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Student success is about teachers, not the state’s English policy

A sign that reads “We are all English Language Learners” hangs on the wall in a classroom at Rhodes Junior High School. (Kelsey Mo/Cronkite News)

A sign that reads “We are all English Language Learners” hangs on the wall in a classroom at Rhodes Junior High School. (Kelsey Mo/Cronkite News)

How do you measure success and controls for other influential variables when it comes to Arizona’s English Learner Law?

Arizona Capitol Times published an opinion that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman was urging citizens to support her in repealing Arizona’s English Learner Law, despite its success. English-language learners, or commonly referred to as ELLs, do well learning with bilingual education. This allows them to learn in their native languages and gradually transitioning into English.

Don Covey

Don Covey

Nobody should argue that language development is essential. However, placing students in a four-hour language development block results in inadequate time for students to learn core subject content expected of them on the AzMERIT.

State-to-state comparisons are shaky at best because of sweeping differences in other education policy and funding levels. Arizona’s test didn’t change once: it’s been through several iterations since 2000. AIMS was also replaced by the more rigorous AzMERIT, and AzM2, and the scale score difference between native English and ELLs remains striking.

The criteria for placing students into a language learner classification and the AzELLA language tests have also seen multiple iterations. And the makeup of second-language immigrants to Arizona has changed considerably over the past two decades moving from mostly Spanish-speaking to include hundreds of different languages.

Shifting the focus to support teachers

Trained and talented staff are essential to student gains: far more than any form of program. The focus should be on retaining and attracting quality educators to work in schools with high percentages of ELLs and poverty. Endless research, common sense, and my observations over 30 years as an educator, all lead to the teacher (besides the parent) as the most important variable in a student’s academic growth. Let’s be real. We continue to live in a state with a serious teacher shortage crisis. Yet our leaders continue to make policy decisions that drive teachers out of the profession.

Outstanding teachers understand that each student has individual needs that must be addressed, and approaching language development with a “one size fits all” mentality is not what is best for all children.

There is at least one credible source of a student’s language progress – their teacher. Schools and teachers deserve greater support and flexibility in addressing the needs of these students and their families. The flexibility to shift to at least two hours of immersion is a good start.

How much is too much?

The state has a legitimate interest in assuring some English language immersion, but should not be in the business of deciding how much any one student needs. Assuring teacher training – yes. Supporting lower class sizes for students trying to do twice as much in the same amount of time as their native English peers – yes.

After two decades of top-down policies with many unintended consequences, we should have learned one thing – top-down policies have unintended consequences.

Our policy leaders should regulate school programs with the same ‘light hand’ that they believe in regulating everything else, including themselves. Simply put, Arizona’s citizens know that our teachers need to be supported and basic principles of fairness should apply to all of us. Children should not be forced to learn English through structured state-mandated English policy.

Don Covey is the former Maricopa County school superintendent and an affiliate of The Best Public Education In Arizona Foundation.


  1. The argument in this article is hard to follow. The point I understood most clearly is that teachers should be able to decide how to help their students learn, which does make sense. However, I can’t tell what language policy Covey is advocating. He mentions bilingual education and seems to be in favor of it, but not in favor of language learning blocks that last most of a day.

    It seems to me that to understand this article, the reader needs to be intimately informed about language education issues in Arizona. If that’s the case, I’m not sure what this adds to the debate.

  2. Don Covey has not been paying attention because a bill passed and was signed by the governor last year that reduced the 4-hour English immersion mandate for English learners to two hours. However, there is a bill (HCR1002) presently in the legislature that would pretty much end English instruction for mostly Spanish-dominant children altogether by allowing school officials to coerce their parents into enrolling their children in dual-language classes where they would receive 60-90% of their instruction in their native language. This has never worked – and every claim that it has worked has proven false. It was implemented before in Arizona and was a huge disaster with thousands of children graduating from high school very weak in English and not prepared for either college or vocational school. The U.S. Supreme Court became involved and sided with the state regarding their decision to get rid of bilingual in favor of English immersion education. Urge your state representatives and senators to vote NO on HCR2001!

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