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Arizona Still Grappling With Balance on Mandated ELL Instruction

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 02, 2008 5 min read
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Arizona education officials are giving school districts some room to diverge from a mandate that all English-language learners be taught specific English skills in classrooms separate from other students for four hours a day.

Even so, the state is still pushing ahead with its overall requirement that districts provide intensive—and separate—instruction of English skills for those students, despite criticism from experts who say there is little evidence to support that approach.

“The proposed four hours of instruction do not have a rigorous research basis,” Deborah Short, a researcher with the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said in an e-mail. “There are no experimental or quasi-experimental studies that show this type of instruction helps students learn English better or faster.”

But John A. Stollar, the associate superintendent for accountability for the Arizona Department of Education, argues that the four-hour model adopted in the wake of legislation earlier this year is research-based.

“It really comes from the classic research that says the more time you spend on something in education, the more students learn,” he said.

Researchers Skeptical

Researchers nationwide are keeping an eye on how the four-hour approach might work out for Arizona’s 138,000 ELLs.

“It’s fair to say researchers are skeptical about this type of approach,” said Jana Echevarria, an education professor at California State University-Long Beach. Researchers question the wisdom of English-learners “being isolated and given a super skill-based approach for hour upon hour,” she said.

The mandate is the latest controversy to stem from a long-running federal court case, Flores v. Arizona, over the education of English-learners in Arizona. The court has ruled that Arizona doesn’t adequately pay for the education of English-learners.

U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins, who is overseeing the Flores case, ruled in March 2007 that a law passed by the Arizona legislature in 2006 intended to address the court ruling was not, in fact, satisfactory. But the law, which contained the mandate for four hours of English instruction, had already gone into effect.

For background, previous stories, and Web links, read English-Language Learners.

A special task force on ELLs interpreted the details of that mandate. The panel decided, for example, that the four-hour requirement should apply to all ELLs, although the law says that only first-year students have to attend such classes. The task force also spelled out which English skills, such as vocabulary and grammar, teachers must teach and for how much time each day.

Plaintiffs in the Flores case have filed a motion contending that the new program is not sufficiently funded by the state. A hearing is set for November.

‘Segregated’ Environment

Some researchers, meanwhile, question an approach that divorces academic content from the teaching of English skills.

Ms. Short said that many researchers would argue against a learning environment that is “segregated in terms of not integrating the language skills [with each other], not integrating ELLs with native speakers, and not integrating content with language development.”

However, Ms. Echevarria noted that even in the four-hour classes, the teachers will have to build the instruction around content of some sort.

So far, the state department of education has approved alternatives to the four-hour mandate for three school systems: the Glendale Union High School District, the Phoenix Union High School District, and the Higley Unified School District.

Mr. Stollar said that many of the 28 districts that submitted alternative plans withdrew them after they were told by the Department of Education that they could follow any of those three plans that had been approved.

But Panfilo H. Contreras, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said he doesn’t consider the approval of some modifications to be “much of a concession.” He said his organization is concerned that the state is requiring schools to segregate English-learners for four hours each day and to focus on English skills so much that other subjects will be neglected.

“You have to weigh if they will get further behind in core subjects while they are learning English,” he said.

Two of the three models approved by the state arise from concerns by educators that keeping high school students in four hours of English class each day will not permit them to take the classes they need to graduate.

Karen Merritt, the ELL coordinator for the 15,000-student Glendale Union district, said she was pleased the state agreed that English-learners who are juniors or seniors and meet specific criteria showing they are on track to graduate are permitted to attend the classes for English skills for only one to three hours a day. That way, she said, they have time left in the school day to take the content classes they need for credit.

But if English-learners aren’t on track to graduate, Ms. Merritt said, she believes the intensive four-hour classes will help them learn English quickly so they can handle the content classes. She believes the state has provided adequate flexibility.

In its alternative approach, the Phoenix Union High School District, which has 25,000 students, has been permitted to convert one of the four hours of English instruction each day to a reading class with enough content in social studies or science that students can get credit in one of those subjects.

Deborah Gonzalez, the assistant superintendent for instruction and accountability for the school district, said that the district still will likely have to devise additional ways for English-learners to get exposure to academic content.

“For some students, if they are in the program for more than two years, we will be faced with providing other options for them to get credit, such as summer school, after-school programs, and online credit recovery,” she said.

The third alternative model approved by the state permits districts that don’t have many ELLs—technically, 20 or fewer in a three-grade span—to teach the required English skills to students while they attend mainstream classes.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Arizona Still Grappling With Balance on Mandated ELL Instruction

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