In the Arid Zone: Drying Out Educational Resources for English Language Learners Through Policy and Practice

Anna Christina DaSilva Iddings, Mary Carol Combs, and Luis Moll


The rapid demographic shift occurring in the United States, mostly due to immigration, has produced a fundamentally new and diverse social context of education, particularly in urban schools throughout the United States. Children previously considered “minority” students are now the numerical majority in all major city' schools in the country (Sable, Plotts, & Mitchel, 2010).

In this chapter, we address the education of one important and growing subgroup of students in urban settings, those who have been designated as English learners (ELs). Institutionally, this label is intended for students, regardless of age, ethnicity, or social history, who have been identified either by language testing or survey, or by teacher observation or administrative fiat, as not being sufficiently fluent in English to participate fully in courses in that language.1

ELs are now the fastest growing group of students in the country. It is noteworthy that 65% of all EL students are U.S. born (Capps et al., 2005). As such, these are primarily American children and youth whose education we are discussing in this article.

The majority of EL students are concentrated in six states: Arizona, California, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, and Illinois. However, they also represent a growing presence in other settings, such as in Nevada and in Southern states, which have had a marked increase of immigrant populations. In what follows, we offer an examination of the role of research and policy on the educational experiences of ELs. To do so, we focus on the case of Arizona as a way of forestalling the adoption by other states of similar restrictive English-only language policies and aversive actions against immigrant and citizen English language learners alike. We then present educational practices that research has shown to provide specific affordances for ELs but are by and large absent from the educational experiences of these students enrolled in U.S. schools. To conclude, we discuss the ways by which narrow language policies and the absence of equitable educational practices for linguistically diverse students serve to maintain power structures that sustain the status quo.

The Case of Arizona

The origin of Arizona state EL policy is complicated. It is the result of a unique nexus between state and federal legislation, federal case law, and state-level ideological beliefs about education, language acquisition, and immigration. For more than a decade, this nexus has determined, confounded, and limited the educational choices available to ELs and their families. We have published extended discussions of the history of Arizona EL education policies elsewhere (see Combs, 2012; Combs, Evans, Fletcher, Parra, & Jimenez, 2005; Combs, Gonzalez, & Moll, 2011). For the purpose of this chapter, we will summarize the most salient policy decisions that have had serious implications for the education of ELs as they control four major forms of resource allocation: services, funding, time, and information.


In November 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 203, a ballot initiative that replaced bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL) programs with a relatively untested program called Structured English Immersion (SEI). In an SEI classroom, teachers are expected to teach in English only, though they can adjust their instruction using “sheltered” strategies to make it more comprehensible. What this means is that ELs are required to learn content areas in and through a language they have not yet acquired. The dominant assumption guiding such actions is that immigrant parents cannot be trusted to make sound educational decisions for their children, so it is incumbent on Anglo voters to make those decisions for them (Sleeter, 2001, pp. xv—xvi).

The text of Proposition 203 expressed three folk theories2 of second-language acquisition: first, that young children learn English better than older students; second, that immersion in English only would help students acquire the language more rapidly; and third, that the SEI model would teach them English in one year.3 These assumptions may have sounded commonsensical to voters at the time, but there was little support for them in the applied linguistics and second-language acquisition research literature at the time (Jiménez-Castellanos, Blanchard, Atwill, & Jiménez-Silva, 2014). Although the concerns of some of this literature was profiled in the states largest newspapers (Fischer, 2000a, 2000b; Gonzalez, 2000; Portillo, 2000; Stauffer, 2000; Thomas & Collier, 2002), voters seemed unpersuaded by claims that bilingual education was a more effective means of teaching both English and content areas to second-language learners. The measure passed with 63% of the vote. Shortly thereafter, state education officials began intense efforts to rid school districts of programs that used students’ first languages other than English as a means of instruction.

Before passage of Proposition 203, state school districts had implemented a variety of programs for ELs and indigenous students, including bilingual education and ESL models (transitional, maintenance-developmental, dual-language, two-way immersion, content ESL, pull-out ESL, sheltered content instruction).

