May 09, 2019 5:21 PM
More than half of all U.S. states report having a shortage of bilingual teachers to face increasing diversity in the nation’s schools.
About 10% of public school students in the U.S. fall into the category of “English-language learners” (ELLs), but in some states like California, 38% of students enter the public school system as ELLs. Of all California public school students, about 21% are considered ELLs.
“English learners” are defined as ages 3 to 21 whose native language is not English and whose difficulties in reading, speaking and understanding English hinder their success in the classroom, according to the Council of Great City Schools. Last month, the council published a report looking at what English learners face while attending public schools in 74 major U.S. cities.
The most commonly spoken languages among ELLs in the U.S. are Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese. Speakers of those five languages make up 92% of all ELLs included in the council’s report.
Schools have struggled for years to cope with increased language diversity. In 1998, California voters passed a measure of English-only education. In November 2016, that measure was overturned, and California public schools are working to expand bilingual education. But school systems across the state say they simply do not have enough qualified, bilingual educators to serve their students.
California is not alone: Thirty other states and the District of Columbia report shortages of teachers in the areas of bilingual instruction and English as a Second Language. Observers fear a continued shortage will harm English learners’ chances for a meaningful education.
Research has shown that English learners do best in dual-language programs when they can use their mother tongue. A 2017 study by Rand Corporation estimated that the U.S. has between 1,000 and 2,000 dual-language immersion programs in a public school system of more than 130,000 schools in kindergarten through Grade 12.
Nationally, about 83% of students complete their high school education compared with a 65% graduation rate among English learners.
The case in California
Before Proposition 227 passed in 1998, 30% of California’s 1.3 million English learners took part in bilingual programs. After 1998, that percentage dwindled to 5%, according to Education Next. But in 2017, a public opinion study found that 58% of school districts in the state had plans to add or expand bilingual programs.
However, 86% of those districts said the shortage of bilingual teachers was slowing those plans. And experts and school administrators told Education Next that school systems in California are “stealing each other’s teachers.” Many systems in the state now offer extra money to teachers with bilingual skills. Other school systems seek bilingual educators internationally.
Some education experts and policy organizations say states can find and train new teachers in their local communities, a process nicknamed “grow your own,” or GYO.
New America, a policy organization in Washington, D.C., carries out research to strengthen America’s educational system. It says GYO programs can fix teacher shortages in states and also increase the racial and linguistic diversity among teachers. By training local teacher candidates, it saves money and resources, and ensures that those teachers remain in the system.
Reaching English Learners Act
U.S. congressional lawmakers are also looking for ways to find and train bilingual teacher candidates.
Last year, lawmakers introduced a bill — the Reaching English Language Learners Act — to address the shortage of educators qualified to teach English learners. If passed, the bill would give grants to colleges and universities to support the development of the next generation of ELL educators. The grant money would go toward developing programs meant to make sure teacher candidates have the “knowledge and skills necessary” to effectively teach English learners.