Segregating Arizona’s English Learners: A Return to the "Mexican Room"?

by Patricia Gándara & Gary Orfield - 2012

Background:This study grew out of a recent Supreme Court case known as Horne v Flores. The case began in 1992 in Nogales, Arizona when a 4th grade English learner (EL), Miriam Flores, sued the district and the state for failing to provide her (and other EL students) with an appropriate education as guaranteed by the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974. After years of failing to respond to federal court orders, in 2007 Arizona adopted, and in 2008 implemented, a 4 hour English language development course that (1) segregates EL students from their English speaking peers; (2) denies them access to the core curriculum; and (3) groups them with students who also lack knowledge of English so that the EL students have no opportunity to interact with English speaking students. The Supreme Court intervened in June 2009 with a decision that largely absolved the state from any requirement that they fund programs for EL students in a manner that bore “a rational relationship to the students’ needs.” But, the Court did remand the case back to federal court to investigate whether the program in place was, indeed, meeting the needs of the EL students.

Arizona has a history of serious school segregation that has harmed English language learners and other students. In l950 the state still had a law mandating racial segregation of students and even when the Supreme Court ruled Southern segregation unconstitutional in l954, Arizona was one of only a handful of states where state law still permitted school districts to openly segregate their students. Both Latino and black students went to court to try to reverse segregation, winning victories in state and federal courts in the l950s but this did not resolve the issues, which are still being litigated in Arizona sixty years later in 2011.

Purpose: At the time of the remand in 2009, there was no empirical research on the impact of the four-hour English Language Development (ELD) program, nor had there been any legal challenge to a program that both segregated EL students from their English speaking peers for the entire day in many cases, and denied the students access to the regular curriculum, which is guaranteed by an earlier Supreme Court decision, Lau v Nichols, in 1974. This study draws upon both new empirical research on this topic as well as the extant literature on instruction of English learners and the effects of segregation on minority students to fill this void. The study reported here is one of nine studies commissioned by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA whose intent was to determine how students are taught and how they learn in the four hour program, and to what extent the program operates meets the requirement of federal anti-discrimination laws.

Findings: Based on an exhaustive review of the extant research on segregation and linguistic isolation, this study finds that the excessive segregation of Arizona’s Latino and EL students is most probably harmful to their achievement and social and emotional development. It exacerbates the existing segregation of these students, not just by school, but by classroom as well, and as other studies recently conducted in Arizona have shown, it is stigmatizing, marginalizing, and putting these students at high risk for school failure and drop out. Moreover, unlike what the Arizona Department of Education has contended, it is not moving the great majority of these students toward full English proficiency within one year, thus potentially exposing them to years of this unnecessary segregation and lack of access to the regular curriculum, pushing them further and further behind academically. Many districts in Arizona simply have not implemented the state required program and some have requested to be waived from the four-hour block for high school students “on track to graduate” because the program makes it nearly impossible for most secondary EL schools to graduate from high school with their peers.

This study also finds that many research-based alternatives exist to the present program model being provided by Arizona schools, and some of these are described in the paper. Included here are discussions of sheltered English, bilingual, and dual language programs. Two-way dual language programs are especially highlighted as they have as a clear objective the integration of EL students with English speakers.

Research Design: Research review and analysis.

Conclusions: This review of new and extant research on linguistic isolation, the effects of segregation of English learners, and the content and practices observed in the Arizona 4 hour ELD model concludes that Arizona’s program for its EL students places them at risk of school failure, delayed graduation, and negative academic self-concepts. The program also challenges the rights established in Lau v Nichols (1974), raising serious questions about its constitutionality. The authors conclude that Arizona should seek more effective program models to educate its EL students.


School segregation exists on a variety of levels in Arizona and has highly negative consequences for English learners. With between 10 and 15 percent of students classified as English learners in Arizona,1 the disparities among districts and schools in the state are stark. At Cartwright Elementary District, in a lower income urban area of Phoenix, two-thirds of the students in the 20,000 plus school district come from Spanish speaking homes. Almost all of the schools in Cartwright have populations of English learners that hover around 50 percent or higher. Not far away in Chandler Unified School District, serving a much more affluent area of Maricopa County, outside Phoenix, the 35,000 student distirct has about 18 percent English learners, but they are very unevenly distributed across the district. For example, Galveston Elementary School, which serves nearly 1000 students, has more than 50 percent English learners and is on the list of federal underperforming schools. A few miles away in a more affluent area of the same district, Jacobson Elementary School, another large school of 856 students, has just 3 percent English learners and is characterized as an “excelling” school.

Arizona is not unique in such disparities; across the U.S., English learners are more likely to attend large, failing urban schools in which they are segregated with other English learners (Cosentino de Cohen & Clewell, 2006; Rumberger et al, 2006). Of course in Arizona, as in most other places in the country, the overwhelming majority (about 81%) of English learners are Latino students.