Parents had the freedom to select a particular model for their children, and if the neighborhood school did not provide it, they generally had the option to enroll children in one that did. Several of the bilingual programs were exemplary and nationally known (Combs et al., 2005; Holm, 1996; Holm & Holm, 1990; McCarty & Bia, 2002; Koessel & Navaho Curriculum Center, 1977; Smith, 2001; Smith & Arnot-Hopffer, 1998; Smith et al., 2002). As a result, the Arizona Department of Education mandated a rigid “one-size-fits-all” model into which all districts were required to place students who are learning ESL in English-only schools where they received pull-out SEI services. Eligibility for SEI was determined by how students score on the state s proficiency test — the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, or AZELA.


Although the ideological proclivities of state policy makers and elected officials clearly influence policies guiding the education of ELs (Horne, 2004a, 2004b; Johnson, 2005), school funding for

English language programs has primarily driven language and education policies in Arizona. That is, concerns about who appropriates state funding, which students are eligible (and how they are eligible because eligibility requirements have been inconsistent) and which districts receive funding (and how much they receive) tend to dominate in discussions about EL policies. Funding controversies derive from one source — Flores v. Arizona (1999) — a class action lawsuit filed in 1992 by parents of ELs in Nogales, Arizona. In civil rights litigation, a class comprises individuals “similarly situated”; that is, people who are similarly affected by a particular policy, law, or practice (Hogan, 2014; Jimenez-Castellanos, Combs, Martinez & Gomez, 2013). The class in Flores v. Arizona included all ELs in each of the states 15 counties. Plaintiffs argued that the state legislature had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (1964) by failing to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impeded equal participation by its students in its instructional programs arbitrarily establishing and capping the amount of additional per-pupil funding appropriated to school districts serving large numbers of English language learners. The state legislature was ordered to increase its appropriation — a paltry $150 per EL learner — to an unspecified higher amount. Legislators ignored this ruling, however, landing them back in court. When they eventually decided to raise the amount, state legislators argued they would be unable to increase the funding until a cost study determined exactly how much it would cost to educate each English learner. A state survey of school district costs of EL programs subsequently was undertaken, with reported expenditures ranging from $670—2,571. While the figures were widely divergent, all participating school districts indicated they spent well more than the $340 appropriated by the legislature (Arizona Senate Research Staff, 2008; Hogan, n.d.).

State legislators resisted judicial funding mandates for another five years and not solely because of financial concerns. Some of them openly expressed doubts about the citizenship status of ELs in Arizona schools. The speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, for example, declared that additional school funding for ELs would turn Arizona into “Mexico’s best school district north of the border” (Hogan, n.d.). Other legislators rejected any state responsibility for educating noncitizens and insisted that children born in the United States to undocumented parents were not citizens, despite the U.S. Constitution’s explicit language to the contrary. In fact, although the numbers are hard to pin down, the percentage of U.S.-born ELs in Arizona has been estimated at approximately 80% (Capps et al., 2005; Gandara & Hopkins, 2010). This makes them citizens of the United States. Nonetheless, among members of the state legislature, there is a wide-spread belief that Arizona’s ELs are undocumented and, as such, deserve no support.


After 10 years of noncompliance with the original decision in the Flores v. Arizona case, the district court, increasingly frustrated by the legislature’s recalcitrance, imposed massive fines against the state. In a strongly worded order for sanctions, the judge expressed his frustration:

The Court can only imagine how many students have started school since |udge Marquez entered the Order in February 2000, declaring these programs were inadequately funded in an arbitrary and capricious manner that violates EL students’rights under the EEOA [Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974]. How many students may have stopped school, by dropping out or failing because of foot-dragging by the State and failure to comply with the original Order and compliance directives such as the Order issued on January 28, 2005? Plaintiffs are no longer inclined to depend on the good faith of the Defendants or to have faith that without some extraordinary pressure, the State will ever comply with the mandates of the respective Orders issued by this Court.

