Arizona Grades Teachers on Fluency
State Pushes School Districts to Reassign Instructors With Heavy Accents or Other Shortcomings in Their English
By MIRIAM JORDAN
PHOENIX—As the academic year winds down, Creighton School Principal Rosemary Agneessens faces a wrenching decision: what to do with veteran teachers whom the state education department says don't speak English well enough.
The Arizona Department of Education recently began telling school districts that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English.
Karla Campillo-Soto teaches a kindergarten class for students with limited English at Creighton School in Phoenix. The native of Mexico took a course to try to reduce her accent in English. Two other kindergarten teachers at the school were deemed not fluent enough for such students.
State education officials say the move is intended to ensure that students with limited English have teachers who speak the language flawlessly. But some school principals and administrators say the department is imposing arbitrary fluency standards that could undermine students by thinning the ranks of experienced educators.
The teacher controversy comes amid an increasingly tense debate over immigration. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer this month signed the nation's toughest law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Critics charge that the broader political climate has emboldened state education officials to target immigrant teachers at a time when a budget crisis has forced layoffs.
"This is just one more indication of the incredible anti-immigrant sentiment in the state," said Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who conducts public-opinion research.
Margaret Dugan, deputy superintendent of the state's schools, disagreed, saying that critics were "politicizing the educational environment."
In the 1990s, Arizona hired hundreds of teachers whose first language was Spanish as part of a broad bilingual-education program. Many were recruited from Latin America.
Then in 2000, voters passed a ballot measure stipulating that instruction be offered only in English. Bilingual teachers who had been instructing in Spanish switched to English.
Ms. Dugan said some schools hadn't been complying with the state law that made English the only language in the classroom. "Our job is to make sure the teachers are highly qualified in fluency of the English language. We know districts that have a fluency problem," she said.
Arizona's enforcement of fluency standards is based on an interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law states that for a school to receive federal funds, students learning English must be instructed by teachers fluent in the language. Defining fluency is left to each state, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said.
"The teacher obviously must be fluent in every aspect of the English language," said Adela Santa Cruz, director of the Arizona education-department office charged with enforcing standards in classes for students with limited English.
The education department has dispatched evaluators to audit teachers across the state on things such as comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar and good writing.
Teachers that don't pass muster may take classes or other steps to improve their English; if fluency continues to be a problem, Ms. Santa Cruz said, it is up to school districts to decide whether to fire teachers or reassign them to mainstream classes not designated for students still learning to speak English. However, teachers shouldn't continue to work in classes for non-native English speakers.
About 150,000 of Arizona's 1.2 million public-school students are classified as English Language Learners. Of the state's 247 school districts, about 20 have high concentrations of such students, the largest number of which are in the younger grades.
Nearly half the teachers at Creighton, a K-8 school in a Hispanic neighborhood of Phoenix, are native Spanish speakers. State auditors have reported to the district that some teachers pronounce words such as violet as "biolet," think as "tink" and swallow the ending sounds of words, as they sometimes do in Spanish.
These teachers "are very good educators who understand the culture" of their students," said Ms. Agneessens, Creighton's principal. "Teachers should speak grammatically correct English," she acknowledged, but added, "I object to the nuance of punishment for accent."
"It doesn't matter to me what the accent is; what matters is if my children are learning," said Luis Tavarez, the parent of sixth- and eighth-graders at Creighton.
"Student achievement and growth should inform teacher evaluations, not their accents," said Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District.
John Hartsell, spokesman for the Arizona Education Association, a union that represents 34,000 teachers, said the recent focus on fluency was a distraction from more important issues. "This is not the time to be pressuring districts to deal with accents that have nothing to do with quality teaching; we are trying to figure out how to best fund operations" because of cuts in education, he said.
State education officials deny any discrimination against teachers, saying they are acting in students' best interest.
Ms. Santa Cruz, the state official, said evaluators weren't looking at accents alone. "We look at the best models for English pronunciation," she said. "It becomes an issue when pronunciation affects comprehensibility."
"Teachers should speak good grammar because kids pick up what they hear," said Johanna Haver, a proponent of English-language immersion who serves as an adviser to Arizona educators. "Where you draw the line is debatable."
After evaluation and despite completing an accent-reduction course, some teachers at Creighton were ruled still unsuited to teaching English-language learners.
That poses a dilemma for Ms. Agneessens, the principal. In kindergarten, three of four classes are for English-language learners. Two of those three classes are taught by immigrants whose English didn't pass muster.
Ms. Agneessens said she was trying to find a way to retain those two teachers by shifting them into classrooms not designated for English-language learners, even if that meant teaching a different grade. Both teachers declined to comment for this article.
Recently, she informed one experienced kindergarten teacher that she would have to be reassigned to a mainstream class in a higher grade in the fall, if she wished to remain at the school.
"We both cried," she said.
Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@...