Arizona has a history of serious school segregation that has harmed English language learners and other students. In l950 the state still had a law mandating racial segregation of students and even when the Supreme Court ruled Southern segregation unconstitutional in l954, Arizona was one of only a handful of states where state law still permitted school districts to openly segregate their students. Both Latino and black students went to court to try to reverse segregation, winning victories in state and federal courts in the l950s (Finn, 1998), but this did not resolve the issues, which are still being litigated in Arizona sixty years later in 2011.2

When Latino students faced discrimination, educators sixty years ago tried to justify segregation as an educational necessity, saying that it was good for children to be segregated in the “Mexican room” because of their language problems. The l951 Gonzalez v. Sheely federal court decision outlawing segregation of Latino students in separate schools in Arizona, concluded that segregation on the basis of language needs was harmful and could only be permitted under very limited circumstances because it had negative consequences for the acquisition of English. The court found that, “children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation, and commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals. It is also clear that the methods of segregation prevalent in the respondent school district foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists” (Gonzales v. Sheely, 96 F.Supp.1004 (D.C.. Ariz. 1951). In this paper we will show that, in fact, more than 50 years later, research conducted in Arizona schools finds the same kind of segregation that the federal court found unconstitutional in the middle of the last century.

Additionally, the Gonzalez court cited the Supreme Court’s McLaurin v Oklahoma decision (1950), a higher education case that was a key precursor to Brown v. Board of Education: “the very act of setting plaintiff apart from other students in the same room because of the racial origin of the plaintiff was held to deny plaintiff equal protection. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school associations, regardless of lineage.” In its l973 Keyes v Denver School District No. I decision, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly recognized the rights of Latino students (a great many of whom were English learners) to desegregation remedies. The Court concluded that “though of different origins, Negroes and Hispanos in Denver suffer identical discrimination in treatment when compared with the treatment afforded Anglo students.” It found that Latinos experienced “economic and cultural deprivation and discrimination” that justified desegregation remedies. In implementing the Keyes decision, Denver’s federal district court found it necessary to protect the rights of the district’s Latino children to appropriate linguistic education and successfully encouraged a settlement between the plaintiffs and the district on this issue.

Unfortunately, in spite of the court rulings, many English learners continue to experience school segregation along three different dimensions: they are segregated by ethnicity, by language, and by poverty, and the impacts of segregation on Arizona’s Latino English learners are powerful both at the school and classroom levels. We first document the high and increasing segregation among Arizona’s schools and then examine the impact, particularly on EL students of the severe segregation at the classroom level, which is now mandated by state law. We will also briefly review the history of segregation of Latino and Spanish speaking students in Arizona into “Mexican schools” and the “Mexican rooms.” Finally, we suggest alternatives to Arizona's current practices that could counteract the increasing segregation of EL students in that state.


Research on the effects of segregation on students follows two lines: (1) segregation by school, such that certain students are channeled into schools that disproportionately serve racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities and the effects of being assigned to such schools; and (2) segregation by classroom, which commonly takes the form of tracking students into inferior curricula – remedial courses and non-college preparatory classes. One of the challenges to providing optimal learning environments for English learners is the grouping of students for targeted English and other instruction while also providing students with structured opportunities to interact with English speakers. Strong programs consciously balance both goals so as to maximize targeted instruction while simultaneously minimizing segregation of EL students.   

In both cases, those segregated students who are ethnic and linguistic minorities are usually also poor. This triple segregation of Arizona’s English learners, by ethnicity, language, and poverty, has cumulative effects. Linguistic segregation at the classroom level for much of the day intensifies all the negative impacts of school segregation. For this reason, it is especially crucial to organize instruction in ways that can mitigate, not exacerbate, the multiple forms of segregation experienced by students who are learning English.


In spite of the Supreme Court’s clear recognition of the desegregation rights of Latino students, their levels of school segregation have increased dramatically in the nation and in Arizona, with serious educational consequences. In l970 the state’s enrollment was 19.9 percent Latino. By 2007-8 the public schools of Arizona were 41 percent Latino and 45 percent white. In l970 Arizona’s Latinos, on average, attended significantly integrated schools with an average white enrollment of 46 percent, but segregation increased sharply after l980. In 2007-08, the typical Latino student attended a school in which only 27% of his or her peers were white. By 2007-08, 78 percent of the state’s Latino students were in schools with less than half white students and 38% were in schools that were intensely segregated, where zero to 10 percent of the students were white. Latino levels of segregation on all of these measures were substantially higher than those of the state’s Blacks, who had experienced a very high level of segregation historically. This segregation was not only by ethnicity, but also by poverty. In the most recent federal data, the school of the typical Latino student has 50.4% children in poverty (eligible for subsidized lunches), twice as high as the white level (25.6%) and substantially higher than the black level, 35.5%. This is what we define as double segregation and is one of the root causes of the educational harm of segregation (Orfield and Lee, 2005). A recent study of Arizona schools (Haas & Huang, 2010) found that “Maricopa and Pima Counties, with the largest total student enrollment among counties, had schools with 0 percent English language learner students close to schools with greater than 50 percent English language learner students” (p. 1). Thus EL students are significantly segregated by language as well as ethnicity and poverty in most Arizona schools.

Latino students in Arizona also typically attend schools that have four times as many students classified as EL as do the schools attended by the state’s white students. In addition to its regular public schools, Arizona is a national leader in the creation of charter schools, with the nation’s highest proportion (9.2%) of its students in these publicly funded institutions. In 2007, the state’s 448 charters represented one-ninth of the U.S. total. Enrollment had more than doubled since 2000. Arizona’s charter schools significantly over-represent white students and under-represent Latino students in their total enrollment (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley & Wang, 2010). A study of the 2005-6 statistics showed that the overall segregation levels in charters was about the same as in regular public schools although charters are not limited by neighborhood or school district boundaries. One third (33%) of the charter school Latino students were in intensely segregated schools with zero to ten percent white enrollment.3 Two years later the charters were 34% Latino and 38% of those students were intensely segregated (Frankenberg et al, 2010). These schools also seriously under-enroll English learners, so that white, English speaking students are less likely to encounter English learners in charter schools than in the public schools.    


