Arizona law worries non-native educators

Some Arizona teachers fear for their jobs as a result of a department of education policy that seeks to reassign teachers who speak with heavy accents.
Some Arizona teachers fear for their jobs as a result of a new policy seeking to reassign teachers who speak with heavy accents.

Many Arizona teachers who learned English as a second language or who speak in accented English, and who are educating English language learners, are worried about their job security after word spread about the state education department’s suggestion that those educators with heavy accents be reassigned.

Recent media reports state that the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has mandated that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes containing students who are learning to speak English.

Reports quote ADE officials as saying that the intent of the initiative is to ensure that students with limited English have teachers who are highly qualified in fluency of the English language.

“The teacher obviously must be fluent in every aspect of the English language,” Adela Santa Cruz, director of the ADE office that enforces standards in classes for students with limited English, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. An eSchool News request for comment from ADE was not returned by press time.

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and its Arizona affiliate issued a joint statement expressing the organizations’ disappointment with the department’s recommendation.

“For decades the field of English language teaching has suffered from the myth that one only needs to be a native English speaker in order to teach the English language. The myth further implicates that native English speakers make better English as a second language or English as a foreign language teachers than nonnative speakers of English, because native English speakers are perceived to speak ‘unaccented’ English and understand and use idiomatic expressions fluently,” the statement read.

Some say the myth does a disservice to those who have been trained to teach English but are not native English speakers.

“Does Arizona prefer a native speaker of English with no training in education [or instruction], or would they prefer someone with an accent who was trained as a teacher?” asked Michael Pasquale, director of the graduate-level TESOL program at Cornerstone University in Michigan.

“But even native speakers have varied accents all over the U.S. The way it’s been reported, [the definition of ‘accent’] is very vague,” he said.

Educators also are not aware of the criteria used to judge a teacher’s fluency, said John Segota, director of advocacy for TESOL.

“We’ve not been able to identify a set of assessment standards that are being used to evaluate teachers. It seems to be individual people making assessments,” he said.

Evaluators reportedly were instructed to audit teachers on things such as comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar, and good writing.

Officials said Arizona teachers who are deemed to speak with too heavy an accent or without proper grammar will be able to take classes or other steps to improve their English.

Some vendors offer accent reduction software, programs that many TESOL educators say may be able to help with certain areas, but might not be much help overall. Pasquale said it’s nearly impossible for a nonnative English speaker to completely lose an accent as an adult.

The TESOL/AZ-TESOL statement said ADE’s policy is also troubling from a political standpoint.

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