Arizona: Policies fail state's growing English-learner population

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun May 21 13:04:58 UTC 2006

Policies fail state's growing English-learner population

Jeff MacSwan
Arizona State University
May. 21, 2006 12:00 AM

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.

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