Ethnicity and Poverty

Segregation by school is an increasing problem for Latino students and English learners. Minority segregated schools are usually also segregated by poverty and are more likely to have inadequate facilities and materials (Phillips & Chin, 2004), less experienced (see, for example, Lankford, Loeb & Wyckoff, 2002; Darling-Hammond, 2001),4 less qualified teachers (Clodtfelter, Ladd & Vigdor, 2005; Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, 2005), and less successful peers (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005; Schofield, 2006). All of these factors taken together tend to produce lower educational achievement for the students who are assigned to these schools (Mickelson, 2001; Borman et al, 2004). One reason that school segregation produces such negative outcomes is that it is highly correlated with poverty. Racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities are also very likely to be poor (Saporito & Sohoni, 2007; Orfield & Lee, 2006),5 and studies demonstrate that concentrated poverty is associated with everything from less optimal physical development to families’ inability to stay in the same neighborhood long enough for schools to have very powerful educational effects (Ream, 2005; Rothstein, 2004). Teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely to report problems of student misbehavior, absenteeism, and lack of parental involvement than teachers in low poverty schools; teachers’ salaries and advanced training are also lower in high-poverty schools than in low-poverty schools (Miller, 2010; Roza et al, 2004). There is much higher turnover of both students and faculty in segregated schools, producing more difficult conditions for student progress. Schools serving low income and segregated neighborhoods have been shown to provide fewer rigorous college preparatory and honors courses than schools in more affluent communities that serve primarily populations of white and Asian students (Orfield & Lee, 2005; Orfield, 1996).

Students who attend segregated and impoverished schools are significantly more likely to drop out of high school (Balfanz & Legters, 2004; Swanson, 2004) and are less likely to be successful in college if they do graduate, even controlling for their test scores (Camburn, 1990). They have poorer achievement, limiting their lifetime opportunities (Borman & Dowling, 2010; Crosnoe, 2006). Segregation has strong and lasting impacts on students’ success in school and later life (Benson & Borman, 2010; Wells & Crain, 1994). For all of these reasons, the dramatic increase in segregation of Arizona’s Latino students in the last generation is a serious cause for concern and reason to be especially cautious of exacerbating the situation through policies that create greater segregation. For example, one recent study of mathematics achievement in the U.S., which reanalyzed all of the major federal longitudinal studies of student achievement over the last three decades, concluded that although the increase in average education and income of Latino families over this period should have produced significant closing of the nation’s achievement gaps, those gains were basically cancelled out by the damage caused by increased segregation (Berends & Peñaloza, 2010).

Linguistic Segregation

Underscoring the critical importance of ethnic and linguistic segregation for the academic outcomes of English learners, a recent study comparing achievement outcomes between EL students in New Mexico and Texas (states that offer bilingual education) versus those in Arizona, Massachusetts, and California (English-only states) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found larger gaps in achievement between English learners and native English speakers in those states with English-only instructional policies. However, after assessing the impact on student outcomes of a variety of state and local level factors, the researchers noted an even more important factor that influenced achievement outcomes: segregation. Rumberger and Tran (2010) concluded that the variable that explained the greatest amount of variance between EL and non-EL students was the degree of segregation they experienced in school. Thus, they recommended that the most important policy lever that could be enacted by states to increase the achievement of EL students would be to reduce the segregation they experience in their schooling.

The schools that serve linguistically isolated Latino students also tend to be much weaker in their ability to deliver a quality education than other schools. They are more likely to be in urban centers, with larger enrollments, larger class sizes, have higher incidences of student poverty and health problems, tardiness, and difficulty filling teacher vacancies (Cosentino de Cohen et al., 2005). They are also more likely to rely on unqualified teachers and have lower levels of parent involvement. For example, a recent study of California schools found that schools that served high percentages of English learners were almost three times as likely to have teachers who were not fully qualified to teach as schools that served mostly non-minority students; as the concentration of EL students increases in schools, the percentage of fully credentialed teachers, qualified to serve them, decreases (IDEA, 2007). A recently released study by the Auditor General of Arizona (2011) found that 27% of EL programs audited in 2010 did not have qualified teachers teaching the EL students.

Linguistic segregation coupled with poverty is also closely related to students’ and their parents’ diminished social capital (knowledge of how important institutions work and access to persons with the ability to advocate on one’s behalf within these institutions.) and cultural capital (habits, skills, and cultural practices that facilitate social mobility). Limited English communities are frequently powerless to change the circumstances of their schools because of this lack of social and cultural capital that is generated and reinforced through equal status interaction with middle class and English speaking students and their parents (Lareau, 2003; Johnson, 2006). Without this access to, and acceptance by, members of the mainstream society, it is difficult, if not impossible to gain the social skills and knowledge to advocate effectively for one’s children. Hence, members of minority communities are often accused of “not caring” about their children’s education, but in reality they have no idea how, or to whom, to express their caring, and often fear feeling foolish expressing what they believe will be perceived as an outsider’s uninformed opinion.

