Arizona and DLLs: Language and Politics in the Desert

Blog Post
March 23, 2015

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley wondered why students have such little power in American education. Ripley covered a group of students in Kentucky who are attempting to persuade state lawmakers to give local school boards the option of including students on hiring committees used to select superintendents. After much effort the students were able to get their state legislators to pass their amendment only to be thwarted at the last minute by that insatiable old beast—politics.

School leaders and educators often bemoan the fact that most education policies are created in a vacuum, sealed off from knowledge of the day-to-day realities of schools. Students have a similarly weak voice in influencing the policies that they must live with every day.

It’s worth keeping that core dynamic in mind when thinking about Proposition 203, Arizona’s English-only mandate. Proposition 203 was passed in 2000 and was an offshoot of the successful “English for the children” campaign in California (also known as Proposition 227, which completely dismantled bilingual education in the state). Arizona’s interpretation and implementation of Proposition 203 has given it the dubious distinction of being  the most restrictive English-only state in the country.

Is it good for students? Well, the Structured English Immersion (SEI) program used in the state consists of a daily 4-hour block of English instruction focused on dual language learners’ (DLLs’) development of English grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing — but with no attention to content. Students are also expected to exit the program within one year — an expectation that runs contrary to evidence suggesting that it takes at least 3-5 years to develop basic social English proficiency and 4-7 years to develop strong academic English.

The backstory behind the program’s design is a bit shady. Its origins lie in the fact that the early implementation of Proposition 203 was uneven, which spurred state legislators in 2006 to pass HB 2064. That law codified the primacy  of English immersion for all language learners. It created  an English Language Learner (ELL) Task Force responsible for designing a cost-effective, research-based program that included a minimum of four hours of English language instruction.

The SEI program was developed by a consultant who (according to one source) helped numerous schools and districts design English immersion programs. However, in a 2012 article, Mary Martinez-Wenzl, Karla Pérez and Patricia Gándara called into question the consultant’s professional expertise. They note that the research summary prepared for the ELL Task force was not comprehensive - by the consultant’s own admission it was “merely a search for supporting research” - and did not include any “research [on time on task] related to English learners.” As Martinez-Wenzl, Pérez and Gándara rightly point out, “Given that the program commits most of the school day to extended time on task, and holds that this will result in rapid reclassification to English proficiency normally within one year, the lack of evidence is problematic.”

Essentially, the program was developed to adhere to the mandates of state laws rather than to provide students with an effective and proven program of English language instruction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, research on the impacts of SEI on Arizona’s DLL and ELL students has not documented significant gains in academic achievement or narrowing of the achievement gap. Lillie, Markos, Arias and Wiley’s study of the implementation of SEI in five school districts found that the majority of students did not exit the program in one year. “Almost every educator noted that students took more than a year and most likely three or four years to exit the program” — and that failure to exit within one year caused students to be behind in their high school graduation requirements due to missing out on necessary content. Moreover, SEI has led to deep segregation and linguistic isolation of Latino and DLL/ELL students.

In an article  last month, Karen Lillie attempts to give a voice to the “lost generation” of students educated in Arizona’s SEI program. She surveyed 1,322 ELL and reclassified (RC) middle school students about their perspectives of their English Language Development (ELD) classes. The majority of these students had gone to school in the U.S. for more than seven years. About 50 percent considered Spanish to be their first language, with a third reporting both English and Spanish as their joint first languages. Almost 75 percent of students reported having participated in the SEI program for more than one year. While most of the ELL and RC students stated they were happy to learn English, their satisfaction with the SEI program decreased the longer they were enrolled.

Lillie draws out several implications from her research but here’s the bottom line: Arizona should change its model to better align with “what sheltered instruction really is: one where content is taught in conjunction with language learning so as to keep [ELLs] academically enriched along with their native-English-speaking peers.”

A recent article by Eric Johnson and David Cassels Johnson shows just how distant Arizona’s policies are from students’ experiences. The authors explore how the state’s SEI model and Proposition 203 have shifted school leaders and educators’ mind frames and approaches to working with language learners. One telling quote comes from a school principal in Arizona, “When you don’t have a language, which many of our kids that are coming into us, they don’t have a language, there is nothing to build on.” Another teacher opined "that the majority of the students at his school ‘were just fodder for factories’ and ‘it is a shame that teachers should be expected to even waste their time on them.’” These quotes illustrate a shocking deficit perspective that often follows Arizona language learners through their years at school.

Have Arizona students embraced the “home language as a problem” paradigm? Johnson and Johnson interviewed 30 middle school students and collected journal entries from an additional 10 students. They found that many of these students had internalized the notion that English was the language of power and a tool to help “improve your position in life.” Here were one student’s words: “My brother … is lokey [lucky] because he was born in the USA. I was born in Mexico my life there was hard. Here I couldn’t do my work in Spanish, but I tried. If my brother, Aldo was to go only on english schools I think he would have a better life then me.” Johnson and Johnson argue that this student’s words mirror the core message in Arizona’s education discourse: English drives you forward and other languages hold you back.

Arizona’s current policies and practices for educating DLL and ELL students are clearly insufficient. The question is whether state policymakers will take notice of the growing research base on the harmful effects of their current SEI model and take necessary action to ensure future generations of dual language learners are not lost. Recent initiatives in California and Massachusetts are changing the outdated “language as a problem” paradigm towards a new vision of multilingualism as an asset. Hopefully, Arizona will follow suit.

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work."