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US finds statewide problems in schools

Says English learners not adequately served

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 17, 2011

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At least 45,000 teachers in 275 school districts across Massachusetts lack adequate training to instruct students who speak limited English, potentially impeding thousands of the students from advancing academically, according to a US Justice Department investigation.

Detailing the problems in about 70 percent of the state’s school districts, including Boston, Worcester, and Holyoke, federal investigators leveled much of the blame on the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

They said that the state had failed to mandate specialized training for teachers who serve English-language learners and that the department’s policies and procedures are so outdated and ineffective that teachers can complete the training and still not be adequately prepared, according to a letter issued by the Justice Department in July.

State education leaders shared that letter with the Globe yesterday as they outlined plans to overhaul teacher training.

“The pervasiveness and the persistence of the problem in at least 275 districts statewide make plain that the source of the problem is not only at the district level but also the state level,’’ wrote Emily H. McCarthy, deputy chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, and Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the department would work during the next six months to develop new regulations, and they notified their agency’s board yesterday about the federal findings.

They said they have been taking steps toward revamping teacher training even before the Justice Department’s investigation began in April 2009. It was the education department’s own monitoring of individual districts that ultimately identified the 275 out of compliance.

“I want to make clear to the state board as well as the Department of Justice that we are very much committed to moving this agenda expeditiously,’’ Chester said in an interview. “Working with English-language learners requires specialized preparation in terms of being attuned to their needs - the fact their English skills are still developing. They might be great at math and thinking through science, but their ability to convey that understanding in English is limited.’’

It was unclear last night what consequences the state might face if it fails to bring its programs into compliance with federal civil rights laws. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

But in the letter - portions of which were redacted - McCarthy said the state appears to recognize the training procedures needed updating, and “we would like to work collaboratively’’ on developing adequate training and making it mandatory.

Across the state last year, schools taught more than 67,000 students who could not speak English fluently, an increase of more than 50 percent from a decade ago, making English-language learners one of the fastest-growing student populations in the state.

Schools have struggled to teach these students, whose standardized test scores and graduation rates are among the lowest in the state.

Many programs for English-language learners were thrown into disarray in 2002, after Massachusetts voters abolished widespread use of bilingual education, which allows students to learn subjects in their native tongue until they are nearly fluent in English. The new law stresses teaching all subjects in English, using a student’s native tongue sparingly.

The Justice Department’s investigation into the state’s training of teachers is the outgrowth of three smaller probes of the Boston, Somerville, and Worcester public school systems during the past three years that found wide-ranging deficiencies in the teaching those learning to speak English.

In each of those cases, the districts entered into settlements with the Justice Department to avoid litigation, promising to more accurately identify students for specialized instruction and to increase training of teachers, among other measures.

But in monitoring compliance, federal investigators grew concerned that districts were not training teachers fast enough and that the quality of instruction of fully-trained teachers appeared to be subpar.

In Boston, where a settlement was enacted last fall, 67 percent of teachers at the secondary level and 48 percent of teachers at the elementary level who teach English-language learners have not yet completed training, according to the Justice Department’s letter to the state.

Training rates were worse in Worcester, where a mere 16 percent of teachers received the training.

“These shortcomings in Boston and Worcester are the rule and not the exception, and our own recent experiences in [Boston public schools] reinforce the importance of affirmatively mandating . . . training,’’ McCarthy wrote.

The Justice Department said the state needs to better equip teachers with the skills to help students develop English vocabulary and reading comprehension and learn to more effectively communicate with students who have language barriers.

McCarthy faulted many of Boston’s teachers and their union for the low training rate because they know the state does not mandate the training.

Richard Stutman, the Boston teachers union president, said that teachers are committed to the training, noting that more than 1,000 have taken part in School Department sessions that were held at the union hall.

“Children come to school with different needs - English-language learners in particular - and we feel it’s our obligation and role as teachers to make the road as smooth as possible in closing the achievement gap.’’

The Boston schools superintendent, Carol R. Johnson, said last night the school district is working to get teachers trained and that many teachers have participated in training Saturdays without additional pay.

“We’ve trained over 2,200 teachers. . . . We expect to continue to do more training so we can finish all the training this school year,’’ Johnson said.

Contact James Vaznis at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeVaznis