|By Carolina Amoruso, Hispanic American Village Editor
One reads almost incredulously the recent headline from the Huffington Post: “Arizona Ethnic Studies Classes Banned, Teachers With Accents Can No Longer Teach English.” It would seem that after all the shame and negative press heaped upon Arizona’s leaders for the recently enacted law criminalizing undocumented immigrant workers, they would desist from further antagonizing their own population, the media, and advocates for the fair treatment of immigrants nationwide. Instead, however, they are, like a centipede with an arsenal of shoes just waiting to drop, adding on more proscriptions to immigrants’ liberties, now reaching down to the education of the young and thus imperiling future progress for the state and the country as a whole.
Teachers with “heavy” accents to be removed
The Wall Street Journal revealed on April 30 that teachers with heavy accents will be removed from classrooms where students are still learning English. The policy is based on a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act stating that teachers are to be relieved of their duties teaching English learners if they cannot demonstrate sufficient proficiency in the language. Each state was left to draw up its own guidelines on proficiency; Arizona’s yardstick is the thickness of a teacher’s accent.
According to the Journal story, evaluators have already been sent out to monitor teachers’ speech, recording such failings as not distinguishing clearly enough between the ‘b’ and ‘v’ sounds and the inability to pronounce ‘th;’ already a number of teachers have failed and are being excised or reassigned to teach subjects for which they may have no training or familiarity.
Although all bilingual education was to be phased out in the state after the passage of a ballot measure in 2000 in favor of its elimination, a number of schools did not comply. The new law applies to all remaining bilingual and other English tutorial classes. 46% of the state’s children from kindergarten to the second grade are English-language learners. The percentage lowers–one must assume at least in part as a result of English instruction, whether bilingual or ESL (English as a Second Language)–to 14% by the 9th to 12th grade.
“We don’t object to simply having accents,” explained Superintendant of Education, Thomas Horne, a vocal proponent of the anti-immigrant changes, “it’s only when it reaches the point where the teacher is not fluent, meaning bad grammar or significantly mispronouncing words so that students would learn the words wrong.” (One might question Mr. Horne’s own mastery of the language, given that he uses an adjective, “wrong,” when an adverb, “incorrectly,” is called for.)
The whittling away of bilingual and ESL programs flies in the face of scholarship showing that students learn a second language more readily when taught by someone of their own culture. A recent study, reported on by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post blog, found that teachers with an accent can be even more effective than those with non-accented speech when instructing students of the same mother tongue.
The United States has a tradition of fostering bilingual education going back to 1839 when bilingual classes in German were implemented in Ohio’s schools. Louisiana followed with classes for French-speaking students in 1847, and the New Mexico Territory introduced bilingual Spanish-English classes as early as 1850. New Mexico has today an outlook on bilingual education and ethnic studies in opposition to its neighbor Arizona, basing its support on studies that show, for example, that bilingual education promotes literacy in English as well as in the students’ home language. (New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education [NMABE])
Ethnic Studies Banned
Also dealing a heavy blow to immigrant students and their teachers is the ban, announced in early May, on ethnic studies programs in the state. The guise is their purported potential to “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, [be] designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Such wording of clear high crimes to arguable misdemeanors has caused bloggers to comment that in Arizona teaching ethnic studies, which usually translates to Latino/Chicano courses, is treasonous.
For Superintendent Horne, most nettlesome has been the Tucson Unified School District, which he accused of promoting “ethnic chauvinism.” Mr. Horne, originally from the south, said the district’s Latino curriculum reminded him of the Old South (meaning the days when white supremacy reigned in the schools, and implying that brown supremacists now rule in Arizona), further incensing already heated opposition to the ban. The Arizona Republic, which has been giving extensive coverage to the new measures, reports on researchers’ findings that students enrolled in ethnic studies programs there score higher on standardized tests and 70% enroll in college.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the University of Arizona will see a drop in enrollment as students worry about racial profiling and a general atmosphere of fear on campus. Undocumented students can attend the university system schools, but they must pay out-of-state tuition, and the university fears a sharp drop in revenue should they not attend. University administrators have gone out of their way to assure international students that they will be protected and not profiled, but two Mexican schools have already canceled summer exchange programs.
As Arizona returns to the anti-immigrant, Know-Nothing era of the 1850s, when the aggrieved were mostly Roman Catholics, we may need to borrow its brand for today’s developments. If all three policies—the wholesale rounding up of “suspected” undocumented, the removal of bilingual teachers and programs, and the banning of ethnic studies programs– should be allowed to prevail, the young people Arizona’s schools turn out will assuredly know nothing.
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