What's Next Language Learners Reform In AZ?

Legislation | 09/30/2019

Stacey Morley
Government Affairs Director

After two years and countless setbacks, Stand Arizona-sponsored ELL reform legislation passed in 2019. This was a big deal and will help 85,000 English Language Learners (ELL) across the state.

Senate Bill 1014 allows ELL students to spend more time interacting with native speakers to learn English faster. But how did we get here in the first place, and what’s left to do?

A brief history

In the 1990s, Arizona came under fire for failing to deliver equal educational opportunities to ELL students. A lawsuit was filed in federal court.

The lawsuit lasted over 20 years. It even went all the way to the Supreme Court where it was finally dismissed in 2015.

Then Arizona voters passed Prop. 206 in 2000. This required schools to provide instruction only in English and to use a specific instructional model (Structured English Immersion – SEI) during an ELL student’s first year of school.

Parents could opt into a bilingual program only under very particular circumstances.

Then, in 2006, the state passed a law to implement the required SEI and satisfy the federal lawsuit. A task force was established to create these models of instruction.

Although many thought these changes finally resolved the issues with Arizona’s ELL program, educators and parents began to see little or no improvement over time.

The main impediment to ELL improvement was that the task force adopted only one model of instruction and allowed for no flexibility.

As most educators will tell you, kids are not a monolithic group. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, and teachers must be allowed to be flexible with their instruction.

It was Arizona’s policy to require ELL students to be in four-hour blocks of language isolation during the school day. As a result, ELL students were kept out of their core classes.

Something needed to change.

Stand began looking into the issue in 2013 when our parent members brought this issue up to us. Parents told us how their kids were segregated from traditional classrooms. They were falling behind and not graduating.

Our members were telling the truth about the policy’s effect on their kids. According to the state’s report card, ELL students scored below all other subgroups in every grade level and subject area.

This was not something new. Unfortunately, when an issue affects minority students, it is overlooked, and the students are placed on the backburner. The challenges facing ELL students were ignored as the system focused on the majority of students despite the data pointing to a problem with ELL students.

After several years of research we discovered:

  • The restrictive 4-hour block for the SEI model did not allow schools to make choices that best served their students’ needs
  • Although students initially seemed to improve and gain proficiency faster, the test was not hard enough. Students passed the test and were declared proficient, but they were not at the same level as their English-speaking peers. Arizona had the lowest graduation rate for ELL students in the country.
  • The task force implemented the SEI requirement for the entire length of time a student is classified as an ELL, rather than just for the first year as mandated by Prop 206.
  • Parents did not understand the programs their kids were in or how to help them achieve proficiency.

After two years STAND-sponsored legislation was finally passed in 2019. The new law allows ELL students to spend more time interacting with native speakers to help them learn English faster. ELL students will now how a minimum of two-hour language block.

No four-hour block, now what?

With this new ELL reform, the Arizona Department of Education reduced the time requirement and eliminated the 4-hour restrictive block. Those are two big changes that removed the policies that were holding back a lot of students. Before the reforms districts didn’t have the flexibility to figure out which way worked best to teach students English faster. Now districts will now have that much-needed flexibility.

In eliminating the 4-hour restrictive block, students will be able to spend more time in class interacting with native speakers and not falling behind. However, there are still some time requirements:

K-5 120 minutes per day, 600 minutes per week or 360 hours per school year 6-12 100 minutes per day, 500 minutes per week or 300 hours per school year

The combination of flexibility and reduced SEI time is a huge win for our ELL students and our schools.

Finding a way to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction

While we were advocating for SB 1014, the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona State Board of Education began to and currently are working on developing frameworks to evaluate the new Structured English Immersion and alternative models that are based on evidence and research.

This framework will then be used to evaluate the models of teaching ELL students that are submitted to the Department of Education by local school districts.

According to the Department of Education, the new models should meet all of the following criteria:

Provide coherent instruction aligned with this state’s English Language Proficiency Standards Include oral and written language instruction, including structured opportunities to develop verbal and written skills and comprehension strategies Include access to complex language content through grade-level textbooks with appropriate supports Include parent engagement strategies

These frameworks are expected to be approved by December 2019. In the spring of 2020 schools districts and charters schools will have to choose one of the new and approved models for use in the 2020-2021 school year. Questions to ask your district

A lot of changes are happening. That’s good news. The issue is that we must make sure that our schools are implementing these new changes.

Here are a few questions to ask your school.

Is your school district creating its own ELL model? If ELL instruction has worked really well in a district they should submit that model for evaluation and approval.

Are they partnering with other districts to create one? Maybe creating a model alone is not the best route. Schools have the flexibility to partner with other schools to come up with a model to submit.

Will they adopt one of the approved models from the state board of education? The other option is that schools can just wait to see which models have been approved and adopt one of those models.

Have they reduced the 4-hour block? This is a big question, and one we must make sure is happening. The four-hour block was restrictive and not flexible. Schools now have the freedom to decide what is best for their ELL students.

Final thoughts

This change is hard. It won’t happen overnight.

It’s going to take all of us working together to support school districts’ implementation of this better policy for our ELL students. Too much is at stake to maintain the status quo.

Are you interested in helping these changes get implemented? If so we would love to hear from you.


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