Policies fail state's growing English-learner population
Arizona Republic
May. 21, 2006

Jeff MacSwan

Arizona State University


After six years of the nation's strictest English-only instruction policy, Arizona's immigrant children are making dramatically little progress in learning English.

With 20 percent of the state's student population in the balance, the consequences of these failed policies for our state's future are likely to be significant.

As the Arizona Business and Education Coalition expressed in a letter to political leaders regarding the legislative impasse on an English-learner funding bill, "For many of our members, this is a serious workforce development issue, but much more is at stake. Today's students are tomorrow's workers, and if they are unprepared to meet the challenges of global competition we will all suffer the consequences."

In addition to the potential economic woes, failing our state's newcomers could create highly polarized and racially stratified urban centers as our state becomes increasingly diverse in times of rapid growth.

It is important to note, too, that English-learners are not primarily unauthorized immigrants, as some of the political rhetoric has suggested. The majority were either born in the U.S. or immigrated through conventional legal channels. Whatever changes may come in immigration policy, the need for an effective education policy for English-learners will remain.

Also, contrary to the rhetoric, today's immigrants desperately want to learn English. The demand for English classes is so great that immigrants must wait for months or sometimes for more than a year to get a spot. Census data show that a shrinking percentage of the country's foreign-born population does not know English.

But despite children's strong motivation to learn English, policies enacted six years ago are failing them.

Yet, in a bill rejected recently by a federal judge on grounds that its funding mechanisms violated federal law, GOP lawmakers and the Republican superintendent of public instruction have continued to favor strict English-only programs.

Proposition 203

Bankrolled by California businessman Ron Unz, Proposition 203 was approved by voters in 2000. The law imposed restrictions on the use of immigrant children's first language in the classroom.

Unz made a number of false promises to win Arizonans' support for the law.

For example, boasting in The Arizona Republic, Unz claimed that under 203, Arizona's immigrant students "will learn English in a couple months."

Within a few years of the law's passage, Unz claimed, "there will be no Arizona children in English-acquisition classes."

Before Proposition 203, children were taught in a variety of programs, befitting local needs and teachers' professional judgment. Among the approaches then available was bilingual education, which used children's native language to help them keep up academically while learning English.

The basic rationale for the bilingual approach is quite simple: Children won't learn much in school if they can't understand textbooks or what the teacher is saying, so use the language they can understand to bring them up to speed on academics until they know English well enough to do without the special help.

Proposition 203 promised to avoid this basic problem by teaching children English quickly, "generally within one year." If kids learn English that quickly, proponents argued, then we won't have to worry about them falling behind in school subjects.

A recent study by a group of Arizona State University researchers, myself among them, analyzed the state's own language-proficiency testing data to discover how successful 203 has been at reaching its basic goal of teaching English quickly.

The study found that 89 percent of immigrant children who scored non-proficient in 2003 were still not proficient in English a year later.

And only 29 percent of all English-learners, regardless of initial proficiency level, showed any growth in English ability at all.

That's a failure rate of 89 percent for the current policy.

Wider effects

Indeed, news of the negative effects of English-only programs can be read nationally. For instance, a recent federally funded review of scientific evidence by Johns Hopkins University's Robert Slavin and Alan Cheung found that most methodologically well-designed studies showed that bilingual approaches improved children's academic scores more than English-only programs did. Although some studies found no difference, none showed a significant advantage for English-only over the bilingual approach.

And that's what we'd expect. Just like the rest of us, children need time to learn a second language, and a law insisting that they learn it in a year is as ridiculous as one insisting they learn calculus in six months.

Our focus should be on academic success with access to whatever resources present themselves, even immigrants' home language.

As GOP lawmakers and the superintendent return to the task of forging new funding legislation for English-learners in cooperation with the Governor's Office, they should take the opportunity to fix our horribly ineffective language education policy.

Laws restricting teachers' use of immigrant children's first language as an instructional resource are rooted in ideology and politics. We are foolish to allow the state's future and the future of its newcomers to become casualties in these battles.

Jeff MacSwan is associate professor of education at Arizona State University. He holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and is the author of numerous scholarly articles on the education of English-learners.