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Review of  Implementing Educational Language Policy in Arizona

Reviewer: Keira Gebbie Ballantyne
Book Title: Implementing Educational Language Policy in Arizona
Book Author: M. Beatriz Arias Christian Faltis
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.436

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EDITORS: Arias, M. Beatriz; Faltis, Christian
TITLE: Implementing Educational Language Policy in Arizona
SUBTITLE: Legal, Historical and Current Practices in SEI
SERIES: Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2012

Keira Ballantyne, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University

In the United States, English language education is federally mandated for children from minority language backgrounds, but the execution of the particular language education program is the domain of the individual states. The particular program adopted by the state of Arizona, and required for all children who are unable to pass an English language proficiency test, is known as Structured English Immersion, or SEI. The SEI model mandates four hours of segregated daily instruction in English phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics for students who are not yet proficient in English. This time is taken out of the regular school day when other students are learning core subjects such as mathematics, science, and social studies. The state of Arizona furthermore mandates the content and time required for teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities (see Arizona Revised Statutes Title 15 Chapter 7 Article 3.1).

In this book, the authors argue that the execution of this instructional program in Arizona is restrictive, oppressive, and inconsistent with the accepted body of scientific and professional knowledge on second language acquisition and education. “We believe that Arizona is ground zero for the most restrictive language policy in the country and this policy is having a negative social and educational impact on language minority students” (p. xxiii).

Terence Wiley’s foreword “From Restrictive SEI to Imagining Better” begins by sketching a brief history of the legal landscape of the educational of minority language students in the United States. He traces the federal policy shift from an emphasis on bilingual education to a focus on English language acquisition and situates the volume within Arizona’s current political context, which includes not only Proposition 203, the 2000 law which mandates the SEI program, but also prior court actions brought against the state’s treatment of linguistic minority students, and broader anti-immigrant sentiments, such as those ensconced in Arizona SB 1070, which allows police to demand immigration documents during routine stops or arrests.

In their Introduction, Arias and Faltis situate themselves as teacher educators, and frame language policy as existing not only in the legislative and political sphere, but also as being enacted in the daily practice and attitude of teachers and their interactions with their linguistic minority students. They outline the tripartite structure of the volume: (i) Language and Policy and Arizona; (ii) Implementing SEI in Arizona; (iii) Arizona Teacher Preparation for SEI.

Part 1: Language and Policy in Arizona
In the opening chapter of this section M. Beatriz Arias positions Arizona’s policies on teacher education at the center of her enquiry. She reminds us that the curricula that teachers are exposed to as part of their pre-service education shapes their professional attitudes. Arizona’s language education policy is analyzed as “restrictive” -- just shy of “repressive”, and furthermore as the most restrictive in the United States. Arias argues teachers are the frontline of language policy implementation but that this role is often underidentified in teacher education programs and hence teachers may simply reproduce unexamined linguistic prejudices.

The heart of her chapter is a description of the SEI endorsement required of all teachers in Arizona. Pre-service teachers require 90 hours of preparation across two courses; in-service teachers (i.e. practitioners seeking the required endorsement to maintain professional licensure requirements) require 90 hours of professional development. The content of these courses is mandated by the state, and the state additionally reviews and approves every syllabus across the state.

She skewers this policy on two prongs. First, the mandated curriculum leaves no place for teachers in preparation to examine attitudes, beliefs, or the sociopolitical context in which language policies are implemented. Second, the intrusion of the state into the sphere of the university, in her view, severely restricts the ability of faculty to employ their professional experience and expertise to effectively educate the teaching corps.

A minor criticism is Arias’ use of the acronym LEP for “language education policy.” In US federal law, LEP is used to designate “limited English proficient” students. Despite the fact that this is clearly contested terminology which is argued to downplay the assets and proficiencies of language minority children, employing the acronym for another phrase is unfortunately distracting in this context.

