Arizona Grades Teachers on Fluency

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2010

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The Arizona Department of Education recently began telling school districts that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English.

State education officials say the move is intended to ensure that students with limited English have teachers who speak the language flawlessly. But some school principals and administrators say the department is imposing arbitrary fluency standards that could undermine students by thinning the ranks of experienced educators.

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“This is just one more indication of the incredible anti-immigrant sentiment in the state,” said Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who conducts public-opinion research.

Margaret Dugan, deputy superintendent of the state’s schools, disagreed, saying that critics were “politicizing the educational environment.”

In the 1990s, Arizona hired hundreds of teachers whose first language was Spanish as part of a broad bilingual-education program. Many were recruited from Latin America.

Then in 2000, voters passed a ballot measure stipulating that instruction be offered only in English. Bilingual teachers who had been instructing in Spanish switched to English.

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Arizona’s enforcement of fluency standards is based on an interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law states that for a school to receive federal funds, students learning English must be instructed by teachers fluent in the language. Defining fluency is left to each state, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said.

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Teachers that don’t pass muster may take classes or other steps to improve their English; if fluency continues to be a problem, Ms. Santa Cruz [Adela Santa Cruz, director of the Arizona education-department office charged with enforcing standards in classes for students with limited English] 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.

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John Hartsell, spokesman for the Arizona Education Association, a union that represents 34,000 teachers, said the recent focus on fluency was a distraction from more important issues. “This is not the time to be pressuring districts to deal with accents that have nothing to do with quality teaching; we are trying to figure out how to best fund operations” because of cuts in education, he said.

State education officials deny any discrimination against teachers, saying they are acting in students’ best interest.

Ms. Santa Cruz, the state official, said evaluators weren’t looking at accents alone. “We look at the best models for English pronunciation,” she said. “It becomes an issue when pronunciation affects comprehensibility.”

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