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Studies Take Aim at Policies on English-Language Learners in Arizona

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 13, 2010 4 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 last week by a California research and advocacy group.

The researchers say the program, which requires ELLs to be separated into classes for four hours a day to learn discrete English skills, provides instruction 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 English-learners in high schools from acquiring the credits they need to graduate on time.

The study is one of nine released last week by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, that conclude Arizona’s four-hour ELL program and the state’s decision to alter its home-language survey for students whose first language isn’t English are detrimental to ELLs. Educators nationwide have had an eye on Arizona’s policies foreducating 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 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, said the research found 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.

Also, she said in an e-mail, “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 education department, said that the four-hour program is working because the state rate for reclassifying ELLs as fluent in English more than doubled over two years. It 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 the Civil Rights Project studies cite result from districts not carrying it 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. But she asked a state task force last week to consider adding flexibility for ELLs who spend more than one year in the program.

The study of five school districts found 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 those students of the chance to practice English with 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 study says 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 mainstream students are because teachers lack materials for teaching 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.

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

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Studies Take Aim at Policies on English-Language Learners in Arizona

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