State drops retraining for teachers with accents
PHOENIX — A Yuma-area official is pleased that state education officials will no longer force schools to retrain or reassign English immersion teachers because they speak with an accent.
“That's good. I'm glad it happened,” said Raymond Aguilera, superintendent of the Gadsden Elementary School District. “Because a person has an accent doesn't mean they're a bad teacher. A lot of people without accents are not good teachers.”
He noted that Americans speak with different accents in various regions of the nation. “So if they went to Louisiana, would they get rid of all the teachers there? Or Texas? Or in Boston, would the Kennedys be out of a job?”
In an agreement with two federal agencies, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) will stop trying to single out teachers who they believe do not have a good command of the English language. That practice resulted in complaints that the state was illegally discriminating against teachers solely because they are Hispanic or are not native-English speakers.
Gadsden School District officials felt many of their teachers were singled out in the past for having Hispanic surnames. In 2005, the district spent about $45,000 to send 30 teachers to English improvement classes after ADE demanded that they take the classes after various constituents complained of teachers in the district with deficient English skills.
But Andrew LeFevre, spokesman for the state agency, said that does not mean schools are necessarily free to hire whomever they want.
Instead, LeFevre said, the settlement with the U.S. departments of justice and education simply takes the state education agency out of the mix. LeFevre said it will now be up to local school districts to certify that their instructors for these classes are, in fact, fluent.
The change Superintendent John Huppenthal agreed to, however, will end what federal attorneys said were purely subjective decisions being made by state inspectors — decisions that had real impacts on teachers singled out.
LeFevre said his boss, Huppenthal, does not believe anything done was improper. That also is the assessment of state Attorney General Tom Horne, who was state school superintendent when the investigation began more than a year ago.
At the heart of the issue are two laws.
A state statute defines an “English language classroom'' as one where English is the language of instruction where “such teaching personnel possess a good knowledge of the English language.'' And the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools certify that teachers who provide instruction for children of limited English proficiency be “fluent in English and any other language used for instruction, including having written and oral communications skills.''
The problem, according to the federal attorneys, is how all that was monitored by state officials who visited the schools. They said the evaluations of teachers were often “subjective.''
For example, the federal agencies said, state officials documented instances where one teacher pronounced the word “the'' as “da.'' In a separate incident, a teacher pronounced “another'' as “anuder'' and where “lives here'' came out as “leeves here.''
Based on that, schools were required to create plans to correct the problems, with complaints that otherwise qualified teachers were removed from classes.
In 2005, Gadsden officials said that monitors sat in classrooms “for two or three minutes” and made decisions based on their observations.
Then a report with conclusions of the investigation was sent from then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne to Aguilera, noting that several district teachers were “very difficult to understand.”
The report threatened to cut state and federal grants and funds if the school district did not comply. The district responded by sending 30 teachers to a two-week, fully compensated English improvement program.
However, Aguilera said Tuesday that the issue has long been dead in Gadsden.
“It's behind us. It's not a major issue,” he said. “All our schools have good teachers, great teachers. We are moving forward.”
The federal attorneys said the state's policy forced schools to take action even where school officials did not have concerns about the teachers' English fluency “and had already assessed the teachers' English fluency using objective measures.
LeFevre said that federal law still requires teachers be fluent.
“It's just who has authority to guarantee that teachers are fluent,'' he said. More to the point, LeFevre said it won't be the state education department.
Horne told Capitol Media Services that the agency he used to run did nothing improper.
“Whenever our observers saw a teacher teaching that was not qualified to do so, we would bring it to the attention of the district,'' he said. “They would always correct it.''
He said that in all — or almost all — cases, the teachers were given additional training “so their English improved.''
“There may have been some cases where they were reassigned to other classes,'' Horne said. “But as far as I know, no one was ever fired.''
Amy Fountain, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Arizona, said all the concerns about whether accents harm the ability of children to learn English are misplaced.
“If a person has a foreign accent or a regional accent that is so thick as to cause a genuine barrier to communication, that's certainly a problem,'' she said. But Fountain said that was not the case where the state Department of Education was going after teachers.
Horne, however, said this was never about accents. He said the only issue is whether a teacher is proficient in English.
But Horne acknowledged that some of the examples cited by federal attorneys are accurate — and that he believes that pronunciation does matter.
“Do you think it's OK for kids to grow up in schools speaking like that, with ‘d's' instead of ‘th's'?” Horne asked. He said it is important that youngsters speak “proper English.''
Fountain, however, said what's taught in the classroom is just a piece of what students learn. “It benefits children acquiring any variety of English or any other language to hear a wide variety of accents while they're learning whatever their target language is.
“Students in classrooms are hearing the language of their teacher. But they're also watching television, they're also listening to the radio,'' all of which she said exposes children to what she calls “broadcast standard'' English.
Yuma Sun staff writer Mara Knaub, Alexis Huicochea of the Arizona Daily Star and Michelle Reese of the East Valley Tribune contributed to this story.