Mandatory Classroom Segregation and Barriers to English

There is no question that it is critical for English learners in American schools to learn English, and to learn it well. Understanding English is fundamental to success in school in the United States, and language skills are the best predictors of future academic achievement (Anastasi, 1988). The only disagreement appears to be about how to accomplish this goal, and whether English learners should be allowed to build on the knowledge they already possess in their primary language in order to achieve that goal. It has been well documented that Mexican origin children were routinely segregated into Mexican schools and classrooms in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest in order to separate them from their Anglo, English-speaking peers during an earlier part of the century before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As Powers (2008) describes it:

In the mid-1940’s. . . .While districts argued that segregation was necessary because of students’ poor English skills, the segregation of Mexican American students in Arizona’s public schools was not an isolated practice but occurred in tandem with other discriminatory practices that restricted the social rights of Mexican Americans, many of whom were American citizens. (p. 473)

This segregation produced much lower academic achievement and much higher drop out rates for the Mexican origin students (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1972), facts that, in a chicken-egg argument, were used as a basis to continue segregating them. Some Anglo parents and school board members argued that the Mexican children should be separated from the white children because they did not learn as well and did not value education as highly, thus they needed “special attention” in special settings—this often resulted in these students being placed in the “Mexican room”, where they were segregated from their white peers and provided an inferior education (Powers, 2008; Gonzales, 1999). Is the four-hour Structured English Immersion block that is being implemented today in Arizona a return to the “Mexican room?”

On September 13, 2007, the Arizona English Language Learner Task Force adopted a four-hour model of Structured English Immersion that had been largely developed by Kevin Clark, an obscure educational consultant, located in Clovis, California.6 The Task Force’s job of coming up with a research-based program for instruction of English learners in the state had been constrained to some extent by the legislative language in HB 2064 (2006), the bill that created the Task Force. HB 2064 mandated that the program should include “a minimum of four hours per day of English language development” and be the most “cost-efficient models that meet all state and federal laws” (Arizona Revised Statute •• 15-756.01). It is notable that the law did not require that the Task Force adopt the most effective program available, just that it be the most “cost-efficient.” There was also some urgency in establishing the program as in 2005 the federal district court had begun fining Arizona $500,000 a day for failing to respond to court orders to increase funding for EL education in a way that reflected the actual needs of the students. While HB 2064 carried about $200 additional annual funding per EL student, ostensibly to cover the costs of the new ELD program that would be put into place, the district court had found this to be an “arbitrary and capricious” amount that was not necessarily related to students’ needs.

The instructional model advocated by Clark and adopted by the Task Force for full implemenation in the 2008-09 school year includes five ELD components within the four hour daily time block: phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and semantics (Arizona English Language Learners Task Force, 2007). This program has been referred to as the STAR English Language Acquisition program elsewhere, as Clark describes it using a pentagonal graphic with each point encasing one of the five discrete ELD components (Sonoma County Office of Education, 2009). The STAR program is based on several principles that define the way it is implemented, but most of which the research on second language acquisition does not necessarily support:




Allocating fixed periods of time to teaching certain elements of the English language.


Explicit teaching of discrete English language skills: phonology, oral language skills, verb tenses, word order rules (syntax), and vocabulary out of context.


Focus on English language skills unrelated to academic content instruction.

The research on these components of the program is discussed elsewhere (see Martinez-Wenzl, Pérez, & Gándara, 2010) so it will not be elaborated here. However, a critical aspect of the four-hour block is that it requires that English learners be separated from their English speaking peers for at least most of the school day, and in many cases for all of the day for a year and more. During this time, it is advised that students be grouped by language proficiency, so that the students with the least knowledge of English are all grouped together, across grade levels, to facilitate instruction.

Internal Segregation, Tracking And Grouping

As devastating to the educational outcomes as segregated schools are for minority and English learner students, perhaps even more pernicious is the internal segregation that goes on within schools. Some schools that appear to be diverse in their student compositions actually house two different schools within a school: the school that the largely majority, college-bound students attend, and the one that the low-income, minority students attend. They are two different worlds. In elementary schools this can be seen in the fact that the children of more knowledgeable (and English speaking) parents are assigned to the widely acknowledged “best teachers,” while the children of parents who do not have this knowledge, those who are not included in the “coffee klatches” of the parents who have the time to hang out at the school and gather opinions on teaching staff, are relegated to the classes with the least effective teachers (Oakes, 2005). Moreover, specialized educational opportunities that can set students onto a college preparatory track and that identify them as “smart,” such as classes for the gifted and talented, seldom enroll English learners. According the latest data from the Office for Civil Rights (2006), only 1.4% of Limited English Proficient (EL) students were enrolled in programs for the Gifted and Talented compared to 8% of non-minority students. In an analysis of federal data (National Educational Longitudinal Study-NELS), Rumberger (2004) found that those students who were afforded the opportunity to attend “gifted” classes were also significantly more likely to be assigned to algebra in the 8th grade, a major predictor of college readiness. Thus, the lack of opportunities early in students’ educational careers can be linked to fewer opportunities later on.

