News stories

Devil in the details

State changes to English language learner instruction spark uproar among teachers

UFT English language learner specialist Christine Rowland (standing, left) and U Cara Metz UFT English language learner specialist Christine Rowland (standing, left) and UFT Vice President Evelyn DeJesus (standing, right) lead a Dec. 10 focus group meeting at UFT headquarters on the changes to English language learners’ instruction.
The new state regulations elevate transitional-bilingual and dual-language instr

The new state regulations elevate transitional-bilingual and dual-language instruction as viable options.

What the new regulations mandate

The new Commissioner’s Regulations for English language learners, referred to as Part 154, call for an overhaul of the way English language learners’ needs are assessed and how they are matched to appropriate programs and services.

Previously, most English language learners were grouped in stand-alone ESL classes. The new regulations promote an integrated model in which students receive English language support in a content setting, whether ELA or another core subject. That integrated model requires a dually certified teacher or co-teachers.

The new regulations also elevate transitional-bilingual and dual-language instruction as viable options, though those programs — while expanding — are still not available in most New York City schools. Parents must now be consulted and involved in deciding which program their child attends. And the new regulations require more teacher professional development tailored to serving English language learners.

Among the changes:

  • Only “entering” and “emerging” students can now be served through stand-alone English as a New Language instruction; and there is a limit on how many minutes of that stand-alone instruction they can receive;
  • More advanced English language learners (“transitioning” and “expanding”) must get half or all their English and core-subject instruction in an integrated setting — with a dually certified teacher or with one ENL and one content-area teacher;
  • English language learners who test proficient in English (“commanding”) must now get 90 minutes per week of integrated English as a New Language instruction for two more years after testing proficient;
  • Students from three or more grade levels cannot be grouped together except in special education settings;
  • For all teachers with professional certification, 15 percent of the 175-hour professional development requirement must address English language learner instruction. For bilingual and ENL teachers with professional certification, it is 50 percent of the 175-hour requirement; and
  • School staff must meet with parents of English language learners once a year in addition to parent-teacher conferences.

The State Education Department this year introduced needed changes to English language learner instruction that promised more instructional choices, stricter oversight and better parent communications. The new approach hinges on keeping English language learners in classroom settings where English language instruction is integrated with content instruction as much as possible. But the devil was in the details.

The well-intended revisions to Commissioner’s Regulations Part 154 governing English language learners were introduced wholesale with little advance planning, upending programming and overburdening schools and teachers.

Teachers licensed in English as a Second Language (now renamed English as a New Language or ENL) and those with bilingual or dual certifications are shortage areas as it is. Under the new regulations, these teachers suddenly faced big increases in the number of students they teach and new restrictions on how they can teach them.

“The new changes have been an impediment and not a blessing for us,” UFT Vice President Evelyn DeJesus told teachers of English language learners gathered for a workshop at the UFT’s Queens borough office on Dec. 3. “Even well-functioning programs have been torn apart.”

More push, less pull

The revised regulations [see “What the new regulations mandate” at right] say that only beginning and “low intermediate” students can be pulled out by an English as a New Language teacher for stand-alone instruction, while more advanced students must be served only in integrated classrooms with a dually certified teacher or co-teachers.

For Darshani Singh, a first-year ENL teacher at PS/IS 268 in Queens, that means she cannot pull out English language learners and teach them as a single class. Instead, she must go into 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade classes four times per week each, plus provide English language instruction to students in the elementary grades in different classes.

ENL teacher Dina Mitides, whose school, IS 61 in Queens, has 700 English language learners, said she has to keep up with the social studies and ELA lessons of all the teachers in her school of 2,200, plus do her own lesson planning. “I am running up and down the stairs,” she said. “I’ve been teaching 16 years and this is the most challenging one yet.”

The effect is dispiriting. Malgorzata Trojner-Lancut, an ENL teacher at PS 9 in the Bronx, says she no longer feels like a professional since she is now required to push into other teachers’ classes. “Our certification is being taken away, erased as if it’s not important,” she said.

No logic to it

The new restriction on how much time a beginning or intermediate English language learner spends in a stand-alone class has “no logic, rhyme or reason to it,” according to Arthur Goldstein, a dually certified ENL and ELA teacher at Francis Lewis HS in Queens. He said his students need that direct language instruction. “It’s just so vital to understand how the language works and have a safe space to practice it,” he said.

The new Part 154 regulations also require that students testing proficient in English (“commanding,” in the new parlance) get 90 minutes a week of classroom services with a dually certified teacher or in a two-teacher classroom for another two years. An elementary school teacher at the Queens meeting who is the only certified bilingual provider in her school said that new mandate added 10 to 15 students to her roster in the 5th grade alone.

High school teachers say the new provision that students from more than two “contiguous” grades cannot be grouped together for instruction is causing programming problems. Students from three or four grades can be grouped for any other high school course, notes UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds. “It feels like an arbitrary restriction.”

Taking action

Teachers say that even with creative programming their schools simply cannot fulfill all the new mandates. “I’m telling you, the whole city is out of compliance,” said DeJesus. “It’s like the Wild West out there.”

The UFT is stepping in to help. DeJesus and UFT English language learner specialist Christine Rowland are calling meetings and canvassing ENL and bilingual teachers to get a detailed picture of the problems. A focus group on Dec. 10 at UFT headquarters started working on proposed solutions.

The UFT leaders said the goal is to develop a more thoughtful, pragmatic approach to addressing the pressing needs of New York City’s English language learners.

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