Op Ed published in The East Valley Tribune (Mesa, AZ)
As 19th century New York merchants and politicians grew impatient to begin the epic construction that would become the Brooklyn Bridge, builder John Augustus Roebling understood that it was the integrity of his plan, not just his masonry, on which the success of the historic suspension would rely.
Likewise, for Arizona policymakers to begin pouring money into programs that have failed for decades to effectively teach the state’s burgeoning population of English Language Learners would be foolhardy and even harmful.
Five years ago, a federal court ordered Arizona to dramatically increase the amount it spends to teach this crucial segment of its public school population. Arizona still has not complied with the order, even despite a judge’s suggestion that he was considering throwing the governor and legislative leaders in jail.
While there have been some substantial changes in Arizona’s approach for teaching English learners, these changes have been either too recent, too unevenly applied, or too inconsequential to demonstrate major results.
Despite passing Proposition 203 five years ago, the rate at which Arizona successfully transitions English learners out of special programs into mainstream, English classrooms is still dismally low – 7 percent in 2004.
Before 2004-05, Arizona school districts each relied on their own methods for measuring children’s English proficiency. Each district had its own definition for whether a child’s was an English learner or not. A child may have been considered proficient in English in one school district but not in another. Needless to say, this made it extremely difficult to collect reliable data and to measure accurately the progress Arizona schools were making teaching children English.
Arizona did not adopt statewide standards for teaching English learners until 2004. Along with standards came a new, single statewide English proficiency test. These changes came as a result of federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
If the academic progress and accountability for this segment of Arizona’s school population is in need of improvement now, it was far worse before NCLB.
Millions of federal dollars went into bilingual education programs in which a majority of students failed to demonstrate any measurable growth toward English fluency. Modest goals for learning English went unmet or even ignored while the state’s bilingual education programs began to sprout elaborate but unmeasurable goals such as “increasing self-awareness while developing positive cross-cultural attitudes.”
In past years, Arizona’s public schools have spent federal bilingual education dollars on everything from ballroom dancing lessons to workshops for teachers on “The Hegemony of English.”
And all the while, new generations of students were being denied their one, best chance for future academic, and life, success: the opportunity to learn English in school before they fell hopelessly behind. Spanish speaking students in Arizona’s schools were routinely pushed aside into segregated classrooms, often taught exclusively in Spanish, and kept there for 6-8 years or until they simply dropped out of school.
Perhaps the main reason the bilingual education establishment has so fiercely resisted No Child Left Behind’s new culture of accountability for classroom results is that for decades, most of Arizona’s bilingual education programs have had little such accountability.
Better Results in California
Meanwhile, structured English immersion programs continue to produce an impressive record of success. In California, where an anti-bilingual education law passed two years before Arizona’s, the new focus on English fluency is producing strong positive results: statewide, 47 percent of California English learners scored in the top two categories of English proficiency on standardized tests in 2004. In fact, the percentage increased by 22 percentage points over the past four years.
When it comes to actually implementing English immersion at the classroom level, Arizona can learn much from California’s example. Structured English Immersion is a far cry from “sink or swim,” and some new techniques for developing early English fluency have far outpaced the expectations of skeptical supporters of bilingual education.
So where should Arizona go from here?
The legislature’s plan vetoed by Governor Janet Napolitano earlier this year would have established a Department of Education task force to study and certify the best of these immersion methods for Arizona classrooms.
Until schools can establish a better track record teaching English, why not extend parental choice to the families of English learners, and allow them to choose the best approach to learning English for their own children.
Resurrect a program approved by the state legislature in 2000 to award $250 one-time bonuses to teachers for each child who successfully becomes fluent in English. Principals can decide which teacher earned the bonus or decide to split it fairly.
Don Soifer is an education analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington, DC think tank.
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