At the secondary level, internal segregation is obvious by the ways students are assigned to college preparatory and advanced placement classes or vocational and general education classes. Many studies have found that low income, ethnic minority, and English learner students are much less likely to be assigned to college preparatory courses than middle class, white, and Asian students (see, for example, Oakes, 2005). English learners, because of their perceived handicap of not speaking English fluently, are typically consigned to courses that are not only not college preparatory, but in fact often do not even yield credit for graduation. They may be assigned to shortened days, or non-academic “classes” such as office practice, weight lifting, or flower arranging (Callahan & Gándara, 2004) because of schools’ inability to staff credit-bearing classes for them, or their perception that the students are going to drop out of school anyway. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this is that English learners’ achievement is more dependent on the courses they are offered in high school than on their English language proficiency. That is, students with lower levels of English proficiency who are offered access to more rigorous courses actually perform better in school than those with the same or better English proficiency, but who are not given this opportunity (Callahan, 2005).

This internal segregation in schools affects not just the courses that students take, but their aspirations and identity as learners as well. Students who hang out with others with higher aspirations are more likely to have higher aspirations themselves (Liu & Carbonaro, 2008; Steinberg, 1996; Epstein & Karweit, 1983). Those students who are consigned to the remedial or non-college preparatory courses come to see themselves as less capable and not “college material” irrespective of their actual talents or abilities (Dabach, 2010; Callahan et al., 2009; Valenzuela, 1999; Olsen, 1997). In such settings the English learners become known as “those kids” or “the ELers” by others in the school, and develop a separate identity, separate and apart from the other students in the school (Lillie et al, 2010). One recent study from the University of California, Berkeley (Dabach, 2010) interviewed 22 teachers instructing in specialized classes for English learners showed how these students internalized social stigma in ways that influenced their perceptions of their intelligence and worthiness, as well as their motivation in school. Teachers recounted common experiences in which EL students doubted their ability, talked about their inferiority to other students in the school, and, in cases where they were reclassified as English proficient, mocked students who remained in ESL classes.

Surveys of 880 teachers of English learners in the 4 hour ELD block required by Arizona law found that 57% of these teachers felt that their English learners’ self esteem was being damaged by being segregated into these classes away from their mainstream peers (Rios-Aguilar, Gonzales-Canche & Moll, 2010a).  

Linguistic Isolation

Linguistic isolation refers to more than just segregation. According to the U.S. Census, a household is linguistically isolated when no adult (person over 14 years of age) in the family speaks English very well, and the home therefore may lack access to basic services such as medical or disaster assistance. The 2000 census reported that close to 1.5 million Spanish-speaking children lived in such households and Arizona was one of the states most impacted by linguistic isolation (Arias, 2007). For students growing up in such environments, it is especially critical that schools provide them with opportunities to interact with native English speakers, both in the classroom and outside the classroom as these will be the lone circumstances in which such interaction is available. As Arias points out:

Language learning is a socially embedded process occurring in a cultural and

situational context. According to this view, interaction is at the heart of the learning process, and the classroom is the primary site for learning English. Learners are apprenticed into the broader understanding and language of the curriculum.

Isolation by language presents a particularly thorny problem: it is difficult to learn the language of the land if a student is exposed to few models of native English speakers and has few friends or neighbors who speak the language well. As Gifford and Valdés (2006) noted:

Our analysis of the hyper-segregation of Hispanic students, and particularly

Spanish-speaking ELLs, suggests that little or no attention has been given to the consequences of linguistic isolation for a population whose future depends on the acquisition of English…For ELLs, interaction with ordinary English-speaking peers is essential to their English language development and consequently to their acquisition of academic English. (p. 147)

A recent study by Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco and Todorova (2008) found that the best predictor of an immigrant student gaining a firm mastery of English and doing well in school was if he or she had a good friend who was a native speaker of English. Without such natural language support, it can be very challenging to learn the language, especially at the level of academic English that is required to do well in school. An ethnographic study of the implementation of the four-hour block program conducted in 18 elementary and secondary classrooms across 5 districts in Arizona found that students in the program were typically segregated in the school for the whole day because schedules were such that once separated for the four hour block, it was difficult to re-integrate students. For example, Lillie et al (2010) note:

When elementary ELLs left their classroom for specials such as Art or Music, and in one case for math instruction, they remained grouped throughout the day with the students from their 4-hour block classroom. In short, ELLs in four-hour model classrooms were spending their entire day with their fellow ELL peers. They did not have contact with native English speaking students during academic or fine arts instruction. As teachers noted, this was an aspect of scheduling that meant there was a minimal amount of time in which these students could interact with English proficient peers. Lunch was the one exception where interaction could have been possible. Unfortunately, with the arrangement of the seats forcing classrooms to sit with one another, the segregation of ELL students from non-ELLs was complete. (p. 18)

The previously cited study of 880 teachers in 8 Arizona districts (Rios-Aguilar et al., 2010a) found that 87 percent of the teachers expressed concern about the ELL students being separated from their peers for the four-hour block and 85 percent expressed the opinion that “separating ELL students from English speaking peers can be harmful to their learning.” Many parents also appear to be concerned about the separation of their children from the mainstream. In conducting dissertation research, Hopkins (2010) asked teachers of English learners in six elementary schools in one large Arizona district how often the parents of their students requested that their children be removed from the 4 hour ELD block. Of 74 teachers responding to this question on the survey, almost half (46%) noted that parents chose to remove their children from the program either “often” or “sometimes.” Only 27% said this occurred rarely or never. This is especially significant since it is uncommon for immigrant and non-English speaking parents to intervene in school decisions. When queried about why parents chose to do this, 35 teachers provided a specific reason. Of these, 34% of teachers offered that parents made this decision because of a lack of good English models and 14% made reference to segregation, lack of diversity, or students feeling deficient. Typical of teacher comments were the following:

They need to have some role models in the classroom. We have not noticed any improvement in the students' language acquisition with the 4 hour block. When you teach kindergarten kids you develop vocabulary all day long. With the four hour block the big change was that now the ELL kids do not have any English role models.

