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Will Arizona Loosen its Rigid Policy for Teaching English Learners?

Last month, the Arizona House of Representatives passed a bill to overhaul the state’s policies for teaching English learner (EL) students. The changes would have a substantial impact on the Grand Canyon state’s K-12 education system, where nearly 30 percent of students speak a language other than English at home and 8 percent are identified for extra language services at school. The bill currently sits with the state senate for consideration, with a hearing scheduled for this week.

If signed into law, the policy would represent critical progress in a state that has long been notorious for its restrictive approach to teaching ELs. Several education advocacy groups support the bipartisan measure, including the Arizona Education Association, Stand For Children, Arizona School Boards Association, and others.

Arizona—with a reputation for anti-immigrant politics more broadly—currently requires a four-hour block of intensive English language development for all ELs below intermediate proficiency. This model, known as Structured English Immersion (SEI), inappropriately pulls EL students away from mainstream classes for the majority of the school day.

SEI first emerged in response to a 2000 court ruling under Flores v. Arizona, a lengthy legal battle that found the state had violated civil rights protections for ELs under the Equal Educational Opportunity Act. That same year, Arizona voters also passed Proposition 203, an English-only ballot initiative. The policy severely restricted approaches available for teaching ELs, and state leaders largely interpreted its passage as a mandate for the SEI model across all Arizona schools.

But, over the years, a large body of research has documented the negative effects of SEI. For one, SEI creates a segregated environment where ELs are separated from native English-speaking peers for large portions of the school day, limiting interactions that are critical for their language growth.

Moreover, the model can inappropriately divorce language instruction from exposure to academic concepts and knowledge taught in core subject areas (i.e. math, reading, science, and social studies). Besides setting students behind in their learning, this separation of content and language instruction also impedes high school ELs from earning academic credits that they need to graduate.

Finally, the SEI model explicitly aims for ELs to reach fluent English proficiency in just one year’s time, counter to research that suggests language acquisition typically takes 4-7 years. Setting such an unrealistic time frame can foster a “rush to reclassification” in which schools remove extra supports and services for ELs too soon. In fact, a federal investigation in 2010 found Arizona had done just that—exiting thousand of students from EL status prematurely and claiming they had reached English proficiency when they, in fact, had not.

Given these shortcomings of SEI in its current state, the new bill introduced this legislative session comes as a dose of much-needed relief. Among other changes, the new policy would:

  • Reduce current requirements for the daily 4-hour SEI block to the equivalent of 2 hours a day in grades K-6 and around 1.5 hours a day in grades 7-12. Schools would have flexibility to group those mandated minutes in innovative ways over a week and/or year;

  • Direct the state board of education to adopt alternative models for English language instruction and allow school districts to also submit models for approval;

  • Require the State Board of Education to develop a framework for evaluating alternative instructional models;

  • Require the Arizona Department of Education to publish an annual report describing newly adopted models, the number of schools using which ones, the time students spend classified as ELs, and the performance of current and former ELs on statewide tests.

(See here for a helpful infographic from AZ Ed News on these proposed changes.)

A separate bill, introduced this session, also stands to impact instructional options for Arizona’s ELs in an important way. This bill would remove SEI requirements to enable ELs to enroll in dual language immersion programs (which they are currently restricted from participating in). The proposed policy, sponsored by a Republican representative, signals a shift in political appetite as a broader coalition of public leaders are stressing the value of multilingualism for all. California and Massachusetts used such arguments to overturn their similarly antiquated, English-only ballot measures for ELs in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Arizona remains a final hold-out in the national context.

And yet, with the recent legislative activity on these issues, a new era of EL education could be on the horizon in Arizona.