Advocacy as a “watchdog” for English learners in Arizona


UPDATED: MARCH 29, 2023 AT 5:23 PM

PHOENIX — A children’s advocacy group plans to oversee state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s efforts related to teaching English learners and says they are concerned he may exceed his powers.

“Not only will we be watching all the things that come out of the Department of Education, which he heads as state superintendent, we’re also going to be a watchdog,” said Daniel Hernandez, director of government affairs at Stand for Children in Arizona KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Hernandez said he’s concerned that Horne “spoke a lot about going back to the good old days” when he was last commissioner of state in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, Horne said he supports the current English Language Learning Act, which requires immersion in the English language. It is the bilingual option available to the students he challenges.

“To learn English, you have to be immersed in English,” Horne said. “You can’t learn English by speaking Spanish most of the day.”

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Prop. 203 to require that ELL students be allowed only “a minimal amount” of instruction in their native language while studying English.

The voting measure also required students to remain in immersion English classes — and away from regular classrooms — until they “had a good command of English.”

This paved the way for a four-hour block of structured immersion requirements for ELL students in Arizona, which yielded “a few negative results,” according to Hernandez.

“We literally pulled and separated kids learning English from the rest of the classroom, whether it was math, art, science or music,” he said.

In 2019, then Governor. Doug Ducey approved bipartisan legislation to reduce the mandatory four hours of English immersion to two hours.

It also gave schools the opportunity to choose from four English language learning models developed by the State Board of Education. Schools can also design and submit proposals for their own models.

Horne said he had no objection to current English language learning laws. However, he questions the bilingual immersion model, which allows students to teach half the content in English and the other half in Spanish or another language.

“The first job is to learn English,” Horne said. “Until the student passes the test that we call AZELLA proficient, the student must be in classes that teach English.”

This is because English learners consistently underperform. The latest statewide test results from the 2020-21 school year show that 5% of ELL students are proficient in reading by 3rd grade and 3% are proficient in math by 8th grade.

Additionally, 55% of ELL students graduated from high school in 2021, compared to 76% of all students.

“We’re failing these kids if we don’t give them the best English education and the best overall education,” Hernandez said.

He added that he hopes ELL students will do better academically because schools can choose from four English language learning models.

“We’re about two years away from getting the models in place, so we’re going to have to take a couple of years to see improvements,” Hernandez said.

Horne agreed that test scores are not acceptable for ELL students.

“You obviously have the same academic ability as any other student,” he said. “The solution is that they learn English faster.”

Horne added he plans to offer more training for teachers on how to teach English learners.


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