(Flores v. Arizona, 2005, p. 3)

The legislature scrambled to pass something. The result was HB 2064, which minimally increased EL program funding but also reconceptualized SEI as a segregated four-hour English grammar and reading model. The new English Language Development block requires a minimum of four hours per day of English language development (ELD) and limits a students participation in the program to a period not normally intended to exceed one year ( The ELD block focuses on phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and semantics. With the typical school day comprising 6—6% hours per day, four hours of English grammar instruction is a significant portion (Combs, 2012). State education officials have even stipulated the number of minutes allocated to each domain. The learners’ English proficiency levels, as measured by the AZELA instrument, determine the amount of time they receive oral English development and writing instruction.

It is noteworthy that most of the instruction provided during the times stipulated for ELD is void of content — that is, they entail large chunks of time devoted to highly decontextualized language drills. This kind of time allocation for the school day of ELs has had profound impact on what children can learn, on who they are able to interact with, and ultimately on the kinds of identities they can craft for themselves as students through the course of their academic histories (see DaSilva Iddings & Katz, 2007).


Today, more than 20 years later, bilingual programs in Arizona are almost nonexistent or simply limping along. With few exceptions, these programs have been replaced with this hybridized version of SEI in which instruction is exclusively in English and content subjects like science, social studies, and language arts are not taught. Indeed, the phrase “bilingual education” is markedly absent in state-level discourse about the education of ELs in Arizona; that is, current policy discussions about educational models for these students focus solely on the English-only models available as if there were no (or had never been) other alternatives.

Proposition 203 has been codified into law and is now part of the Arizona Revised Statutes (Title 15, Article 3.1 §751—757). Arizona Department of Education officials repeat these declarations and other sections of the law with great authority, as if they were established truths. For example, the State Office of English Language Acquisition Services (OELAS) has a website that provides administrative forms, announcements, links to policy and legal documents, and training materials. School districts can access these materials as they wish. One of the documents available is a 107-slide PowerPoint presentation called “Nuts and Bolts,” which OELAS staff members have used in periodic seminars throughout the state.4 Only two slides reference research in any form: The first states that the mandatory ELD models were developed from critical research based components, although these components are not identified (Combs, 2012). The second lists four broad principles justifying the ELD models, again without attribution:

  • 1. English is fundamental to content area mastery;
  • 2. Language-ability—based grouping facilitates rapid language learning;
  • 3. Time on task increases academic learning; and
  • 4. A discrete language skills approach facilitates English language learning.

Another slide, titled “One (1) Year to Proficiency,” advances the idea that students can become fluent in English in one year through prescriptive means:

Clearly, the dissemination of information to families and other educational professionals embrace ideologies that are directed at fast linguistic and cultural assimilation of English and at some forms of indoctrination. Information about other possible approaches, or about the benefits of bilingual education, is rare — and when existing, it is difficult to access.

. -One (1) Year to Proficiency

MgB₽Force charged to produce models that will [jljgdto proficiency in one (1) year

^yfcemands PRESCRIPTIVE models

' ■ Prescriptive curriculum developed in DSI

■ Prescriptive time allocations

■ Prescriptive class content

■ Prescriptive training

11/01/07 ADE ~ OELAS 49

Figure 26.1 One (1) Year to Proficiency


The Effects of Restrictive Educational Policies on ELs in Arizona

While Arizona’s political theater may provide the rest of the country with some levity, the cynical and reactionary manner in which state government officials develop policies holds undeniable adverse consequences above and beyond one’s mere residence in an enigmatic state. In July 2010, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles released nine research reports about Arizona’s ELD program. Prepared by researchers from the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and UCLA, the studies focused on the effect of the program on students, teachers, administrators, and school districts; specifically, its benefits, costs, and challenges; how students are achieving academically; the amount of content instruction students receive relative to English grammar and reading, and concerns about increasing school segregation in Arizona (see http://

Contrary to benefits of the ELD block widely touted by state education officials, these study results paint a dismal picture of EL education in Arizona’s schools. One study found that after a full year of implementation, achievement gaps between ELs and English speakers have not closed (Garcia, Lawton, & de Figueiredo, 2010a). Another study concluded that ELs are not acquiring enough English in one year to be reclassified and, hence, must remain in the blocks a second or third year (Lillie et al., 2010).

