Amid all the national attention on Arizona these past few months, largely due to Senate Bill 1070 empowering police to take "reasonable" steps to verify the immigration status of criminal suspects, the state's K12 district administrators have been wrestling with a unique segregation issue, as well.
Over the past two years, all districts have implemented a state-mandated curriculum for English-language learners centered on a four-hour block of time in which ELLs have been separated from other students for focused instruction. In addition, administrators in at least one district face state sanctions over ethnic studies classes, which will be banned next Jan. 1 if they cater to a specific ethnic group, or advocate ethnic separatism or a desire to overthrow the U.S. government.
Opponents of S.B. 1070 and these other state policies regarding ELLs and ethnicstudies classes say those measures are all connected—and divisive in that they target those who are new to the United States. "We no longer can separate these issues," says Manuel Isquierdo, superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District. "That's why we're so aggressively concerned about S.B. 1070. Along with everything else in this state, it's anti-immigration, and to some degree anti-Hispanic—and anti-education. ... It's creating a climate of fear and mistrust among many Latino families."
However, the state's deputy superintendent of education, Margaret Dugan, says it's unfortunate that S.B. 1070 and the ethnic-studies legislation passed so close in time, but she doesn't see those issues, along with the four-hour segregation of ELL students, as part of any coordinated campaign. "I don't see it as connected at all," she says. "People might connect the dots differently."
Separation of ELLs
Under House Bill 2064, first implemented in 2008, ELL students are tested each spring and labeled as basic, pre-emergent, emergent or intermediate. Those in the first three categories are pulled out of class for four hours daily, while those labeled intermediate are mainstreamed but given extra support. Some see the pullout strategy as sound pedagogy; others say it's driven by a political imperative for state leaders to show they're pushing new residents to the state to assimilate, using methods not in line with educational best practices.
Several school superintendents have expressed a variety of concerns about this measure. Carlos Garcia, president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, could see pulling out students for an hour or two to learn specific skills, but he also sees the value in ELLs spending more time with English speaking students who speak the language more skillfully. "The four-hour thing—I think that's ridiculous," says Garcia, who is also the superintendent of San Francisco (Calif.) Unified School District. "Segregating kids is never a good thing."
Another concern superintendents have expressed is over how the four-hour requirement crowds out the rest of the day. "With four hours of ELL [instruction], how many minutes does that leave you for the rest—math, science, PE, music? Time is always something educators struggle with," says Myriam Roa, superintendent of Phoenix Elementary School District.
Students in the Phoenix Union High School District are beginning to find it difficult to take all the other classes they need to graduate, says Superintendent Kent Scribner. "Many are forced to miss elective class opportunities or are required to take summer school," he says.
Dugan, who's running for state superintendent of schools this year, notes that districts can integrate English language instruction with other subjects like social studies or science. She adds, "If they don't have a good command of the English language, they're not going to be able to pick up social studies or science, or any of these other disciplines." She says she sees no reason why high school students cannot still graduate on time.
The Tucson Unified School District would prefer more integration of students, says Rob Ross, lead legal counsel. "Our position is that there shouldn't be one, mandated system," he says. "If having a pullout session is helpful for one kid, it might not be for another, who's better off learning with the rest of the English-speaking kids. We're looking for flexibility. Don't force a particular pedagogy on us."
Manuel Isquierdo, superintendent in Sunnyside Unified School District, sees the new curriculum as based more on politics than pedagogy, and driven by state leaders who feel the need to show the public they're promoting English first. Nevertheless, the district, like all others, has moved forward. "We're going to try to make the best of it," he says. "They think if you immerse kids for one year, they're going to learn English. It hasn't worked."
The state has also reclassified how it determines whether the program works in a way that some superintendents say unfortunately exaggerates the numbers of those who no longer need English language instruction.
In Phoenix Union, for example, under the state classification system, 20 percent of students were English-language learners in 2005; now, it's only 9 percent. But 60 percent come from homes where Spanish is the primary language, Scribner says. "Students are exhibiting oral proficiency but not a deep academic understanding of vocabulary that would ensure that they can function at the high school level," he says. "It's conversational English as opposed to academic English. ... Many of our teachers have expressed their criticism of this assessment."
Although most of these students graduate, some take longer than four years, and "many more do not fulfill their ultimate academic potential," says Phoenix Union spokesman Craig Pletenik, adding that they are "hamstrung by the fact that they are not fully proficient in the English language."
Dugan defends the state's decision to eliminate questions about the primary language spoken in a student's home and the first language learned by the student, preferring to focus solely on the primary language spoken by the student. "We felt that one question sufficed" to determine who needed to be pulled out, she says.
Ethnic Studies Reaches Gag Order
Many see the ethnic-studies legislation, House Bill 2281, passed last spring but delayed until Jan. 1, as aimed specifically at the Tucson district, which offers history classes in African-American, Mexican- American, Native American and Pan- Asian studies. Those classes originally sprung from a 1970s-era lawsuit in which African- American and Latino community members alleged that Tucson Unified had been showing racial bias against students of color in its student services, among other issues.
The classes are now considered elective classes that fulfill history requirements in some of Tucson Unified's high schools. When State Superintendent of Education Tom Horne, a candidate for attorney general this year and whose primary election remained a cliffhanger and faced a recount at press time, visited Tucson to meet with district officials and witness the ethnic-studies classes in action on May 12, he faced more than 200 protesters against the new law that bans the classes and against his support of that law. Students were chanting, "Horne, Horne, I wish he hadn't been born."