They don't want their children segregated from the English speakers and they also want other kids who speak English for their child to practice with.

How Long in Segregated Settings?

HB 2064 specified that students would not normally spend more than one year in the four-hour SEI block, presumably because it was believed that they would quickly acquire fluency in English and be able to be reclassified and re-enter mainstream instruction. However, while the state of Arizona keeps no publicly available records of how many EL students are able to be reclassified as proficient in English after one year, recent studies have suggested that it is uncommon for students to acquire fluent English this quickly. In the ethnographic study by Lillie and her colleagues (2010) in 18 Arizona classrooms serving English learners in the four-hour ELD block, teachers and instructional coaches expressed disagreement with the premise that most students could become fluent in English in such a short period of time:

Although the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) encourages Students to exit out of the SEI program in one year, our observations in first through twelfth grade indicated otherwise. After interviewing more than twenty education professionals in all five districts, the response to the question of whether students are passing as proficient in the one-year time frame was a resounding "No.” Coaches and teachers noted that it takes students more than a year, and more likely three or four to pass out of the model. Teachers reported that the amount of time it takes a student to pass out of the program depends on the following factors: prior schooling experience, motivation, and grade level in school. . .Elementary school coaches and teachers reported that the few students that did pass out after only one year were kindergarteners. [However] many did not pass the AZELLA the following year during their monitor stage and were reclassified and placed back in the four-hour ELD classroom. (p. 32)

Similarly, in the Rios-Aguilar et al. (2010a) survey of teachers of English learners, 78% of teachers reported they believed it would take 3 or more years for their EL students to gain proficiency in English. For those students who do manage to exit the program within one year, usually at lower grade levels, there is the problem for some of failing to thrive in the mainstream classroom where they receive no additional support. Rios-Aguilar and her colleagues (Rios-Aguilar et al., 2010b), in telephone interviews with 26 English Language Learner Coordinators in as many Arizona school districts found that:

Twenty-three percent of ELCs mentioned that, while reclassification rates are higher in some schools, some ELL students are also re-entering the 4-hour ELD model after being “English proficient” for some time. We specifically asked ELCs what percentage of students, who were re-classified as English Proficient, have had to re-enroll in the 4-hour ELD block. Forty two percent of ELCs did not know the exact percentage. One ELC mentioned that the percentage of students who re-enroll was between 20 percent and 25 percent. Eleven percent of ELCs mentioned that re-enrollment rates were between 5 and 10 percent. Another 42 percent stated that a very low percentage of students have had to re-enroll to the program. In these cases, ELC coordinators mentioned that when a student needs to be re-enrolled, the school has a conference with the parents, and they decide if their child re-enters the program or not. That is parents have the option of opting-out of the program. (p. 12)

Clearly there is a great deal of variation from district to district in how the schools are handling the problem of students who do not qualify on the AZELLA to pass out of the four hour block program in one year, as well as those who are reclassified but are unable to survive without any support in an English only instructional environment. Inasmuch as many research studies have consistently found that it takes more than one year, and generally between four and five years, for students to achieve a level of proficiency in English to pass most English Language Proficiency tests (see, for example, Hakuta, Butler & Witt, 2000; Collier, 1989; ELL Working Group Recommendations, 2011), it is not surprising that many students are not meeting this goal. However, it is extremely worrisome that students would be required to spend more than one year in the program. While two years in a linguistically segregated setting receiving a weaker curriculum than mainstream students receive might well condemn them to a perennial state of falling behind, it is virtually impossible for students at the high school to acquire the credits they need to graduate with their peers, ready for college, if they spend multiple years in such a setting. Administrators who were interviewed by Lillie and her associates (2010) confirmed this concern:

A few administrators at the high school level stated that . . .ELLs were not exiting within one year (A, 2/17/2010; D, 3/10/2010). . .In another interview, it was noted that retention for high school students who have reached the intermediate level was a dangerous time for these students who cannot exit from the SEI Model because they find it more difficult to graduate. . . . Furthermore, a principal at the high school level mentioned that ELLs were taking at least up to three years to exit out of the 4-hour block. One coordinator commented that only those ELLs who came to the school with a strong schooling background and literacy in their L1 [primary language] were able to pass out in under a two-year time frame. (p. 40)

Many districts in Arizona simply have not implemented the state required program (Auditor General, 2011), and some have requested to be waived from the four-hour block for high school students “on track to graduate.” For example, Glendale District petitioned to modify its ELD program to between 2 and 2 ½ hours of ELD so that their students could meet graduation requirements. This appears to be an overt admission that it is not possible for the students to graduate, no matter how well they are performing, if they are held to the requirement of 4 hours of daily English language instruction.