In Chapter 2, “Research-based Reform in Arizona: Whose Evidence Counts for Applying the Castañeda Test to Structured English Immersion Models?” the volume’s editors explore the politicized process of the English language learner (ELL) Task Force committee which designed the SEI program. In particular, they address whether or not the expertise considered by the state meets the first prong of the Castañeda requirement that programs be based on “sound educational theory that is supported by qualified experts.” The authors critique the body of research used by the ELL Task Force on four counts. First, the research relied heavily on evidence from Canadian immersion programs -- which, unlike Arizona’s SEI policy, aim toward bilingual and biliterate students and support both of the students’ languages. The task force assumed a timeline of a single year for students to become fluent in English, which is at odds with general estimates from the research literature of three to seven years. Research on the positive effects of home language literacy was not taken into consideration. Finally the negative effects of the segregation of English learner (EL) students and the deleterious effect of four hours daily of “English phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics,” at the expense of mathematics, science and social studies were not at all considered by the Task Force.

The authors argue that because the courts have historically adopted too low of a standard for the admission of experts on EL education, the ELL Task Force was able to rely on “expert” input from individuals who did not in fact possess sufficient, if any, expertise. They point to federal rules for the admission of expert testimony, as well as legal precedent, and advocate for more stringent standards on the admission of evidence by experts in order to satisfy the Castañeda test.

Michael Long and H.D. Adamson, in Chapter 3, further explore the SEI program created by the Task Force by comparing the syllabus with the current state of the research on child second language acquisition. They identify two major faults -- first, it fails to take into account research which shows that language is acquired more readily as a medium of communication than as an object of study, and second, it does not prepare children with the academic language necessary for them to succeed in learning content areas such as mathematics, science, and social studies.

The SEI syllabus focuses on teaching grammatical structures and vocabulary. The authors review the research on child language acquisition, and particularly the robust finding that children learn language most effectively in the contexts of social, interactional, and task-based instruction. In contrast, “Arizona’s SEI promises dull, teacher-fronted lessons with their traditional diet of model sentences for repetition and manipulation in drill-like activities ... and restricted opportunities for creative student talk” (pp. 43-4).

In their section on academic language, the authors remind us that not only do EL students need to be taught academic language to access the content areas, but that also their ability to draw on an increasing depth of background knowledge in a content area will assist them in learning the language of that field. The lack of content-based linguistic instruction in the SEI program means that children are unlikely to emerge from this program on track with their age peers who are fluent in English, and hence unlikely to continue to academic success after a single year in the SEI program.

Part 2: Implementing SEI in Arizona
Mary Carol Combs traces a detailed history of the legislative and court actions impacting EL education in Arizona from the onset of the Flores vs. Arizona Supreme Court case in 1992. She describes the political landscape that led to the passage of Proposition 203 -- the so-called “English for the Children” ballot initiative financed by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has successfully campaigned for similar legislation in California and Massachusetts (and unsuccessfully in Oregon in 2008). The court’s rulings in Flores vs. Arizona and the Arizona legislature’s subsequent response are analyzed, and Combs unpacks the way in which the particulars of these decisions led to the implementation of SEI.

She goes on to address the simplistic “time-on-task” assumptions of the ELL Task Force, laying out in detail the stringent minute-by-minute mandates for components of English language instruction provided by the Task Force. She describes the “Discrete Skills Inventory” approach to language acquisition as implemented by the Task Force (a fairly concrete example of Long and Adamson’s characterization of the instructional approach as “language as object”):

“... if students are expected to describe items in the classroom, they need first to be taught certain parts of speech such as nouns, adjectives, verbs, as well as how to conjugate verbs, and then learn how to assemble different types of works in proper grammatical order.”

Combs’ detailed history is wrapped in a historiographical analysis of the role of the state in creating truth -- by instantiating the elements of the SEI program which run contrary to the research findings, the state has effectively promulgated its own version of the facts and realities of English language education and acquisition.

