Done right structured
East Valley Tribune
November 20, 2005
Don Soifer is an
education analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
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 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
measure accurately the progress Arizona schools were making teaching children
Arizona did not adopt statewide standards for teaching English learners
until 2004. With the 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.
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 No
Child Left Behind.
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 six to eight 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 antibilingual 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 Gov. 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