Voicing Concern for English-Learners in Debate Over NCLB

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Apr 4 13:27:01 UTC 2007

Voicing Concern for English-Learners in Debate Over NCLB
Peter Zamora brings varied experience to role as advocate.


By Mary Ann Zehr

Over a three-year stint teaching English, before he quit to go to law
school, he chafed at what he describes as a rigid tracking system that
left Latino and African-American students behind. All these issues of
class and race and policy hang together, said Mr.  Zamora, Washington
counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While
English-language learners may need to receive different kinds of
instruction from that given other students, it shouldnt be differently
paced in terms of academic content, he said. At 33, and only four years
out of Georgetown University Law Center, Mr.  Zamora is now putting that
experienceand his own considerable diplomatic skillsto use as co-chairman
of a diverse coalition of advocacy groups pressing the concerns of
English-learners as Congress considers reauthorization of the No Child
Left Behind Act.

Testifying on behalf of the Hispanic Education Coalition at a March 23
congressional hearing, he spoke out for better assessments for
English-learners, more technical assistance for the states on testing
issues, and the importance of fully including English-learners in NCLBs
accountability system.

Melissa Lazarn, the associate director for education policy for the
National Council of La Raza, sees Mr. Zamora as the ideal person to help
lead the coalition of 25 Hispanic-advocacy groups, education
organizations, and unions, which sometimes have competing agendas and
priorities. Hes really great at ensuring everybody has a voice in the
processand very easy to work with, said Ms. Lazarn, who heads a committee
that since last summer has been hammering out recommendations on behalf of
the coalition for how the federal law should be reauthorized. Mr. Zamoras
classroom experience with disadvantaged students is one of his strengths
as a policymaker, said Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director for La Raza
and a friend of Mr. Zamoras. Few people working as congressional staff
members or for Washington-based advocacy groups have been classroom
teachers, Mr. Gonzalez said. Being able to marry federal policy with what
happens on the ground with a civil rights perspective makes him a good
advocate, Mr. Gonzalez said. And you wont find many people who are better
at it than he is.

Diplomacy Needed

Mr. Zamoras diplomatic skills were tested in the process of coming up with
testimony that could be supported by the diverse coalition concerned about
some of the highly charged issues surrounding how to reauthorize the
federal education law to benefit English-language learners. He also
recently waded into a dispute between the federal government and Virginia
school districts over how to include English-learners in testingtaking the
side of the federal Education Department.

In addition to working as Washington counsel for the Mexican American
Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Peter Zamora co-chairs a coalition of
groups on Hispanic education issues. Hector Emanuel for Education
WeekMembers of the Fairfax County, Va., school board currently are
resisting a mandate by the Education Department to change how the district
is testing some English-language learners this school year. The federal
government has warned the 164,000-student district that it could lose $17
million in federal funds if it follows through on the threat. ("Virginia
Backs Down on ELL Student Tests," Feb.  28, 2007.) On behalf of MALDEF and
the Washington-based La Raza, Mr. Zamora sent a letter to members of the
Fairfax board urging them not to resist. He said in an interview that
MALDEF and other civil rights groups feel that the federal education law
shouldnt provide more flexibility for school districts to exclude
English-learners in testing. Their reasoning: In the past, such
flexibility meant that districts failed to be serious about meeting the
needs of those students.

But district Superintendent Jack D. Dale said in a phone interview last
week that giving the states regular reading test to English-learners at
the lowest levels of proficiency in English isnt educationally sound. We
question the validity of giving a reading test to a child in a language
they dont fully understand yet, he said. We dont think you get valid
results. This issue is ticklish even within the Hispanic Education
Coalition. Four members of Virginias congressional delegationincluding
Sens. John W.  Warner, a Republican, and Jim Webb, a Democrathave
introduced bills that would give districts a one-year grace period to
comply with the testing requirement. ("Bills Would Ease NCLB Rules on
English-Language Learners,"  March 28, 2007.)

Some coalition members, including MALDEF and La Raza, oppose that measure.
But the National Education Association, which also is a member of the
coalition, supports the bill, according to Joel Packer, the unions
director of education policy and practice. We are supporting our Virginia
[NEA] affiliate that believes there needs to be additional flexibility for
this year, and the other members of the Hispanic Education Coalition have
a different view on that piece, Mr.  Packer explained last week. Still,
members of the coalition remain united on some fundamental issues
involving the NCLB law and English-learners. Mr. Packer noted that the NEA
agrees with the main points of Mr. Zamoras recent testimony, such as that
the current assessments used for English-learners are not valid and
appropriate, and must be improved.

Diverse Experience

Mr. Zamoras ease in navigating such issues appears to reflect his life
experience. While he works for an organization with Mexican American in
its name, he is not of Mexican descent Zamora is a Basque name. He's
fluent in Spanish because while growing up, he spent summers and his 4th
grade year in Mexico. His parents, who live in Houston, are academics with
an interest in Mexico, his father in Mexican law and his mother in Latin
American art and literature. The lawyer said hes comfortable moving
between cultures, noting that he grew up attending diverse integrated
public schools in Houston. Besides teaching, Mr. Zamora has been a
consultant for the District of Columbia public schools, an education
lawyer for the Washington-based law firm Brustein & Manasevit, and a legal
intern in the Education Departments office for civil rights.

But he traces his motivation to advocate policies that help
English-learners in part to his time at Hayward High School in Hayward,
Calif., where he taught in the late 1990s. His college-preparatory
classes, he said, were made up mostly of Anglos, and his basic-skills
classes were composed mostly of Latinos and African-Americans, which he
believes was largely because of the students economic status. Many of
these decisions were made early in a childs school career, and the
basic-skills kids got a slowed-down curriculum, Mr. Zamora said. I taught
12th grade. I saw students at the end of their careers and could see the
gulf between the basic-skills and the college-prep students.

Vol. 26, Issue 31, Page 7



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Related Stories

Bills Would Ease NCLB Rules on English-Language Learners, March 28, 2007.
Early-Childhood Programs Urged for Hispanic Population, March 14, 2007.
Virginia Backs Down on ELL Student Tests, February 28, 2007.
Report Paints Demographic Portrait of Young Hispanics, January 11, 2007.
Black, Hispanic Students Cite Problems in Their Schools, June 7, 2006.
Immigration Proposals Could Aid School Hiring Efforts, April 12, 2006.
Census Finds Growth in Hispanic Population, June 15, 2005.
For background, previous stories, and Web links read English-Language
Learners and No Child Left Behind.

Read Peter Zamora's March 23 testimony before Congress on the No Child
Left Behind Act and English-language learners. Posted by the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

 2007 Editorial Projects in Education

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