The Structured English Immersion (SEI) program that is currently being implemented in Arizona is based on the belief that intensive exposure to the study of English over may hours at a time, in linguistically segregated settings, will result in more rapid acquisition of English and hence better school performance (see Martinez-Wenzl et al, 2010). The research, however, suggests otherwise. In well-implemented programs, students in bilingual programs have been found to acquire English at similar levels as students in English only programs by 5th grade, while also having the opportunity to develop competency in a second language and access the curriculum in a language they can understand (Slavin et al, 2010; August et al, 2010; Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2004). The solution to educating English learners requires consistent, high quality instruction focused on the development of academic English, exposure to good English models in naturalistic settings and instruction in core subjects that both meets high standards and that is intelligible to the students. The model of instruction for English learners being implemented in Arizona does not include these characteristics.

Are There Better Ways to Educate English Learners?

Although the preponderance of the research suggests that it is advantageous to build on the linguistic knowledge that students bring to school, and that reading is most efficiently taught in the primary language (at least for Spanish speakers on whom most of the research has been conducted), some all-English or mostly-English approaches to instruction of EL students do meet with success when well implemented and where the goal is strictly English acquisition. Sheltered Instruction, in combination with ELD, can integrate language and content while infusing socio-cultural awareness. The SIOP (Sheltered Instruction, Observation Protocol) model, which is also research-based and provides an “umbrella” of approaches for teaching academic content to ELs is one approach in wide use (Echavarria, Vogt & Short, 2007). SIOP is critiqued as needing a strengthened component addressing academic English, especially in natural contexts, but it does address the need to provide content instruction for EL students. QTEL (Quality Teaching for English Learners) is another approach, based on 10 years of research and development in school districts across the U.S., by Aida Walqui and her colleagues (2010) in the Teacher Professional Development Program at West Ed. It draws from socio-cultural theory, systemic functional linguistics, and knowledge on the development of teacher expertise to create a pedagogical model in which students are intellectually challenged and supported. In QTEL classrooms students --sometimes grouped in heterogeneous and at other times grouped in more homogeneously-- engage in grade-appropriate subject matter discussions characterized by academic rigor. Carefully designed pedagogical scaffolding enables students to develop the skills, language and knowledge they did not have as they entered these interactions.

Research from the Internationals Schools Network has shown exceptional results, with English learners in New York City Internationals Schools far outpacing their peers in comparison schools with respect to high school graduation and college attendance.7 The philosophy and practice of the Internationals Schools include that every teacher is a language teacher as well as a teacher of academic content and skills. Classes are mixed according to age, grade, academic ability, prior schooling, native language, and linguistic proficiency. They are interdisciplinary and rigorous, and the curriculum includes literature, social studies, math, science, the arts, technology, and physical education. Successful English-based programs tend to share a respect for the native language, its use as appropriate and possible, and attention to socio-cultural issues such that students are able to feel culturally comfortable and link their own cultural knowledge to the lessons of the classroom. The Internationals Schools to date have had the advantage of a very heterogeneous student body, entering at different academic levels, and thus students are able to share resources with each other.

Where possible, programs that actually develop students’ native language while also teaching English and academic content provide particular benefits for EL students, and potentially other students as well. In addition to being a more efficient way to teach reading, these programs can allow students to more rapidly access complex academic instruction, and provide the long-term social, cognitive, and economic benefits of being a multilingual individual. The Eastman model is one program that was widely disseminated in Los Angeles public schools prior to the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, which made English immersion the default program in that state. The Eastman model provided Spanish language instruction for core subject matter for four years while structuring integration of EL and non-EL students for significant portions of the day in music, art, and physical education. EL and non-EL students were also kept in close physical proximity to each other throughout the day, and during recess and other non-instructional times. Careful documentation of the outcomes of this program showed significantly higher achievement for the Eastman model students than for controls (Krashen & Biber, 1988). From a cognitive perspective, children who develop healthy degrees of bilingualism tend to exhibit greater ability to focus on and use language productively (Bialystock, 2001; Diaz & Klinger, 1991; Galambos & Hakuta, 1988). This skill, called “metalinguistic awareness,” has been associated with improved comprehension outcomes. They also may develop what is termed “cognitive flexibility” that leads to more creative or innovative ways of approaching learning.

For these reasons, there is a rapidly growing movement toward creating dual language programs throughout the United States. Ostensibly the reason for this growth is because the achievement outcomes for such programs, when they are well implemented, appear to be higher than for any other language instructional model, and they yield students who are both bilingual and biliterate. In an extensive meta-analysis of 13 studies of dual language programs, Genesee and his colleagues found that, overall, they produced better academic outcomes than either English only or transitional bilingual educational programs (Genesee et al, 2006).

Sometimes these programs are found within schools and sometimes they are free-standing schools to provide both English learners and English only speakers the opportunity to learn together and to become competent in more than one language. The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) maintains an online directory of such programs. Figure 1 shows the growth in these programs nationally from 1962 to 2008. It is notable that there is a particularly steep increase beginning in the 1990s in spite of a simultaneous decline in the use of primary language for instructional purposes with English learners reported nationwide (Zehler et al, 2002).1 This would appear to be paradoxical, but below we discuss the unique context and impulse behind these programs. The number reported by CAL, however, underestimates the actual number of such programs nationwide, as the directory is a voluntary effort that only lists programs that happen to register themselves. For example, while CAL lists 110 California programs in 2007, the California Department of Education reported more than 200 programs in that state. While the number of programs is an obvious undercount, it is likely that the growth of programs is a more reliable estimate, as similar increases are reported in California and other states (Lambert, 2007).

