Arizona teacher accent scrutiny halted to avoid civil-rights suit
12 comments by Pat Kossan – Sept. 12, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Facing a possible civil-rights lawsuit, Arizona has struck an agreement with federal officials to stop monitoring classrooms for mispronounced words and poor grammar from teachers of students still learning the English language.
Instead, the task of testing teachers’ fluency in English will fall to school districts and charter schools as part of federal and state legal requirements.
The state’s agreement with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education allows it to avoid further investigation and a possible federal civil-rights lawsuit.
The investigation began after unnamed parties filed a civil-rights complaint in May 2010 alleging that the state’s on-site monitoring reports led to teachers being removed from classrooms based on their accents.
In November, federal officials told Arizona that its fluency monitoring may violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against teachers who are Hispanic and others who are not native English speakers.
Under the agreement, the Arizona Department of Education will remove the fluency section from the form used by its monitors who visit classrooms. It also will require schools and districts to file assurances with the state that their teachers are fluent. The state did not admit any wrongdoing.
As a result, federal officials determined there were insufficient facts to establish a civil-rights violation and closed the case.
Despite the agreement to drop fluency from the form, John Huppenthal, Arizona superintendent of public instruction, said his office will continue to instruct state monitors to talk to districts about individual teachers whose English pronunciation or grammar is flawed.
“We still are going to be conscious of these articulation issues,” Huppenthal said. “Students should be in a class where teachers can articulate.”
Each year, state monitors visit a sampling of classrooms to determine compliance with state and federal laws covering how schools teach children still learning English.
The monitoring of teacher fluency began in 2002 after passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
A concern was the low proportion of English-learning students who pass the state’s standardized test in reading, writing and math, called AIMS.
Monitors have reported infractions such as teachers instructing in Spanish, using Spanish-language teaching materials or hanging Spanish-language posters on their classroom walls, which are prohibited by Arizona’s English-only law.
Monitors also reported that some teachers did not have proper credentials to teach English learners.
The monitors also noted what they considered unacceptably heavy accents that caused some teachers to mispronounce words and teachers using poor English grammar.
In 2007, The Arizona Republic examined reports from the 32 districts monitored that year. State officials found teachers with unacceptable pronunciation and grammar in nine districts.
Examples of concerns included a teacher who asked her English learners “How do we call it in English?” and teachers who pronounced “levels” as “lebels” and “much” as “mush.” Last year, federal officials found monitoring reports that documented teachers who pronounced “the” as “da” and “lives here” as “leeves here.”
In recent years, the state has monitored up to 60 districts a year and has notified between five and 10 districts of concerns regarding fluency issues, said Andrew LeFevre, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
After monitors documented the mistakes, the state required districts to develop and implement “corrective-action plans” to improve a teacher’s English.
Arizona has never suggested a teacher be removed from a classroom or fired because of improper use of grammar, syntax and punctuation, LeFevre said.
“It was certainly brought up to the district but never in a fashion that this teacher should not be teaching this class,” LeFevre said.
Instead, state officials would suggest helping the teacher take additional English-language classes or work with a fluency coach, LeFevre said.
The monitoring did lead to transfers of some teachers.
After a visit from a state monitor in the 2006-07 school year, the Creighton Elementary School District received a list of about 10 teachers who monitors said had problems speaking English fluently, said Susan Lugo, the district’s director of human resources. Lugo said the 10 teachers were very skilled at their jobs and their students made academic progress.
“We offered them assistance with classes for grammar and pronunciation,” Lugo said. The classes were free. Five of the teachers continued to struggle, and Creighton transferred them out of English-learning classes and into regular classes.
“Nobody lost pay,” Lugo said. “Nobody lost a job. Keeping them in the district was a good move for us.”
The Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, investigated several complaints that teachers were removed from classrooms for fluency reasons, union President Andrew Morrill said.
“We followed up on initial complaints that they themselves or someone they knew in their building were being harassed, receiving undue scrutiny and having their fluency called into question because of their accent,” Morrill said. No evidence was found that it was widespread.
Morrill said the union never heard of a teacher being fired because of the monitoring reports.
Federal officials found Arizona’s approach to determining fluency was unacceptable because findings were subjective and based only on brief classroom visits. That was the case even when targeted teachers had passed more extensive English-fluency exams administered by districts.
During the 2010-11 school year, the state monitored 1,000 classrooms “and most visits were for at least 15 to 20 minutes,” LeFevre said.
Arizona defended its actions, saying the classroom visits were effective and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 required the state to monitor fluency.
The state agreed to change the monitoring form by removing the fluency sections.
The state instead will accept a district’s or school’s assurance that a teacher tested as fluent on a more complete, objective exam.
But Huppenthal said he will continue to find ways to regain state power over determining the fluency of English-language teachers.
He plans to explore requiring a fluency test when teachers are licensed by the state and seeking direct authority to monitor fluency through the state Legislature.
“We’re going to want explicit authority from the Legislature so we can have regulatory power over these issues,” Huppenthal said. “That’s how we’re going to resolve this issue.”
Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2011/09/12/20110912arizona-teacher-accent-scrutiny-halted.html#ixzz1XiydTJ4z