programs consistent with best educational practices. BPS has done little to avail its students of this opportunity. We hoped that with time the district would move toward more appropriate education for English learners and we support its efforts to expand dual language programs. But BPS remains a largely English-only environment for the 93 percent of English learners who do not enroll in dual language. The inadequacy of English-only education is glaringly evident in the current outcomes for ELs in Boston.

The English Learners Task Force has consistently offered evidence-based, actionable recommendations that would foster a language learning approach that is additive and aligned with the district’s goal of biliteracy. Our recommendations have included appointing a visionary experienced leader for the Office of Multilingual and Multicultural Education, using census-informed enrollment projections to determine where bilingual programs should be placed, and replacing retiring educators with language-proficient teachers. We have also strongly recommended that current Sheltered English Immersion programs be converted into Transitional Bilingual Education, blending content requiring primary language instruction with general education offerings such as art, sports, and career and technical education that educate ELs alongside their monolingual peers.

A good plan for the education of English learners requires that English-learner needs be closer to the center of BPS’s planning — in hiring, in student assignment, and in program development.

We leave the task force pained but unable to endorse the compromised direction that BPS has chosen. The current plan ignores optimal educational practice, and most educators know it will prove detrimental to children’s education. As the lead authors of the studies about the aftermath of Question 2 in BPS, we are alarmed by how Boston is poised to double down on approaches that proved so harmful to English learning students. Even if the district continues on this path of subtractive language learning policy, we pledge our continued efforts to change the narrative about ELs through our research and advocacy.


Miren Uriarte is professor emeritus of human services, the founding director of the Mauricio Gaston Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and a former member of the Boston School Committee. Rosann Tung led research and policy teams at New York University’s Metro Center, Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, and the Center for Collaborative Education. Both are parents of BPS alumni.