Several studies raised serious concerns about the increasing segregation in Arizona school classrooms, comparing the blocks to the infamous “Mexican Rooms” of earlier years. These studies also indicated that students are not receiving the content knowledge (in science, language arts, social studies, and so forth) which they will need to be successful academically or to pass state standardized tests (Gandara & Orfield, 2010; Martinez-Wenzl, Pérez, & Gandara, 2010; Rios-Aguilar, Gonzâlez-Canche, & Moll, 2010a). Two studies questioned the validity of the AZELA (Florez, 2010; Garcia, Lawton, & de Figueiredo, 2010b), and one found that state changes to the Home Language Survey (from three questions to one) significantly — and intentionally — reduced the number of ELs identified as legally entitled to additional state education services. Finally, Lillie et al. (2010) found that at the secondary level, high school students consigned to the ELD blocks were unable to take and pass courses required for graduation or to go on to college. In their totality, these studies “raise grave concerns that secondary ELs are being set up to drop out of school, while elementary age students are being stigmatized and marginalized in their schools” (

Policies Into Practices: Further Limiting Resources for ELs

The ideological traps of Arizona policies not only ensnare students into low-quality education, but also constrain possibilities of a more favorable and expansive pedagogy. This is a national trend, as well. The central feature of this trap is that it ultimately curtails what counts as resources for learning, preventing teachers and students from building on the ample linguistic and cultural affordances in their educational environments. These affordances include first-language development; second-language speakers, readers, and writers as models; academic emphasis in the curriculum; family funds of knowledge; adequate forms of assessment; and meaningful pedagogy. In the following subsections, we will explain the properties of these affordances and the importance of recapturing them in school practices in Arizona, as well as in other areas of the United States.

First-Language Development

Research in the area of second-language acquisition has shown the importance of understanding language not only as a means of communication, but also as a tool for thinking (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006). English-only policies deprive students of the advantages of educational approaches that provide them with the opportunity to maintain and to continue developing their first language. These advantages have been well documented by research and include, for example, the use of multiple linguistic competences specific to bilinguals (e.g., their greater metalinguistic awareness) and opportunities for students to employ strategic actions (e.g., language brokering) to create meaning and to elaborate on the content of instruction (DaSilva Iddings, Risko, & Rampulla, 2009; DaSilva Iddings & Rose, 2012; Martinez-Roldan, Yeager, & Tuyay, 2005).

Second-Language Speakers, Readers, and Writers as Models

Arizona’s policy of grouping EL students for instruction for four hours a day effectively segregates these students from English language models. As Wong Fillmore and Snow (2000) have written, ELs must “interact directly and frequently with people who know the language well enough to reveal how it works and how it can be used” (p. 24) so that they can receive feedback and negotiate meaning in the second language. A vital resource for English language learning, then, is to establish relations with native English speakers. Isolating students from such peer networks and language models serves to constrain rather than enhance their language development, thus also hindering their academic progress.

Family Funds of Knowledge

When the schooling of ELs is devoted to English-only instruction, with its assimilative intent, there is also the real possibility of rupturing or fracturing students’ connection to their families and to their lived experiences and funds of knowledge, potentially important resources for learning (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). Rumbaut and Portes (2001), in their longitudinal analysis of second-generation students, found that a critical element among the most successful students — in combination with the guidance of alert parents and significant others, such as a caring teacher who would direct the student in her or his academic pursuits — was the ability to build on what we would call household funds of knowledge in overcoming barriers to advancement or mobility. Therefore, educational policies directed at a forced transition to English monolingualism, instead of, whenever possible, the cultivation of fluent bilingualism, are seriously misguided. They deprive students of valuable resources to maintain critical intergenerational alliances, rupturing family relations as they adapt to a new society, and access to the knowledge and practices to succeed socially and academically early in their schooling. As Portes and Hao (2002) suggested, it is the possibility of learning English while preserving the cultural anchor in the family’s own past that lead to the most desirable results. Cut the moorings, and children are cast adrift in a uniform monolingual world. They, their families, and eventually the communities where they settle will pay the price (p. 22).

