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Scholars Target Arizona’s Policies for ELL Students

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 08, 2010 6 min read
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Arizona’s program for teaching English-language learners, which has been implemented for two school years by state mandate, will “almost certainly” widen the achievement gap between ELLs and their mainstream peers, concludes a qualitative study of five Arizona school districts released today by a California research-and-advocacy group.

Researchers for the study say the program, which requires ELLs to be separated into classes for four hours a day to learn discrete English skills, provides instruction to ELLs that is inferior to that received by other students, and ELLs aren’t learning enough English in one year to succeed in mainstream classrooms, as the program design had intended. The study also raises questions about whether the four-hour program will hinder ELLs in high schools from acquiring the credits they need to graduate on time.

The study is one of nine released today by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, that conclude Arizona’s four-hour ELL program, as well as the state’s decision to alter its home-language survey for students whose first language isn’t English, are detrimental to ELLs. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights is investigating whether Arizona’s decision last year to pare down the number of questions on its home-language survey from three to one complies with federal civil rights law. States typically have three questions on their survey. (“Home-Language Surveys for ELLs Under Fire,” Feb. 16, 2010.)

Educators nationwide have had an eye on Arizona’s policies for educating its 150,000 ELLs because they are at the center of a federal case, Horne v. Flores, that was remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer back to a U.S. District Court in Tucson. Hearings for the case are scheduled for September.

Patricia Gándara, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project and the coordinator of the Arizona studies, highlighted the studies’ findings that teachers have a “grave concern” about how ELLs are being separated from their fluent English-speaking peers for most, and sometimes all, of the school day.

In addition, she said in an e-mail message, “the fact that secondary school kids are actually being placed in a situation of not being able to graduate if they are in this program—this has implications for the rest of their lives.”

Rates Doubling

Margaret Garcia Dugan, the deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Arizona Department of Education, said in a phone interview today that Arizona’s four-hour program is working because the state’s rates for reclassifying ELLs as fluent in English more than doubled over two years. The rate increased from 12 percent to nearly 29 percent from the 2006-07 school year to the 2008-09 school year.

She added that many of the problems with the four-hour program that are noted in the Civil Rights Project studies are a result of school districts’ not carrying the program out “with fidelity.”

“The teachers we talk to love it,” she said. “The people who don’t like it are the bilingual proponents and some of the directors who are getting their talking orders from theorists.”

Ms. Dugan, who is running for the office of state superintendent of public instruction, said that normally ELLs should be able to get out of the four-hour block after a year by passing the state’s English-language-proficiency test, but it may take some students two years. If ELLs are in the program for longer than that and can’t test out, she said, “the teachers have not been trained appropriately or the students have possibly some learning disability and we have to look at an individual education plan.”

Among the findings of the study of five school districts is that not only are ELLs separated from other students for four hours a day, but for scheduling reasons, many end up being separated for the whole day, even for special classes such as music and for lunch. The researchers said the separation is a concern, in part, because it deprives ELLs of the chance to practice English with their peers who are fluent in the language. They report that some teachers estimate it will take many students three or four years to exit the program. Because high school students can earn only one English content credit for the four-hour block, the researchers reported that teachers and students are concerned about whether some ELLs will be able to graduate on time.

In addition, the researchers make the case that ELLs are not getting access to the same quality of curriculum that students in mainstream classes are because teachers aren’t provided with materials they can use to teach ELLs academic content.

Losing Content

The study is based on researchers’ observations for seven weeks in 18 ELL classrooms last spring at nine elementary and secondary schools, interviews with about 20 educators working with ELLs, and a collection of lesson plans, schedules, and other school documents.

“You have a scripted curriculum in the four hours that doesn’t allow for standards-based content instruction at the grade level,” said M. Beatriz Arias, an associate professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University, Tempe, and one of the researchers for the study. “You see a lot of focus on the mechanics and structure of English and an occasional focus on content-area instruction.” Because four hours is a sizeable chunk of the school day, ELLs are missing out on academic content instruction, she contended.

Ms. Dugan said that, while students who arrive at U.S. schools without speaking any English will need some basic English skills before digging into academic content, most ELLs can be taught content during the four-hour block. “You can’t teach language in a vaccuum. You have to teach content.” She said that Arizona teachers “who know what they are doing” are teaching content while also teaching English skills.

And if ELLs don’t have access to the same academic content materials as other students, she said, that’s the fault of school districts, who are charged with purchasing materials.

Effect of Streamlining

Another of the studies by the Civil Rights Project focused on whether some Arizona students are being deprived of special help to learn English because of the way the state simplified the home-language survey that is used to determine who is tested for English proficiency.

The Arizona survey traditionally asked parents what primary language was spoken in the home, the language most often spoken by the student, and the student’s first language. If parents responded with a language other than English to any of those questions, a student was given an English-proficiency test to see if he or she qualified for ELL services. The new survey asks parents to name only the primary language of the child.

Two Stanford University researchers, Claude Goldenberg and Sara Rutherford Quach, studied students in one Arizona school to see whether the new survey was missing students who needed English-language services. Of the 6,234 students the school tested, the researchers calculated that 1,540 would not have been picked up by the new version of the home-language survey.

Ms. Dugan said the state has put out guidance to school districts saying that if teachers feel that a student may be in need of extra help to learn English, the school district should go ahead and test him or her, regardless of how his or her parents answered the home-language survey.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Scholars Target Arizona’s Policies for ELL Students

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