Faced with federal suit, Arizona quits monitoring teachers’ English fluency

by Walter Olson on September 26, 2011

My new Cato post points out that while this may be craziness, it’s craziness with a long pedigree:

It was way back in the first Bush administration that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began filing lawsuits against employers for “discriminating” against employees with difficult-to-understand or heavily accented speech, the theory being that this served as an improper proxy for discrimination based on national origin. The scope for allowable exceptions was exceedingly narrow, too narrow to cover most teaching positions, as I wrote quite a while back when the issue had just come over the horizon in a Massachusetts case. Indeed, the National Education Association (I pointed out) had been prevailed on to pass a resolution “decrying disparate treatment on the basis of ‘pronunciation’ — quite a switch from the old days when teachers used to be demons for correctness on that topic.”

Read the whole thing here (& Alkon, Peter Pappas/Tax Lawyer’s Blog, Bader). Another view: Josh Hanson.

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{ 8 comments }

1 Richard Nieporent 09.26.11 at 9:53 am

The comment by Josh Hanson is pure sophistry. It is not a question of having a regional accent, but the ability of the students to understand what the teacher is saying. How can the students learn the correct way to speak and write English if the teacher is not fluent in English? You cannot teach what you do not know.

I remember back when I was in college and graduate school a big issue in the sciences was the teaching of courses by professors who were not native English speakers. I never realized we were being racists by complaining about not being able to understand what the professor was saying (and in those days you could not get the notes on the Internet).

2 Alan Gunn 09.26.11 at 11:18 am

I was once involved in a case in which a professor was denied tenure because his students couldn’t understand his accent and he refused to take classes or tutoring to try to improve it. Seemed sensible enough to me. It’s not just foreign accents, though. My seventh grade teacher (in Louisiana), a native speaker of English, taught us to pronounce “exraordinary” as “extree-ordinary.” (We also learned that science wasn’t interesting enough to bother with and that “Nigras” were OK “in their place.”)

3 GregS 09.26.11 at 11:43 am

As long as the teacher can make himself understood, I don’t think his accent or pronunciation should matter. The only exception would be for English language teachers, where correct command of the language is, or should be, a prerequisite for the job. But for math or history or art teachers it shouldn’t be relevant.

4 Jim Finkel 09.26.11 at 12:15 pm

I graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and learned how to understand the majority of the accents of the TA’s for math and physics and engineering. Even the British accent was a bit tough (he used the pronunciations of “cause” and “caught”) for COS and COT. For the single let us teach engineers some business class, the teacher was Israeli. This was fine for me as I had spent 6 months listening to Israelis mangle English grammar. He used normal Hebrew grammar (with no present tense of ‘to be’), which confused the heck out out of the class. I enjoyed one the highest averages in that class.

5 gasman 09.26.11 at 3:32 pm

That Jim Finkel seems to attribute at least in part his success in the class to the teacher speaking in a manner only he could interpret makes a fine argument for vetting teacher’s ability to communicate in standard english.

Standard english for north america should be easily enough identified as that spoken by the anchors on network evening news. They are selected by the networks to be clear and non-abrasive to the largest possible segment of television viewing america. That ought to be close enough to the median. That said, I have no explanation for Barbara Walters’ decades of television time.

6 david 09.26.11 at 4:32 pm

In 1977 I was walking through a mall in Dallas. A woman approached me and said something. I could not understand a single word. I asked her to repeat what she said, it took about 5 efforts for us to communicate. I thought this strange as I was a resident at the time and working in a charity hospital. What the woman was saying was that she wanted me to consider Dallas public schools for my kids. She identified herself as an English teacher. She was not foreign.

Then we have the current situation in which I was teaching at the medical school. I was one of the more popular teachers, not because I am that great, only because I was the only one that anyone could understand.

7 AZFlyer 09.26.11 at 6:25 pm

Isn’t this just a lack of education? Although spanish was my first language, I was able to learn to speak standard english without an accent. We’re not talking about someone with a disability that needs legal protections. These are people who (if they are teachers) should be able to learn to pronounce words and use grammar properly. That is, after all, what is expected of their students.

There’s nothing that irks me more than when someone who has a job which requires communicating with the public, cannot speak english well enough to be understood by the average person. Doesn’t matter if it’s teaching or phone tech support. It matters little how well you know your subject if you cannot communicate effectively.

8 D 09.29.11 at 6:57 pm

I read not too long ago about a cognitive experiment in which (to summarize) various passages of text were rendered from visually clear to visually obscure. (Note, that is obscure context, not content.) Both retention and comprehension increased as the text became harder to read. I can testify that the same works for obscure content if the reader/listener is willing to put forth the effort.
But my math professor took it to an extreme when wrote a 13 stroke chinese character and claimed that it was a standard math symbol.

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