Arizona Grades Teachers on Fluency

PHOENIX—As the academic year winds down, Creighton School Principal Rosemary Agneessens faces a wrenching decision: what to do with veteran teachers whom the state education department says don’t speak English well enough.

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.

State education officials say the move is intended to ensure that students with limited English have teachers who speak the language flawlessly. But some school principals and administrators say the department is imposing arbitrary fluency standards that could undermine students by thinning the ranks of experienced educators.

Really, they are not grading on fluency. At least in this article, fluency is not really addressed. They are really looking at some sort of target accent and grammar use measures. I’m really wondering if the WSJ just didn’t report this with enough accuracy. I can’t imagine that they (the Arizona DoE) would be that messy in proposing evaluation measures.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think of this. The racist scumbags are out in force if you take a look at the comments section, and this is enough to make anyone thing this is a bad idea. However, it is much more than an issue of race or even language identity. This is the ongoing, knock-down, drag out fight on the issue of NESTs (native English-speaking teachers) and NNESTs (non-native English-speaking teachers) in ESL classrooms.

This debate has been hot in TESOL for many years. The growth of interest/belief in World Englishes has kept it at the forefront of criticism, theory, and practice discussions in recent years.

Ordinarily, I fall on the side of the NNESTs on this argument, but my opinion differs depending on the context and the goals of the organization. The policy, at first glance seems reasonable. Teachers with an accent or grammar that impedes communication, should be removed from the classroom (Arizona is only proposing that they are removed from ESL classrooms). This is completely reasonable, BUT….

Oops, we now have the problem of rating these teachers. Should all teachers be accessed by this measure? That would only make sense. There are plenty of native English-speaking teachers out there with terrible grammar and writing skills (also referred to in the article). We should get rid of them to. Or, should the people evaluated just have to be as good as the worse of the native English-speaking teachers? That would set a low bar, wouldn’t it?

What about a teacher with a heavy Scottish accent? I mean, have you ever seen Trainspotting? It may be English, but it’s pretty tough to understand for most Americans. I’d even venture to guess that most Americans understand English with a heavily influenced Spanish accent better. Really, we hear it much more often. So, the Scottish are out. While we are at it, the English, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans should be out, too. If they don’t speak American they shouldn’t be teaching our fragile children. Oh wait. Canadians. They’re out too. What’s up with that “aboot” thing. That ain’t American, ya know? They’re gone.

OK, so I lapse into a good deal of sarcasm. The question is left unanswered, though. What is the target? This is the slipperiest of slopes in a country where there is no standard. No matter where you live, everyone will insist that their English is standard. That doesn’t mean it won’t impede comprehension when interacting with students from other regions. If we have this much variability at home, what is the standard that we shoot for?

I don’t outright disagree with the Arizona policy; however, I am doubtful that they can come up with a fair assessment of these abilities that take into account the many factors that make a good teacher of English.

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