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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.

“With the recent state legislation targeting undocumented immigrants in Arizona and other legislation banning ethnic studies in Arizona, TESOL and AZ-TESOL are deeply troubled by what appears to be an environment of fear and xenophobia being fostered by lawmakers in the state without consideration of the consequences upon student learning and achievement,” the groups said.

“This impacts all educators and students, including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who speak a language other than English. The right of undocumented students to a K-12 public education has long been protected under U.S. law. TESOL and Arizona TESOL strongly urge lawmakers and education officials in Arizona to ensure that the education of all Arizona schoolchildren is not harmed by these developments, and that the right of all educators to be treated fairly and equally is protected.”

The ethnic studies legislation cited by TESOL prohibits classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, that are designed primarily for students of a particular race, or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group.

The new law reportedly targeted a program in the Tucson Unified School District that offers specialized courses in African-American, Mexican-American, and Native-American studies, focusing on history and literature and including information about the influence of a particular ethnic group.

For example, in the Mexican-American Studies program, an American history course explores the role of Hispanics in the Vietnam War, and a literature course emphasizes Latino authors. About 1,500 students at six high schools are enrolled.

State schools chief Tom Horne said he believes the district’s Mexican-American studies program teaches Latino students that they are oppressed by white people. Public schools should not be encouraging students to resent a particular race, he said.

Sean Arce, director of the district’s Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, said last month that students perform better in school if they see in the curriculum people who look like them. The district is 56 percent Hispanic, with nearly 31,000 Latino students.

“It’s a highly engaging program that we have, and it’s unfortunate that the state Legislature would go so far as to censor these classes,” Arce said.

The law doesn’t prohibit classes that teach about the history of a particular ethnic group, as long as the course is open to all students and doesn’t promote ethnic “solidarity” or resentment.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


TESOL and AZ-TESOL joint statement on the Arizona Fluency Initiative

Arizona Department of Education

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