TUCSON – At a time when one-in-eight students in Arizona qualify for English language services, the state has made controversial and — according to the federal government – possibly unlawful changes to its language education program.
Researchers and educators fear Arizona’s program will have a detrimental impact on the growing population of English Language Learner (ELL) students in Arizona schools.
“Arizona’s ELL program is a Draconian way to force children to learn English in a year, which is stupid and contrary to research,” said Carlos Ovando, an ASU professor and scholar who has co-authored several books on Arizona’s ELL programs.
The program, known as Structured English Immersion, is designed to accelerate the language acquisition process. No similar program requiring students to spend four hours per day learning English structure, grammar and writing exists in the country.
In accordance with this new program, English learner students spend four hours every day learning English. State Department of Education officials say the goal of Arizona’s concentrated four-hour English training is to make students English proficient in one year. However, critics of this methodology point to research that suggests it takes the average person five to six years to become proficient in another language.
“The state implements these laws for political reasons with very little scientific backing,” said ASU professor and researcher Laida Restrepo. “It gets people elected and it gives the politician brownie points, but it is not rooted in science.”
Restrepo has conducted and published a series of studies on ELL kindergarten classes in Arizona. While conducting her research, Restrepo noted anecdotally that ELL teachers feel “their hands are tied” because they are not allowed to help students learn in the classroom using methods outside the parameters of the program.
But Tom Horne, Arizona’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction and new attorney general, believes it has already proven to be an effective English learning model. During his tenure as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, which began in 2002, Horne designed and implemented this English Language Learner program.
“The model, when implemented with fidelity, has successful results with reclassifying English Language Learners into the mainstream classrooms,” according to a prepared statement e-mailed from Horne’s office. “If a student does not exit an ELL program within a year, he or she may remain in an English-learner program for another year and receive funding from the state.”
The state is required by federal law to provide ELL students funding for a minimum of two years. However, students in Arizona are generally able to receive special language services until they graduate from high school or turn 21, which is the maximum legal age a student can be enrolled in high school.
In September 2010, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA released nine critical studies assessing the condition of English Learner students in Arizona. The research strongly undermines Horne’s claims about the success of the program. The studies conclude that Arizona’s current program is not conducive to teaching ELL students English and violates students’ civil rights.
“EL students are not gaining proficiency in English in one year as promised by the new four-hour English Language Development block to which these students are assigned,” according to one of the UCLA studies. In fact, the research suggests that the approach damages student development by segregating ELL students from their English-speaking peers in what the study derisively refers to as “Mexican Rooms.” In Arizona more than 80 percent of English language learner students are Latinos, according to the study.
Moreover, the same study found that segregation from non-ELL students significantly affected student achievement. The UCLA researchers discovered that the greater the degree of segregation between ELL and non-ELL students, the greater the variance in achievement gaps between the groups of students.
Some of the UCLA research will be used as evidence in an 18-year legal battle over the future of Arizona’s ELL program.
The legal battle began in 1992 when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of ELL students from the Nogales School District alleging that the Arizona school districts failed to provide students with the necessary services to learn English and meet state proficiency requirements. U.S. District Court Judge Alfredo Marquez found that Arizona school districts were violating the Equal Education Opportunity Act by not providing students adequate language services. The court called Arizona’s funding for language learners “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered a cost analysis to assess the amount of money needed to fund these programs.
A series of disparate cost analyses were conducted following the court’s decision. But after four years few substantial changes had been made to Arizona’s English language learner program. In 2004 the court threatened to fine Arizona if it did not comply with the 2000 ruling by the following year. When the state failed to respond, the court began charging the State $500,000 per day for noncompliance. A total of $22 million in fines charged to the state of Arizona were collected and eventually distributed to English language programs in Arizona school districts.
Horne joined the legal battle to argue that the State was in compliance with the court’s original ruling. The case bounced between the district and appellate courts until Horne appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, now called Horne v. Flores. The Supreme Court overturned the state court’s decision in a 5 to 4 ruling, ruling that Arizona had not failed to provide its English language learner students with adequate special language training.
The case was then remanded to Arizona courts to determine if the ELL programs are being adequately funded in light of all the changes that have taken place since the case began nearly two decades ago. The case is pending in Arizona’s federal District Court.
Horne continues to maintain that Arizona’s approach is effective. Horne said it has led to an increase in the percentage of ELL students “redesignated,” which is the term used when a student returns to mainstream classes after testing as proficient in English. Horne said he is confident the courts will rule in his favor.
“We are currently back in court with the Flores case,” Horne said in the e-mail. “We prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court with regards to funding English Language Learners and expect to win at Federal court relative to the English Language Learner Models.”
The outcome of this case will determine if Arizona is providing the appropriate accommodations for its English learner students.
