It's been widely reported that the Arizona Department of Education has begun working to remove teachers whose English-language skills are viewed as inadequate. According to press reports, the evaluators aim (among other things) to remove teachers with "accents", which probably means Spanish accents in most cases. Casey Stegall, "Arizona Seeks to Reassign Heavily Accented Teachers", Fox News 5/22/2010, wrote:
After passing the nation's toughest state immigration enforcement law, Arizona's school officials are now cracking down on teachers with heavy accents.
The Arizona Department of Education is sending evaluators to audit teachers and their English speaking skills to make sure districts are complying with state and federal laws.
Teachers who are not fluent in English, who make grammatical errors while speaking or who have heavy accents will be temporarily reassigned.
"As you expect science teachers to know science, math teachers to know math, you expect a teacher who is teaching the kids English to know English," said Tom Home, state superintendent of public instruction.
The basis for this crack-down is said to be a clause in the Federal "No Child Left Behind" act, which makes it a condition of federal aid to states that teachers be fluent in English. According to the same article,
In 2000, [Arizona] voters passed a referendum which stipulated that instruction of these classes be offered only in English. Then in 2003, President Bush's No Child Left Behind act stated schools couldn't receive federal funding unless an English teacher was totally fluent in the language.
The date given in this article appears to be wrong — the No Child Left Behind act was passed by Congress in 2001, and signed by the president in January of 2002. The text of the law does state, in any case, that
Each eligible entity receiving a subgrant under section 3114 shall include in its plan a certification that all teachers in any language instruction educational program for limited English proficient children that is, or will be, funded under this part are fluent in English and any other language used for instruction, including having written and oral communications skills.
It seems appropriate to require English teachers to be "fluent in English". However, there's nothing in the law about "accent", and the information on teacher quality evaluation at the U.S. Department of Education doesn't seem to say anything about this either. This omission is probably for good reason, as explained at length in a statement from the Linguistics Department of the University of Arizona on the "Teachers’ English Fluency Initiative in Arizona".
This statement was sent to Governor Jan Brewer and Superintendent Tom Horne, with the following cover letter:
Dear Governor Brewer and Superintendent Horne:
I am attaching a statement prepared by our faculty in response to the news that "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."
As scientists, as educators, as citizens, and as state employees, we feel it is our duty to provide the scientific facts that are relevant so that state leaders and citizens can make informed decisions.
If there's anything we can do to help or clarify this, please let me know.
U. of Arizona
They express the relevant facts, as they see them, as the following eight points:
1) ‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
2) Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
3) Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don't speak Spanish.
4) Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
5) It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
6) There are many different 'accents' within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
7) Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
8) There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.
The remaining five pages of their statement explain these assertions and back them up with references.
Does anyone know what formal criteria the Arizona evaluators have been told to use? Since the Fox News report on the situation seems unable even to get the date of the NCLB law correct, I'm reluctant to trust their assertions about the nature of the Arizona teacher evaluation. There are other press reports that seem to be less careless — the Arizona Linguistics Department's statement references (what I take to be) this WSJ article — but still.
[Some commentary on various sides of this issue:
Matthew Balan, "CNN Spins Arizona's English Ed. Standard as Accent 'Crackdown,' 'Ban'"
Andrei Codrescu, "Arizona Education Loses The Accent Of America"
David Edwards, "Arizona cracks down on teachers with heavy accents"
"Arizona English Educators Under Scrutiny (Video) Teachers And Accents"
Maya Prabhu, "Arizona law worries non-native educators"
Christopher Peterson, "Strong Accents Define America"
Amanda Terkel, "Arizona Superintendent: It’s A Big Problem If Teachers Have Accents And Pronounce ‘Comma’ As ‘COH-ma’"
Valerie Straus, "How Arizona is checking teachers’ accents"
Valerie Strauss, "Concern over accented teachers not original to Arizona"
Bret Kofford, "Life Out Here: They could not teach in Arizona"
In particular, note this CNN story:
And compare the commentary on it by Matthew Balan, linked above, which sees the CNN report as helping to "perpetuate the liberal talking point about Arizona's supposedly racist campaign against illegal immigrants". Then you could throw Andrei Codrescu's commentary into the mix: "This would be a much better country if everyone just kept quiet and handed his proof of citizenship to the police."
Politics aside, the most useful discussion that I've found of what's actually happening comes from a blog post by Valerie Strauss, which includes this material supplied by Amy Rezzonico, a spokesperson for the Department of Education:
2008-09 school year - The Arizona Dept of Education monitored 73 School Districts. Seven of these were cited “for a fluency problem.”
Number of teachers observed: 1,529.
Number of teachers found to have pronunciation problems: 25
School districts are required to submit a plan to the education department about what they will do to help the cited teachers.
"Not one plan submitted by a school district talked of removal of the teacher," she wrote. Instead the plans said that professional development would be provided to ensure the teacher is highly qualified....
2009-10 school year -- The education department monitored 61 districts and found 9 districts were cited for fluency.
Number of teachers monitored and cited for fluency issues is not yet known because the data is still being compiled and evaluated.
Other reports suggest that some teachers have been re-assigned, but I'm not sure how to square those reports with this information. Perhaps those are local reactions rather than moves mandated by the state?
Via Strauss, Rezzonico also provides excerpts from the monitoring form that evaluators are using, which includes this bit of unintentional irony:
If the monitor hears a message that is incomprehensive in English from the instructor, this constitutes a “NO" response.
Presumably "incomprehensive" is a malapropism for "incomprehensible" -- the OED does allow the meaning "Not to be comprehended or understood; incomprehensible", but flags it as obsolete, with the most recent citation in 1791. This seems to count as an instance of the very next item on the check-list:
If the monitors hear words used that are impeding communication, this constitutes a “NO” response.
Quis cusdodiet ipsos custodes?]