Arizona Ed. Officials Weigh In on Teachers’ Fluency Issue

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 26, 2010 3 min read
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Despite what has been reported in the Wall Street Journal, Arizona department of education officials deny asking districts to remove any teachers who lack English fluency from classrooms with English-language learners.

Adela Santa Cruz, the deputy associate superintendent for the Arizona department of education, told me yesterday in a phone interview that Wall Street Journal reporter Miriam Jordan “misinterpreted” and “misquoted” what she and other state education officials said about the English fluency of teachers in the state. I asked Jordan in an e-mail message yesterday to respond to that charge and I haven’t gotten a reply from her.

“At no time did we say, you have to remove them and put them somewhere else,” Santa Cruz told me in a phone interview. “We did have the authority to say to the administrators at the local level that they needed to look at the fluency of the teachers and assist them.”

The state’s superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, said on CNN this week that state officials aren’t going after teachers because of their accents, as the Wall Street Journal suggested. Rather, they’re concerned about teachers with “faulty English,” he said. For example, it could be a problem for a student, he told CNN, if a teacher pronounced “comma” as “coma.”

I asked Santa Cruz if Horne’s example wasn’t, in fact, an illustration of an accent issue. She said it is an example that came from an actual classroom and she echoed Horne’s concerns that it is a case where a pronunciation issue becomes a grammar issue and could be a problem for ELLs to learn English. I couldn’t pin her down anymore than that.

I asked state education officials this week for anything they have in writing about their policies concerning the English fluency of teachers. Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for the department, sent me a copy of the protocol that state officials use to monitor teachers in classrooms with English-language learners, which includes a section called “Federal Compliance: Teacher Fluency.” In that section, monitors are asked to determine whether the teachers use “accurate grammar” or “accurate pronunciation.” If they conclude the teachers make grammar or pronunciation errors, the protocol requires that they provide “documentation” to support the observation, such as specific examples.

Rezzonico also attached a paragraph from the No Child Left Behind Act that says school districts receiving federal funds for English-language-acquisition programs should ensure that teachers of ELLs are fluent in English or any other language used for instruction, including their written and oral communication skills.

She said that during the 2008-09 school year, state education officials monitored 73 districts and cited seven for “fluency problems.” She said 25 teachers out of 1,529 were found to have “pronunciation issues.” During the 2009-10 school year, state officials found that nine out of 61 districts had fluency problems.

The districts had to submit plans to correct any problems, Rezzonico said. None said they would remove teachers but rather that professional development would be provided to ensure teachers were highly qualified.

The Wall Street Journal reported that state education officials had recently started telling school districts they must remove teachers from classrooms with English-language learners if they have heavy accents or poor grammar. It cites a school where this is happening. The article includes the following paragraph with information from Santa Cruz:

Teachers that don't pass muster [for fluency] may take classes or other steps to improve their English; if fluency continues to be a problem, Ms. Santa Cruz said, it is up to school districts to decide whether to fire teachers or reassign them to mainstream classes not designated for students still learning to speak English. However, teachers shouldn't continue to work in classes for non-native English speakers.

But Santa Cruz asserted that the Journal misinterpreted what she said by saying that she indicated she or other state officials had told school districts they’d have to remove teachers.

She explained that when state officials observe in schools for monitoring purposes, they talk with district officials in an exit interview. “Teachers in these classrooms who are not fluent in English are noted and brought to the attention of district administrators,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The district officials are then given guidance on how to assist these teachers in becoming fluent in English. District officials then follow up with their course of action.”

Anyway, it sounds like further clarification of the policy in writing might be helpful.

Santa Cruz said the whole issue about the accents of teachers “has become politicized because of what’s going on with the immigration issue” in Arizona. The state has passed a controversial immigration-enforcement law. She added that she and other state officials have been visiting classrooms and checking on the English fluency of teachers of ELLs at least since 2006.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.