Is it discrimination to evaluate teachers on pronunciation?
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
Everybody has an accent. It’s a product of where you grow up. It’s part of who you are. It identifies you as someone with roots in a certain part of the country – or the world.
Somebody from Boston might pronounce words differently from someone from Atlanta, who probably speaks nothing like someone from Sioux Falls, S.D.
But beyond regional dialects, fundamental rules exist for the English language - think about the pronunciation and grammar guides you see in dictionaries. The country might pride itself on being a melting pot, but some believe those rules are how the language is supposed to be spoken, and taught. When Arizona passed its sweeping immigration reform law last year, it tried to enforce this, cracking down on public school teachers with heavy accents. This prompted a backlash from the education community and threats of a civil rights lawsuit. The Arizona Department of Education recently agreed to halt its scrutiny of teacher accents at the state level, passing the task of monitoring teacher fluency on to the school districts.
Out of the 60 school districts per year monitored by the state, between five and 10 had issues with fluency of pronunciation, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. These issues included teachers:
The state says it never suggested that a teacher be fired for mispronouncing words. Most were simply referred to classes to improve their own English skills. In a few cases, teachers were transferred out of ESL classes and into regular classes. Because of this, an anonymous civil rights complaint was filed in May 2010 with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education. Last November, the federal office told Arizona officials that the teacher fluency law ran the risk of discriminating against Hispanic teachers and other non-native speakers, thus violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Asking English as a Second Language (ESL) students, “How do we call it in English?”
Pronouncing “levels” as “lebels.”
Pronouncing “much” as “mush.”
Swallowing the ending sounds of words.
Pronouncing “the” as “da.”
Pronouncing “lives here” as “leeves here.”
The state agreed to remove the pronunciation fluency requirement, but Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal told the Republic that his office “will continue to instruct state monitors to talk to districts about individual teachers whose English pronunciation or grammar is flawed.”
In other words, the state will still monitor teachers for pronunciation. It will take note if state monitors believe teachers’ pronunciation is flawed and inform school district officials. But the responsibility of correcting it no longer falls on the state, but the districts.
Huppenthal told the Republic, “We still are going to be conscious of these articulation issues. Students should be in a class where teachers can articulate.”
When the Wall Street Journal reported on the law in 2010, it found mixed reactions among parents and educators. One parent said, “It doesn’t matter to me what the accent is; what matters is if my children are learning.” Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, said, “Student achievement and growth should inform teacher evaluations, not their accents.”
But Adela Santa Cruz, director of the Arizona Department of Education, said, “It becomes an issue when pronunciation affects comprehensibility.” And Johanna Haver, an adviser to Arizona schools, said, “Teachers should speak good grammar because kids pick up what they hear.”
What do you think?
Is it discrimination to grade teachers on pronunciation? Did Arizona’s law violate the civil rights of teachers? If so, did the state’s change in policy correct the situation? Can a teacher with an accent effectively instruct students? Does an accent affect students’ ability to comprehend material? Do teachers in your school have accents? What if your state passed a law similar to Arizona’s? Join the discussion!
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