"That's more evidence of what's being taught," says Dugan. "Instead of a rational discussion, it was a demonstration of hatred and disregard of a public official."
The district canceled the meeting because officials said Horne had turned it into political theater by calling a press conference. "It didn't sound like he was interested in observing what was happening in the classroom. He wanted to make a show out of it," Ross says.
"The event was set up and originally agreed to as a sit-down, where [Horne and school administrators] were going to talk out issues and try to reach understandings," adds Michael Areinoff, legal counsel for Tucson Unified. "The feeling developed rather quickly, when they learned how it was set up, that he wanted to turn it into a political event. The decision was that we would rather not enable that. If we're talking about helping our kids and making it a better program, fine. But we weren't interested in getting caught up in his campaign."
Ross, the lead legal counsel for Tucson, says that Horne and other critics have seized on and misinterpreted anecdotes from the ethnic-studies classes. "They keep pointing to some visit someone made to a classroom years and years ago," he observes, and that "some teacher made a comment" complaining that the tenor of the classes was anti-American. "Or it's quotes from historical figures in textbooks, and they think that's what the district is advocating. It's just a quote from a historical figure."
Probably the most complained-about text is a history of the Mexican War (1846- 1848) and its aftermath called Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, in which a historical figure is quoted as saying, "Kill the gringo!" Ross says.
Opponents of the class consider that to be advocacy on the schools' part, he says, adding, "There's definitely a different viewpoint [from] what you get in the normal textbook," Ross says. "The classes are designed to promote critical thinking and say, 'Here is what is the standard version of this event, and here is a Mexican's perspective. Compare and contrast.' It sounds like what we all did in college, but they're doing it at high school. [Opponents] consider that to be advocacy of that kind of behavior or thought, which isn't what the class is teaching."
Ross expects a showdown on the issue this fall before Jan. 1. "We want to talk with [the state board and state superintendent's office] about what their real beefs are, and if they can show us how we're violating that law before it goes into effect," he says. "We want to start a dialogue with the state board of education. What parts of it do they think we're violating, and what's their evidence for that?"
"They made no secret that we were the target for that [law against ethnic studies]. We're confident that our classes don't violate the law in the first place," Ross says. "They're open to anyone. They meet whatever standards are required to be met by the state, and they don't advocate the overthrow of the American government or advocate ethnic solidarity."
Appearing on CNN in May, Horne stated that the ethnic-studies law targets programs that teach "ethnic chauvinism" and according to the transcript on CNN's Web site, added "these kids' parents and grandparents came to this country, most of them legally, because this is the land of opportunity. And they trust their children to our schools. And we should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity, and if they work hard, they can achieve their dreams, and not teach them that they're oppressed."
Dugan echoed those sentiments, citing a spring 2007 school assembly appearance by United Farm Workers' activist Dolores Huerta in which she told Tucson Magnet High School students that "Republicans hate Latinos." When Dugan followed with an appearance of her own, encouraging students to make up their own minds about what political party to support, they put duct tape over their mouths and turned their back on her, she says.
Ross says the Huerta appearance is "what started the huge firestorm that led to other visits to the school" and eventually the ban.
Beyond her personal experience, Dugan says the state department of education has heard complaints from "at least four or five" former teachers in the Tucson district about "anti-American propaganda" in ethnic studies classes that leads students of specific ethnicities to believe they cannot possibly succeed in the United States.
Neither she nor Tucson personnel report hearing complaints from parents about the content in the course, and Areinoff says he's only aware of one former teacher, who taught in the program "years ago," who has spoken up. "Teenagers are very impressionable," Dugan says. "When we have teachers tell them this country has been oppressive to Latinos and they're victims, and they need to rise up and take back this country, that is teaching them almost subversion-type tactics."
She adds that the former teachers have told the department that students are taught Arizona once belonged to Mexico, and "this is really Mexico, and they need to take it back. This is the United States now, and they should be teaching them that they are Americans."
Dugan says that she's open to talk with Tucson but believes the mindset of some in the district will prove too ethnocentric for the state department to reach any understanding with them. Dugan says the department has requested video of the classroom to help establish if the material would pass muster with the state law but that she has not heard back.
But Isquierdo says that Horne, Dugan and others don't understand what ethnic studies classes are about. "Both Tom Horne and Margaret Dugan are basing [their criticisms] on second-hand comments and a lack of understanding of American history and the complexity of American history," he says. "They have never gone to TUSD and done their own assessment."
Ethnic-studies does touch on injustice in American history like slavery of African-Americans, and mistreatment of Native Americans, Isquierdo says. "Latino history has the same history of injustices. But at the end of the day, you still have to be proud to be an American."
Other districts say that although they teach ethnic studies, they do so not as a separate program, so they don't expect to be affected by the new legislation. "It will not impact Phoenix Union, as we have taken an integrationist approach to multiculturalism—it is embedded into our English and social studies classes," Scribner says. "We do not separate out students, nor instruction. All students should learn about all cultures."
It's important to note that studying one ethnicity does not devalue others, Garcia adds. "It's not a conspiracy to divide us," he says. "People say, 'Why do you need to teach that?' The simple truth is, look at our textbooks. They're still very Eurocentric. I'm in San Francisco, and I'd like to learn a little bit more about the Chinese culture. It bridges understanding."
Many Arizona administrators hope to bridge understanding between themselves and the state department of education and legislature, in order to gain greater autonomy in how they teach ELLs and students who want to delve deeper into minority cultures and learn about their respective roles in American history.