Academic Emphasis

The academic achievement ofELs in the U.S. schools (and in Arizona) reflects the repercussions of a long-lived history of educational inequity for students. Some of this history continues to be perpetuated through low teacher expectations of, and/or unfavorable bias toward, lower-income students and racial/ethnic minorities (DaSilva Iddings & Katz, 2007). Also, studies have shown that access to rigorous curriculum and overall high-quality education has been almost exclusively reserved for White, middle-class students (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). DeCuir and Dixson (2004) contended that current tracking systems, honors classes, and gifted education — widely populated by Whites — contribute to the re-segregation of schools. In addition, many recent studies have suggested that the preservation of English as the hegemonic language of school has implications for the academic achievement of ELs and ultimately relegates these students to subordinate positions in the classroom (DaSilva Iddings &Jang, 2008).

Adequate Forms of Assessment

ELs enrolled in U.S. schools continue to be disadvantaged by standards-based educational reforms. The Board on Testing and Assessment Report (Hakuta & Beatty, 2000) revealed that using standardized tests to assess students whose language skills are likely to significantly affect their test performance yields inaccurate results. In addition, the standardized approach to testing is considered inadequate for ELs as it is largely driven by policies rather than theories related to second-language acquisition (Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003; DaSilva Iddings & Rose, 2012). That is, these tests have traditionally been normed for monolingual speakers and do not capture the advantages of multilingualism.

It follows that the standardized tests currently in use in our public schools may lack validity for ELs; thus, the academic abilities of these students continue to be underestimated. Indeed, researchers have shown that these students are grossly overrepresented in low academic tracks and school dropout rates (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005; DaSilva Iddings & Jang, 2008). In view of these challenges, there clearly is an urgent need to create assessment instruments that are sensitive to social, cultural, and linguistic differences. In addition, there is a need to create a process-oriented diagnostic tool (i.e., dynamic assessment) that provides information about ELs’ distinctive psychological processes that may not be derivable from other sources (Poehner, 2008).

Meaningful Pedagogies

Pedagogic practices have frequently been subject to social, cultural, and political influence, and as such, have often adopted social patterns and political lines in accordance with the dominant social class that has guided its interests. As linguistically diverse students and their respective families are not often represented in this dominant social class in U.S. schools, their interests and needs are not always considered. In addition, the current exaggerated focus on standardized test scores in U.S. public schools can sometimes place unreasonable demands on teachers and can actually preclude the very kinds of classroom interactions and/or contextual conditions that are most desirable for promoting learning and development. Educators in general have pointed to the importance of providing students with opportunities for meaningful learning to take place; however, in relation to ELs who are often subjected to spending the majority of their school days performing language drills, such opportunities are not always available.


In this chapter, we have attempted to capture the educational landscape surrounding English learners (ELs). In so doing, we presented a summary ofissues related to the effects of restrictive language and educational policies that ultimately dispossess these students of valuable resources.

The schooling of ELs, the fastest growing student group in the country, has become a major challenge in all urban school districts — and in other regions of the country, as well. We have opted to spotlight the education of these students in the state of Arizona, which is evidently far from being representative of an ideal model but nevertheless has promise to be replicated in other parts of the country.

The most prominent characteristic of the Arizona model is the control and restriction through policies and practices of essential institutional resources (i.e., services, funding, time, and information). As these forms of control make their way into everyday classroom life, ELs are further stripped from educational possibilities as they are often denied the right to draw on their own social, cultural, and linguistic resources for learning and are thus left educationally stranded. Examples of these practices include separating students for four hours a day for English lessons using only English as the medium of instruction. This restrictive arrangement, and the reductive and prescriptive emphases on the teaching of English summarized in this chapter, has resulted in an educational desert of sorts where ELs are confronted with overcoming several serious pedagogical limitations with only partial or no access to ample resources for learning available in the school and broader community.

Of the issues we have enumerated, three seem the most salient for teachers, according to recent survey results (e.g., Kios-Aguilar, Gonzâlez-Canche, & Moll, 2010b): (a) the lack of emphasis on first-language development, which represents a formidable asset for second-language development; (b) the segregation of students from native English speakers, thus missing valuable interactive opportunities for the development of fluency in English; and (c) the lack of academic emphasis in the program. We suggest that any attempt at improving the education of EL students must, at the very least, address these limitations in systematic and persistent ways.


