Voices of the Classroom Policymakers: Teachers Make Sense of an English-only Policy

Open Access
Bunten, Bridget Anne Conlon
Graduate Program:
Curriculum and Instruction
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 07, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Patrick Willard Shannon, Dissertation Advisor
  • Patrick Willard Shannon, Committee Chair
  • Gail Louise Boldt, Committee Member
  • Dr Youb Kim, Committee Member
  • Dana Lynn Mitra, Committee Member
  • educational policy
  • English-only policy
  • teacher sensemaking
  • bilingual education
ABSTRACT American public schools represent the cultural and linguistic diversification of the United States population. Teachers across the country are more and more likely to have students that represent various languages and cultures in their classrooms than ever before. Responsibility for the treatment of students is mediated by federal, state, and district laws and policies. In 2002, an English-only ballot initiative was passed in Massachusetts, reversing the pro-bilingual orientation of earlier federal efforts designed to welcome linguistic diversity in schools. The challenges from the new policy required teachers to reorient their approaches to language diversity and these students immediately after forty years of pro-bilingual policies. This study explores how teachers, through their role as policymakers characterize the responsibilities of schools to these children during an English-only era. A review of the literature on policy implementation and analysis, sensemaking theory, and individual and social notions of discourse provided a theoretical framework for this research. A case study approach guided this study, using a series of three, in-depth interviews with each of the five participants. Data analysis included coding and categorizing the data, while identifying the major themes that emerged. Participant responses over time were closely examined and developed into five major themes and several sub-themes. The major themes that emerged from the study were: time and curriculum, influence of biography, networks and divisions, contextual factors, and leadership. Through these themes, there is evidence of multiple discourses within and among the participants as they made sense of the English-only policy. Despite this diversity among themselves, the participants also used discourses to create categories and binary distinctions. Similar to the initial ballot initiative, the participants see the policy as either black or white with little to no middle ground. In reality, it is impossible to place the participants within the binary distinction that they have created because they existed somewhere between the two extremes depending on the context of our discussions. Their sensemaking process blurred the boundaries between the two sides of the English-only debate and has implications for policy research, teacher education, and professional development.