The Future of Arizona’s ELL Program
A recent twist in the English language learner program saga may change the nature of the program even before the courts reach a conclusion in the Horne v. Flores case.
Earlier this year federal investigators from the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) determined that Arizona’s new method of identifying and testing students for ELL services violates the law. The investigation was prompted by two complaints filed with the Office of Civil Rights after the new state-mandated ELL program was implemented in Arizona schools.
“The whole procedure for how [students] get in and out of the ELL program has been found to be invalid,” Beatriz Arias, an ASU professor and researcher for the Civil Rights Project study: “The Implementation of Structured English Immersion in Arizona.” “But that’s not a headline that I’ve seen anywhere.”
The ability to correctly identify ELLs is not only critical to students’ educations but it is necessary for schools to fulfill their legal and educational obligations. [A landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols ruled that failure to provide ELL students with support and services violates their civil rights.]
At issue is a key change made by the state at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year in a survey used to determine English proficiency. The survey, which once asked three questions, was reduced to one: “What is the primary language of the student?” The result of having only one question is that fewer students will identify as ELL, Arias said. If this happens, some students who need English language services would not qualify for the program. Teachers can recommend a student be placed in an ELL classes but some teachers and researchers say there is little encouragement to do so.
Horne was unable to be reached for an interview. But Horne told The Arizona Republic in September that while the Arizona Department of Education will work with the federal investigators to improve the test, it will not revert back to the original three-question test.
Horne also said in the same article that he believes the investigation is a direct attack on Arizona for passing Senate Bill 1070, a strict illegal-immigration enforcement law. “I do think this is a lot of nonsense we’re dealing with over 1070…” Horne told The Arizona Republic.
Whatever the outcome of the legal wrangling, it’s the students who lose in the “policy debate,” Arias said.
“The big picture is the 130 to 150-thousand students who are being shortchanged [by Arizona’s current ELL program],” Arias said. “They are our future.”
Changes to Arizona’s English-learner programs
Although the state allows for school districts to propose modifications to the four-hour structure, attempts to implement alternative programs have been blocked by the state Department of Education.
Phoenix Union High School District, along with Glendale Union High School District, proposed alternative models to the state-mandated four-hour English block. The alternative models, which were instituted briefly, made changes to the original model that addressed the school’s unique population of ELL students
The Phoenix Union district created an ELL model that would allow teachers to use content such as science or social studies textbooks during the 60-minute reading portion of the four-hour block for students who are close but have not passed Arizona’s language proficiency test. During the state-mandated four-hour block, students learn English grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing and oral instruction. The program was recently suspended and the district now teaches the state model.
“[The Arizona Department of Education] found the district was out of compliance due to our alternative model,” Michelle Delgado, Language Acquisition Director at Phoenix Union High School, wrote in an e-mail. “ADE felt that we were teaching too much content and not enough English. As result, we were placed under corrective action.”
Despite the state’s strict guidelines, Catalina Magnet High School, a public school in Tucson, is using innovative techniques that seem to work while adhering to the mandated model. But despite the success, the students and the instructor question whether the state’s model gives students the best chance for success.
Exemplary Program teaches English-learner students to ‘Find their Voice’
At Catalina, teacher Julie Kasper begins each class with a “word of the day.” The word is written on a little white board in the back of the room at which students intuitively glance as they enter the classroom. Today the word is “precision.”
“Precision is an important word because if you want people to understand you, you must be precise with your language,” Kasper explains to her students. “Let’s try it together.”
A chorus of accented voices repeats, “Precision.”
In this classroom Kasper does not just teach her students to speak English, she teaches them to find their voices.
“I know what the students need, and the instruction that they need to do well,” Kasper said. “So I just move forward with that [regardless of] whatever the constraints of the program are.”
At Catalina High School, Kasper works with a very unique population of ELL students ––over half of her students are refugees or immigrants. Unlike most English learner classrooms in Arizona, where the population is predominantly Latino, most students in this class do not share a common culture or background. For Kasper’s students, English is their common ground.
In 2007, Kasper began a program called “Finding My Voice,” which encouraged her students to express themselves through poetry, narratives, photography and videography. The students produced a powerful body of work evocative of their individual and shared struggles as immigrants in America.
“We believe the students should keep their cultures alive and close to their hearts and while they are adapting to the system and becoming successful within the system they shouldn’t lose touch with their histories, and who they are, and their home,” Kasper said. “And the students believe that, too. [Their work] articulates it more clearly than I do.”
Through these projects, Kasper said she noticed immense growth in her students’ cognitive abilities as well as their abilities to express themselves in English. The program was such a success, Catalina High School established the class as one of the four hours of required English.