Wayne Wright and Koyin Sung’s chapter shifts the focus from policy implementation to classroom reality. They present the results of a survey and case study assessing teachers’ attitudes toward SEI and the implementation of SEI lessons in the classroom. Survey data found that teachers generally were supportive of bilingualism, felt that Proposition 203 was too restrictive, and that a plurality of teachers felt SEI was less effective than bilingual education. Alarmingly, few of the teachers surveyed were able to accurately define structured English immersion. A total of 83% of survey participants reported that their students were not in fact receiving ESL instruction, and conversely, 80% of teachers reported that the instruction for third graders was driven by an emphasis on high-stakes testing (note that it appears that the studies referred to in this chapter were conducted prior to the mandated four instructional hours on English language development -- however this is not made explicit).

The case study compares two classrooms -- one in a majority Hispanic, less wealthy, and “low-performing” school with an experienced teacher and the other in a “performing” school in a more affluent community and with a first-year teacher. The authors used observation in conjunction with the Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol (SIOP), a quantitative rubric to assess the quality of teaching for EL students. They found that on both measures, the more experienced teacher provided higher quality instruction, but that the quality of instruction still was not sufficient to meet the educational needs of the students.

The final chapter in this section is Stephen Krashen, Jeff MacSwan and Kellie Rolstad’s analysis of the ELL Task Force’s “Research Summary and Bibliography for Structured English Immersion Programs.” The analysis refutes the summary point by point. The authors dispute the claim of insufficient empirical research on the effectiveness of program types for EL students, and point to a meta-analysis, a report by the Institute of Education Sciences, a report by the National Literacy Panel and an Arizona-specific report, none of which found any advantage to SEI, and most of which showed that bilingual approaches were more advantageous. They argue that the Time-on-Task assumptions of the Task Force (see discussion of Combs’ chapter, above) erroneously conflate language as object with language as medium. Research on the order of acquisition of forms is argued by the Task Force to imply that instruction should focus on these forms in their acquired order; the authors of the current piece point out that in fact rich linguistic input will allow learners to acquire the forms according their internal acquisitional timetable. They examine the research reviewed to support the contention that ELs should be taught discrete language skills (morphology, syntax, phonology, vocabulary) and conclude that (i) the research does not support this conclusion and (ii) the research clearly indicates that these four discrete areas do not encompass the entirety of the knowledge required to be proficient in English, absent any mention of pragmatic or general (world knowledge based) comprehension skills.

It is not clear whether this piece was contemporaneous with the 2006 ELL Task Force Research Summary and reprinted in the current volume -- Combs’ history appears to indicate that this is the case -- and if so, an explicit note to this effect would be useful to the reader.

Part 3: Arizona Teacher Preparation for SEI
Sarah Catherine K. Moore examines the effect to which the state-mandated training in SEI for all teachers replicates the language ideologies of the state. She finds that the type of institution which delivers the training has an effect, analyzing training provided to teachers via four conduits: universities, community colleges, school districts, and for-profit institutions.

The content of the trainings is analyzed according to whether it reproduces the “majoritarian” state-sponsored ideologies surrounding language or alternately whether it nurtures and supports counter-narratives. Four aspects of the training courses are assessed. Interviewees at all types of institutions noted that they followed the state-mandated curricular framework for instructing teachers in SEI, although university personnel were more likely to note points of resistance in their syllabus. Universities and districts were more likely to express support for bilingualism versus the English-only majoritarian narrative. Community colleges and universities approached professional development by encouraging participants to engage with material, think critically, and construct their own knowledge; universities and districts tended to include multiple sources of methods for implementing sheltered instruction. In generally, universities were more prone to providing counter-narratives, and for-profits were the least so.

Despite the potential sites of resistance, the ability of the state to provide what Moore characterizes as “symbolic artifacts” -- viz. policy mandates, regulations and threats against non-compliance -- has the effect of generally enforcing the replication of the state-sponsored language ideology.

The final pair of papers in this volume provide direct analyses of the attitudes and beliefs of the teachers charged with implementing SEI in the classroom.

Nancy Murri, Amy Markos and Alexandria Estrella-Silva report on the results of a survey designed to elicit from pre-service teachers the degree to which the state-mandated course of study on SEI left them feeling prepared to teach EL students. The authors first review the literature on recommendations for course content for teachers of EL students, which include attention to second language acquisition, appropriate materials and strategies for EL students, appropriate (and inappropriate) assessments and accommodations, and examination of students’ background knowledge and family and community contexts. They note that within the first half of the 90 hours of mandated course time on SEI, required (at the time of writing) for the initial stage of teacher licensure, only one hour is set aside for instruction in second language acquisition processes.