When we originally published this article in 2012, the political and pedagogical landscape for ELs in Arizona was bleak. The Arizona State Department of Education had imposed a fundamentally theoretical program model that had zero support in the research literature. Nonetheless, policymakers believed their “one year to proficiency” approach would guarantee full proficiency for the estimated 166,000 ELs enrolled in Arizona schools (Batalova & McHugh, 2010). They also seemed convinced that proficiency in English would lead in turn to academic success in mainstream classrooms. Achievement gaps between ELs and their peers did not decrease. A longitudinal study of Spanish-speaking children from grades K—3 (Jimenez-Castellanos et al., 2014) found that “after four years of exposure to English-only instruction, only 12 of the 66 children (17.4%) were performing within the average range on English receptive vocabulary, and nearly a third of the children remained more than two standard deviations below average” (p. 118). Nor did ELs learn enough English to be reclassified as fluent. Most students remained in the ELD blocks for more than a year, and some for multiple years. For example, in 2010, just over half of Arizona’s ELs passed the AZELA. The high school graduation rate for ELs was not impressive to begin with, but by 2011, it had plunged from 44% in 2006 to 25% — or 1 in 4. By 2019, the graduation rate for ELs had decreased to 18% (Hoffman, 2019).

These dismal developments led to a number of positive changes. First was the election of a new (and trilingual) superintendent of public instruction in 2018, the only individual in many years to hold that post who was actually an educator.’ Unlike previous superintendents, she was a strong advocate for dual-language education and had criticized the states ELD blocks while campaigning. Second, a bipartisan senate bill to repeal the Arizona Revised Statutes that governed the implementation of the ELD blocks passed through the state legislature unanimously in early 2020 (S.B. 1014). Although the bill did not eliminate the ELD blocks entirely, it reduced them from four to two hours daily. The new law also permitted “public schools to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and nonnative English speakers.” (, p. 4). This allowance was remarkable, considering that the legislature had specifically prohibited ELs from enrolling in dual-language programs prior to 2020.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. How can teachers resist restrictive language policies that limit educational opportunities for ELs?
  • 2. How can we, teacher educators, partner up with community organizations and families in order to prepare teachers to advocate for ELs’ rights to their own language and equitable education?
  • 3. What can teachers do to provide the necessary structures, in the classroom and school communities, for ELs to negotiate their linguistic and racial identities across the multiple contexts of school, home, and community?

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/ or publication of this article.


The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


1. The authors of this article believe that the label English language learner conveys a subtractive view of children (see also Garcia, 2009; Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010; Keyes, 2006). Instead, we favor the label emergent bilinguals to describe children who speak languages other than English who are in a “dynamic process of developing bilingual and bihterate competencies” (Keyes, 2006, p. 268, emphasis in original) and possess unique linguistic, cognitive, and social resources (Garcia, 2009). We agree with our colleagues about the more positive message conveyed by “emergent bilinguals” and acknowledge that our use of English language learner over other labels represents an ideological conflict. For us, how to describe students in Arizona schools is a rhetorical dilemma. On one hand, EL suggests students who are acquiring English (and only English).

On the other hand, describing students as emergent bilinguals acknowledges the hopeful possibility of future bilingualism, an outcome we all desire. In this article, we have retained the term English language learner, primarily because in Arizona, EL political and pedagogical policies intentionally preclude the development of bilingualism.

  • 2. A folk theory can be defined as a model that makes up a shared common sense; see garrett/401s07/glosspif.htm
  • 3. From the Findings and Declarations of Proposition 203: “Young immigrant children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English, if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age.” Now officially part of Arizona Revised Statutes, Title 15, Section 752: English Language Education: “Children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year” (Arizona Revised Statutes, Title 15, Section 752: English Language Education).
  • 4. Available from the website of the Arizona Department of Education, www.
  • 5. Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat elected in November 2018. See the Arizona Department of Educations website for biographical information:


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