Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Superintendent Horne: Need to save money on ELL? Stop Asking So Many Questions

In order to save money in our public schools, Senate Democrats have recently learned, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is removing tools that districts use to identify potential English Language Learners.

Superintendent Horne has previously told the Legislature that by working with school districts, he would be able to reduce the additional dollars required for ELL instruction from the roughly $40.6 million appropriated in FY2009, to slightly less than $9 million in FY2010.

This week, Senate Democrats learned how this was achieved. On March 12, Superintendent Horne sent a letter to districts essentially ordering them to ask fewer questions when assessing whether a pupil speaks a language other than English. Such a pupil is classified in educational parlance as PHLOTE (Primary Home Language Other Than English). The process is simple: Ask fewer questions, and you do not get as many ELL students.

Currently, schools ask a child’s parent three questions to determine primary home language:

  • What is the primary language used in the home regardless of the language spoken by the student?
  • What is the language most often spoken by the student?
  • What is the language that the student first acquired?

If the answer to any of these three questions is not “English,” then the child is given a test to determine if they are in fact proficient in English. If so, then no further action is taken. If not, then the child is classified as an ELL student and taught English.

At Mr. Horne’s direction, the new test for primary language will be a single question:

  • What is the primary language of the student?

At this point, the primary home language survey is no longer a survey. A survey establishes a pattern. Three questions comprise a survey. A single question hinges a child’s receipt of services on whether or not a parent gets the answer “right.” If the question is not answered “correctly,” a child may sit in a classroom for weeks, months, or longer before a teacher realizes that the reason he or she is not doing well is because they don’t understand what is going on. A child could be misdiagnosed as special needs and given the wrong services or worse, if the child is middle or high-school age, stop showing up altogether.

Mr. Horne’s primary responsibility as Superintendent of Public Instruction is to ensure that all children in Arizona are given access to a system that allows them to succeed. He should be fighting to preserve these services. Instead, he has diminished access to services for a politically unpopular population of students in order to achieve some savings and score some quick political points with the Republican leadership of the Legislature. These are children. Not political pawns. He needs to get his priorities straight.

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