State must boost English learning
Group cites inadequacies in Ariz. programs
Kids trying to learn English and graduate from Arizona high schools need more help.
Their teachers need more training, their schools need to pay more attention to their progress and their families need to be more involved, a Washington, D.C., research group concluded in a report released Monday.
It all costs more money, and money for English-language learners has always been a hard sell to lawmakers.
The state is still fighting a 2000 federal court order to give schools the cash they need to help students learn English, get through standard course work and pass the high-school AIMS exam. They need it all to earn a diploma.
Now, Arizona is facing an ultimatum from U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins: adequately fund English learners by March 4. Exactly what would happen if lawmakers do not heed his order isn't spelled out. The last time the state ignored the court's order, the judge ordered a fine that began at $500,000 a day.
In this latest study, the Center on Education Policy researchers talked with nearly 400 teachers, parents and students in five high schools in southern Arizona. The report does not name the high schools. The study was only a sampling, researchers said, but it gave them a closer look at why two out of three English learners don't pass the high school AIMS test. It helped them understand why the students' graduation rate lags about 15 percentage points behind the state average.
Here are some of their recommendations to improve the academic outlook for Arizona's high-school English learners.
• Better teacher training and student tracking: This school year, the state initiated a program requiring all English learners to spend four hours a day learning vocabulary, phonetics, reading and writing.
The study called it a one-size-fits-all approach with no research to show it will work to get students a diploma. For example, some English learners come to school literate in their own language and well-educated, while others arrive unaccustomed to attending school or unable to read or write in any language.
Students need teachers highly skilled in a variety of instructional techniques. Principals need to track student progress. If a student is failing, principals and teachers need to make changes to help the student learn.
• Better outreach: Schools need staff people who can bridge the gap between school and family cultures. Schools need to help students meet both teacher and family expectations.
For example, after-school and summer tutoring is sparsely attended because many students work or baby-sit to help financially struggling families. Some parents put visits with relatives or family wedding preparations ahead of school, causing high absenteeism. Schools need people who can intervene and convince parents that school is more important.
• Better funding: Lawmakers have increased funding to about $365 extra for each English learner and fought an ongoing lawsuit that would require the state to pay out more. Schools told researchers it takes some English learners up to an extra $1,800 to learn the language, pass their classes and the AIMS test and graduate.
The entire report, titled "Caught in the Middle: Arizona's English Language Learners and the High School Exit Exam," is at www.cep-dc.org.
Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@ arizona republic.com.