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 inlate 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. “The empirical evidence is showing a decline in graduation rates for English-language learners, and we are seeing a steady misidentification of ELLs.”
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.
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, aoversees all ELL policy.
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week