Federal

Ariz. ELL Dispute Continues, Despite Federal Ruling

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 14, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Disputes over Arizona’s approach to educating English-language learners show few signs of abating as the plaintiffs in a 2-decade-old lawsuit continue to challenge the state’s requirement that such students spend more than half their school day learning English, with little access to other academic content.

Plaintiffs in Flores v. Arizona late last month appealed a federal judge’s March ruling that the state’s required language program—which keeps ELLs separate from their non-ELL peers for four hours a day of English instruction—does not violate federal civil rights laws.

The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which represents the plaintiffs, strongly disputes that, arguing that English-learners are essentially segregated from their peers and are denied access to core academic content, making it impossible for many to catch up. The plaintiffs, as well as some academic researchers, say the four-hour instructional bloc harms English-learners, especially those at the high school level who have little time to take the credit-bearing courses they need to graduate.

“There is a wide gap between what the court finds to be theoretically sound for English-learners and what researchers find,” said Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos, an assistant professor of education at Arizona State University, in Phoenix, who co-authored a recent report on the state of ELL education in Arizona. “The empirical evidence is showing a decline in graduation rates for English-language learners, and we are seeing a steady misidentification of ELLs.”

‘Wrong Medicine’?

But John Huppenthal, Arizona’s superintendent of schools, said that the language program for ELLs is proving successful and that the center’s recent appeal will only impede progress for English-learners.

“This lawsuit is exactly the wrong medicine right now,” said Mr. Huppenthal. “It sends out toxic signals to districts.”

Mr. Huppenthal and supporters of the state’s four-hour instructional model say it allows ELLs to focus on learning English so they can then be successful in learning academic content.

“It’s so clear to me that what we are doing is correct and that the results, when this is implemented with fidelity, are outstanding,” he added.

The superintendent said Arizona leads the nation in its rates of re

classifying English-learners as proficient and he credits the four-hour language-instruction bloc as the main reason for that. (Arizona’s reclassification rates, however, caught the attention of federal civil rights investigators who found that students were being removed from ELL programs too quickly. Last year, the state agreed to track down tens of thousands of such students and provide them supplemental language instruction.)

But critics of the approach say it deprives ELLs—especially those who may spend years in the language program—access to core curriculum. They also argue, as many language-acquisition experts do, that instruction in language and academic content should be done simultaneously.

Tim Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and the long-time lawyer for the Flores plaintiffs, said most ELLs spend between three and four years in the language program, a “very long time to be denied access to the regular curriculum.

“And that’s only going to get worse,” he added, noting that the state, in its agreement with federal civil rights officials, must toughen its assessment criteria for determining when a student has reached proficiency and no longer needs services.

Case History

When the Flores lawsuit was filed 21 years ago by parents in the Nogales school district, the case focused largely on Arizona’s funding levels for English-learners. It ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, when, in a 5-4 decision, the justices largely sided with the state and remanded the case back to a U.S. district court to consider changes made to programs for English-learners since the original filing.

Central to that review was the four-hour instructional model that the state mandated in 2008, eight years after Arizona voters approved an English-only ballot initiative that restricted the types of programs educators could use to teach English-learners.

As the long-running Flores case moves into its third decade, scholars like Mr. Jiménez-Castellanos say achievement gaps between Arizona ELLs and their English-speaking peers are likely to grow in the common-core era.

“We aren’t producing the results for English-learners now with the current Arizona standards, which are among the lowest, so how can we possibly expect that to be any different with the new, more rigorous standards?” he said. Mr. Huppenthal believes the four-hour bloc, with “polishing” to allow more content to be taught during that period, will ensure that ELLs succeed under the new standards.

Just how the long-running controversies over ELL education in Arizona get resolved will depend more on political and demographic change driven by the state’s large and growing Hispanic population, than on the litigation, said Mr. Hogan.

One proposed change under consideration in the Arizona legislature is shifting authority over English-learner policy back to the state board of education. Currently, a task force made up of legislative and gubernatorial appointees oversees all ELL policy.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind
Student Achievement K-12 Essentials Forum Tutoring Done Right: How to Get the Highest Impact for Learning Recovery
Join us as we highlight and discuss the evidence base for tutoring, best practices, and different ways to provide it at scale.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Q&A Boosting 'Pathetically Low' Teacher Pay Is Top of Mind for Bernie Sanders
The progressive senator from Vermont spoke with Education Week as he prepares to chair the Senate's education committee.
6 min read
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, in late January.
Susan Walsh/AP
Federal What’s Behind the Push for a $60K Base Teacher Salary
When reintroduced in Congress, a bill to raise teacher salaries will include money to account for regional cost differences.
5 min read
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Jason Redmond/AP
Federal Teachers Shouldn't Have to Drive Ubers on the Side, Education Secretary Says
In a speech on priorities for the year, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said teachers should be paid competitive salaries.
5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal A Chaotic Start to a New Congress: What Educators Need to Know
A new slate of lawmakers will have the chance to influence federal education policy in the 118th Congress.
4 min read
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the House floor after the first vote for House Speaker when he did not receive enough votes to be elected during opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Jan 3, 2023, in Washington.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3 following the first round of voting for House Speaker. McCarthy fell short of enough votes to be elected speaker in three rounds of voting on opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
Andrew Harnik/AP