Large majorities of survey respondents expressed that they felt that they had a strong understanding of EL students and that they were well prepared to work with this population. The authors point out that despite these teachers’ strong feelings of preparedness, there are omissions in the state-mandated curriculum. They draw three key implications from their research: that teacher preparation courses should draw explicit attention to the language policy context in which they are situated; that teacher educators should raise the critical consciousness of their students; and that they should encourage resistance to the forces of inertia that accrue when restrictive language policies are put into place.

Kate Olson surveys 177 pre-service teachers in the first week of their program of study. Her aim is to uncover how metanarratives surrounding the English learner population, as they are reproduced via media, the state, and other channels, have implications for the attitudes and beliefs of those about to enter the teaching corps.

Survey results consist of open-ended answers which Olson codes manually according to patterns of “belief statements.” She polls participants on their reasons for wanting to become teachers and their views on the purpose of education and finds that more than 90% of the statements returned indicate that education is intended to create socialized and productive citizens. Almost 60% of participants believed that the best way to teach EL students was via English-only models, while close to 30% believed they should be provided with native language instruction. A similar number expressed that they did not want to teach EL students (58%) and that they did want to teach EL students (33%). Olson points out that, given the increasing diversity of Arizona’s population, it is unlikely that any teacher graduating from a preservice program will not have EL students in a future classroom and that it is problematic that almost 60% of incoming teacher preparation candidates explicitly do not want to teach these children. On a more hopeful note, in unpacking the responses it becomes clear that these future teachers are concerned that they will not have the suite of skills necessary -- a potentially fixable problem. Olson ends by advocating for “real-life opportunities in urban schools to build empathy, compassion and understanding” where teacher candidates can truly get to know EL students and develop an appreciation of ways in which they and their students are situated within a socio-political order.

The combination of scholarly and advocacy work that the authors set out to achieve can be challenging. In simultaneously advocating for change in the sphere of public policy while also maintaining an academic voice and engaging with past theoretical discussions within one’s discipline, authors risk aiming for two distinct (although overlapping) audiences and hitting none. Although the authors in this book manage to navigate this tension skillfully, there are points at which the book might be more accessible to lay policymakers and advocates. Specifically, the introductory material might benefit from an explicit definition of SEI and of the requirements of Arizona law. The particulars of the law and of the Arizona Department of Education’s interpretation emerge piecemeal across the chapters. A second and related challenge is the order of papers in such a volume -- Mary Carol Combs’ historical account, for instance, might have been an effective lead-off piece. The order of papers as described in the foreword, and their chapter numbers, moreover, does not match their order in the volume, indicating that perhaps the editors also struggled with this issue.

Finally -- and again for the reader who is new to Arizona language policy -- it would have been useful to see a contextualization of the language policy within the political context of other anti-immigrant initiatives such as Arizona SB 1070 (allowing for police to examine immigration papers), the state’s moves against ethnic studies programs, most prominently with Tucson Unified School District, and the “Teacher’s English Fluency Initiative” which sought to remove teachers whose English was “heavily accented or ungrammatical.” While these are mentioned in Wiley’s foreword, the volume does not explicitly address how these initiatives directly affect teaching and learning, teacher preparation, or other aspects of the educational experience of EL students.

One could of course just as easily argue that the merits and faults of programs not directly related to language policy ought not fall under the professional scope of educational linguists and teacher educators. Indeed what is most impressive about the book is the way in which it passionately advocates by appealing to sound research and professional knowledge that falls squarely within the purview of the authors’ expertise. Despite any minor faults, the volume is a welcome addition to the literature in the field of equity and English learner education.

Keira Ballantyne is an educational linguist in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University. She has worked on a broad range of topics in English learner education and particularly on professional development and early childhood education for this population.

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Pages: 216
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