SEI Leaves English Language Learners Behind

In 2016, I put the Fog of Policy on temporary hiatus to go back to school. I’ve spent the last two years in the classroom, both as a teacher and as a student. The endeavor has been equal parts exhausting and exhilarating – and I’ve accumulated a lot to unpack. True to form, for me, unpacking means writing.

Over the next few months, I’m going to return to my experiences in the classroom and try to understand and explain some of what I’ve both learned and unlearned about education in America. Part of that process will be deeply personal: I’ve had the significant privilege of teaching students in the same community in which I grew up and in which I went to school. It’s brought up a lot of feelings and a few insights.

Here we go.

I’m going to start by quoting Hayek,

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

Hayek’s argument was elegant: in any complex system, local conditions matter greatly for how a policy plays out, which in turn makes central planning difficult if not impossible.

For Hayek, there were two main problems. One is the challenge of oversight. How do large organizations, be they public or private, ensure that policies are carried out with fidelity? The second problem was, at least for Hayek, bigger: past a certain size, the set of local conditions is so heterogenous that no central planner can ever hope to gather or synthesize all of the relevant information.

The risk here isn’t just that centrally planned policies can fail, it’s also that they don’t fail completely. Oversight does happen and the compliance burden on local actors can be significant, it’s just that the burden doesn’t lead to the imagined results.

I present that theoretical scaffold in order to explain the failure of Massachusetts’ preferred approach to teaching and integrating English Language Learners (i.e. students coming from a language background other than English). That policy is called Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) and it is the product of two competing forces.

The first is a body of case law and common sense that indicates that society benefits when all students are afforded an opportunity to learn in the classroom and that for students who do not speak, read, or write the language of instruction with as much facility as their peers, a special set of supports is required.

The second force is the echoes of a political maelstrom in the Bay State that resulted from a voter-initiative in 2002 that banned, except under specific circumstances and only for a transitional period of one year, the use of languages other than English in the classroom. As written, the law violated both pedagogical and legal principles.

Sheltered English Immersion was the state’s effort to square the circle: a set of practices designed to help students learn in a language they may have had minimal exposure to, oftentimes in a country with strange rules and customs.

A lot could be written about the success, or lack thereof, of SEI in the commonwealth – and there are questions about how a policy that was so poorly designed and implemented did not receive closer review from the courts and federal regulators – though a 2010 consent decree involving Boston Public Schools did find that the district had violated it’s legal requirement to provide English Language Learners with appropriate services.

Over the last two years working with such students in a school that practices SEI, and in my conversations with other educators and my observations of other schools and classrooms, the thing that has most surprised me has not been how well or poorly SEI works, but rather how little of it there actually is.

In the academic literature, isomorphic decoupling refers to the tendency of organizations to adopt structures without adopting practices. Hayek might have called it the revenge of local conditions. Forced to operate within a set of constraints that make little sense and with little understanding of what students actually need, teachers without a specialty in supporting English Language Learners and administrators more interested in whole-school assessment criteria (i.e. test scores) respond in an expected and rational way: they massage the requirements enough to skid over a compliance line that no one is very interested in enforcing.

In the classroom, the payoff is that students who are nominally receiving specific support for their language learning needs under the rubric of SEI are actually not receiving anything that distinguishes them from what other students are receiving. In other words, they are not receiving the special set of targeted supports that American jurisprudence has clearly established they’re entitled to.

Since I’ve already quoted Hayek, I might as well reappropriate a metaphor attributed to his nemesis, John Maynard Keynes: when it comes to improving education for English Language Learners, policy makers trying to build instructional policy from the top are mostly pushing on a rope.

A lot energy, not a lot of propagation.

In recognition that the current approach isn’t working, legislators in MA have recently passed a bill intended to revamp how English Language Learners receive instruction. The LOOK Bill’s central premise is that decision making should be pushed out to more local actors, who would have the ability to implement language programs other than SEI.

Undoubtably that’s a step in the right direction, but the likeliest outcome is that the local condition that will most matter wont be the ability to better gauge and respond to student need but rather the lack of political will and resources to actually do so. 

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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