“This program was created in response to the diversity on this campus and the fact that the students weren’t united and that they weren’t sharing their voices with each other or their community. I feel like any school could do that,” Kasper said.
Last year, Kasper challenged her students to use their projects as a means of improving their community. Eight of her students chose to address the detriments of the four-hour English language program.
Together the students wrote a letter, which they addressed to Superintendent Horne, outlining the reasons they felt trapped by the current language acquisition model.
“We are students at Catalina Magnet High School,” the letter begins. “We want to change Arizona State Policy HB2064, the four-hours-of-English law.” In the letter the students identify many of the same dominant issues with the language learners program as researchers and academics: for English learner students the program impedes graduation in four years from high school, further segregates them from non-ELL students and incites feelings of inferiority for not being proficient in English.
“Four hours of English is like four times zero,” said Laxmi Dahal, who emigrated from Nepal in 2008. “Nobody likes [the program.] It’s not what I want.”
Dahal is an exceptional student and an ELL outlier in many respects. Dahal did not pass the language proficiency test but passed the AIMS test, a state-mandated test required for high school graduation in Arizona. After two years on the ELL track, Dahal’s parents pulled him from the program because he felt like it impeded his educational development. In Arizona, parents of ELL students can sign a waiver remove their child from the ELL program without having passed the state proficiency test.
Dahal said he has been successful in “mainstream” classes, even though he never passed the proficiency test.
“Now I get to take the classes I want,” Dahal said. “I feel much more free.” And now Dahal, unlike many of his classmates, will get to graduate in four years.
Dahal worked with his classmates to write the letter and, additionally, directed “My Education and My Future,” a short video to accompany this project. In the video the students ask why ELL children at schools in other states are not required to take four hours of English.
“Are we more stupid than students in other states?” Dahal, the narrator, asks in the video. “…We feel different than other students. The taste is bitter.” The video ends with the students’ suggestions on how to improve the program. They include: changing the requirements from four to two hours of English per day for non-elementary language learners; add variety to the coursework; and provide better resources such as books and reading materials.
Kasper said her students understand that they need to pass the AIMS test and accumulate enough credits to graduate, but they feel that it is impossible to do so in four years through this program.
“The frustrating piece, and the piece that makes it so hard to teach [English language development] here is that I know that this is having a negative impact on the students’ educations,” Kasper said. “I know that they’re not getting the essential content and I know that many of them will not be graduating on time.”
Kasper concedes the four-hour block program may be beneficial for English learner students at the elementary school level.
It is not impossible for an English learner student to graduate in four years, just improbable. English learner students only receive one English credit for the four-hour block. The other three credits count as electives, which are classes not necessary for graduation. If a high school student spends four hours each day taking the required English classes, that student will not be able to fulfill the state graduation requirements in four years without taking summer school and online classes.
However, students take a proficiency test at the end of each academic year and depending on their scores, may test out of the ELL program or qualify for a reduction to only two hours of blocked English per day.
Mayra Mendivil is one of these exceptional cases. Mendivil, a senior at Catalina High School and one of Kasper’s former students, is very vocal in about the aims of the current ELL program. It was Mendivil’s idea to write the letter to Horne and other Arizona legislators in hopes of affecting a change. But Mendivil recognized the need for change a long time before this.
Mendivil moved to Tucson from Nogales, Mexico, when she was 13 years old. Her first experience with an American school was trying to enroll for sixth grade at Magee Middle School in Tucson. Mendivil said her mother was told by the admissions office that the school was over capacity and that she would have to take her daughter elsewhere. Mendivil said her mother left a folder with some paperwork that included Mendivil’s American birth certificate and told the admissions office to please call if any spots became available. Indeed, there were spots available at Magee.
“They thought because I was Mexican that I was illegal,” Mendivil said. “That’s what everyone thinks. And it has gotten worse.”
At Magee, where Mendivil spent her next three years, she was the only Spanish-speaking student and the only student to be classified as a language learner at the school.
“[The other students] thought I was really different. They treated me like I was deaf; they wouldn’t talk to me,” Mendivil said. “It made it hard to want to learn English. I thought why learn English when they don’t want to talk to me?”
Now in high school, Mendivil said she found acceptance through Kasper’s ‘Finding My Voice’ program. She feels that this class helped her overcome the barriers placed on English learner students by the constraints of the four-hour block. She reclassified after her junior year and is no longer taking English learner classes as a senior. Mendivil will graduate this May without many of her peers. She wants to go to college to become a kindergarten teacher.
Mendivil acknowledges the program was successful in regard to helping her become proficient in English. But for many of her peers, this is not the case and the cost of not graduating is too high a price to pay. In the future Mendivil said she hopes reforms will be made to the four-hour block program so that someday her story is not exceptional, but is the norm.