Figure 1. Two-Way Bilingual Programs, 1962-2008


Dual immersion, dual language, or two-way dual immersion programs (all terms used to describe the programs) educate monolingual English speakers and another non-English-speaking group simultaneously in both target languages with the goal of producing strong bilingual and biliterate individuals. The programs are built on the premise that classroom environments can be created in which both minority and majority students enjoy equal social status. The fact that both languages and cultures are valued equally and play critical roles in the curriculum tends to yield positive student attitudes toward each other’s culture and language, reducing the problem of stigma associated with segregated programs for English learners only (Genesee & Gándara, 1999). The classic work of Gordon Allport (1958) and Elizabeth Cohen (1995) on successful integration underlies the assumptions of the model—that children will learn from each other and learn to respect each other if they are exposed to learning situations in which they have sustained contact of a basically positive nature and their social status is equalized. Gordon Allport famously found that racial integration yielded the best results when Blacks and Whites were in sustained contact, had similar economic status, and social interactions occurred as a function of daily living. His theory of conditions under which successful integration occurs has now been tested in more than 500 studies across the world, many of them in school settings (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Cohen (1995,with Lotan) has been able to demonstrate that academically heterogeneous groups of students can learn effectively together when status is equalized in the classroom, obviating the perceived need to group students by ability levels. Thus dual language programs ideally incorporate many of the conditions considered requisite for positive inter-group and academic outcomes: language status is equalized and minority students have a trait that is valued by others (knowledge of a second language) and they are grouped together for instruction with consistent, naturally occurring contact.

The very nature of dual language programs tends to produce, if not always equal status, at least greater ethnic and linguistic integration than English Language Development (ELD), English as Second Language (ESL), or SEI programs that group students for instruction according to their language deficits as opposed to their language assets. However, while the programs mentioned in the foregoing section span a wide range of approaches, what they all have in common is that they do not require EL students to be segregated from their English speaking peers and some actively integrate students throughout the instructional day.


Arizona has long suffered from segregation of its Latino population, and as result, from segregation of English learners in its schools. From the Mexican Rooms of the last century to the increasing segregation of EL students in this century, the situation has become increasingly critical for Spanish speaking students. The stakes are much higher now both because Latinos are such a large and growing percentage of Arizona’s school age population and because good jobs for people without high school diplomas and some post-secondary education are rapidly disappearing (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). In order to survive in the contemporary economy, students simply must graduate high school and gain some kind of marketable skills. If students are placed at risk of dropping out of school because they have fallen too far behind their peers academically, or cannot get the courses they need to graduate, they are condemned to a bleak future.

Both for legal and for pedagogical reasons it is incumbent on the state of Arizona to do all in its power to reduce the level of segregation experienced by English learners. As Rumberger and Tran (2010) have argued, this is the single most powerful policy lever state policymakers have with respect to raising the achievement of their English learner students. However, the segregated 4 hour ELD block imposed on English learners in Arizona does just the opposite. It exacerbates the existing segregation of these students, not just by school, but by classroom as well, and as other studies recently conducted in Arizona have shown,8 it is stigmatizing, marginalizing, and putting these students at high risk for school failure and drop out. Moreover, unlike what the Arizona Department of Education has contended, it is not moving the great majority of these students toward full English proficiency within one year, thus potentially exposing them to years of this unnecessary segregation. There are more humane and successful ways to educate these students and we have noted some that have reasonably strong research bases. It is now time for Arizona to move from the Mexican Room to an equitable education for Arizona’s English language learners.  Federal civil rights officials have found serious fault with Arizona’s practices and a high federal court in 2011 has found that the state’s second largest city has failed to adequately desegregate. Obviously, a state that is daily becoming more diverse and more dependent upon developing all of its people’s talent needs a new set of policies and educational priorities.


1. There is great disparity in the counts of EL students in Arizona. In a 2010 publication for the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Eric Haas and Min Huang report statewide in 2007/08, 168,199 (16 percent) of Arizona public school students were classified as English learners; common core data provided by U.S. Department of Education for the same year show 13.8% EL, and only 8% EL for 2009/10. This would constitute a 40-50% decline in EL students over a two-year period, an extraordinary and inexplicable reduction in numbers.

2. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June 2011 that the heavily Latino Tucson school district had not yet adequately complied with its desegregation plan and that further steps were needed. (Fisher and Mendoza v. Tucson Unified School District,. 4:74-cv-00090-DCB, 9th Cir, July 2011).

3. 2005-6 data computed from Common Core of Education Data of the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics by Chungmei Lee. (Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, The Forgotten Choice? Rethinking Magnet Schools in a Changing Landscape, Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles, 2008).

4. Linda Darling-Hammond found that in California schools, the share of unqualified teachers is 6.75 times higher in high-minority schools (more than 90 percent) than in low-minority schools (less than 30 percent minority). See Darling-Hammond, L. (2001).

5. Almost nine-tenths of intensely segregated black and Latino schools also have student bodies where a majority of students come from families below the poverty line, Orfield & Lee, 2006.

6. Mr. Clark’s consulting firm does not maintain a webpage and internet searches have not turned up any background information about his educational background or history of work or publications.

7. For discussion of academic achievement results of internationals Schools, see

8. For access to the full list of these studies see Educational Equity Project


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