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Bilingual Teachers in Short Supply Across America

About 10 percent of public school students in the United States are English language learners. In some states, that number is much higher.
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In California, for example, 38 percent of students enter the public school system as English learners. Overall, about 21 percent of California public school students are considered English learners.

For years, these students had few chances to receive a bilingual education or take special classes for English learners. In 1998, California voters passed a measure that ended many programs for English language learners, in favor of English-only education. The measure was known as Proposition 227, or the “English in Public Schools” measure.

In November 2016, that measure was overturned. Today, California public schools are working to bring in and expand bilingual offerings.

However, progress has been slow. School systems across the state say they simply do not have enough qualified, bilingual educators to serve their students.

California is not alone in this struggle. 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 further harm English learners’ chances for a meaningful education.

But there are national and local efforts underway to find solutions. We talk about those today.

First, we will discuss the population involved.

America’s English language learners

An estimated five million students in the country are considered English language learners, or ELLs. Such students are the fast-growing group in U.S. public schools.

Last month, the Council of Great City Schools published its latest findings on English learners. The report looked at several conditions for English learners attending public schools in 74 major U.S. cities.

In its report, the council defines English learners as between the ages of 3 and 21; whose native language is not English; and whose difficulties in reading, speaking and understanding English are enough to keep them from having success in the classroom.

The most commonly spoken languages among ELLs in America are Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese. Speakers of those five languages make up 92 percent of all ELLs included in the council’s report.

Methods for teaching ELLs
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English learners can enroll in one of several kinds of programs, depending on where they live. There are transitional programs, in which students are mostly taught in their native language but also receive English training. And there are structured programs, which offer students almost all classroom teaching in English. These kinds of programs do not always permit students to become skilled at writing and reading in their own language, however.

There are also so-called dual-language immersion programs. These programs offer instruction in two languages -- English and another language. Research has shown that English learners do best in dual-language programs, especially if the second language is their own mother tongue.

This is not a usual education model in America’s public schools, however. A 2017 study by the Rand corporation estimated that the US has between 1,000 and 2,000 dual language immersion programs. By comparison, the United States has over 130,000 schools serving kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

The lack of high-quality bilingual programs is clear when considering student outcomes. Nationally, about 83 percent of students complete their high school education. But the graduation rate among English learners is far lower – 65 percent.

The case in California

Before Proposition 227 passed in 1998, 30 percent of California’s 1.3 million English learners took part in bilingual programs. But in the years after, only 5 percent were able to take part in such programs. This information comes from a report released last month by Education Next.

Since the proposition was repealed, schools in California have been hoping to bring back bilingual programs. A 2017 public opinion study found that 58 percent of school districts in the state had plans to add or expand bilingual programs.

However, 86 percent of those districts said the shortage of bilingual teachers was slowing those plans.

Experts and school administrators told Education Next that school systems in California are “stealing each other’s teachers.” To compete, many systems in the state now offer extra money for teachers with bilingual skills.

More districts “growing” their own teachers

School systems across the country sometimes look for bilingual educators internationally. But education experts and policy organizations say there are ways for states to find and train new teachers in their local communities.

One method involves “growing” more educators within their community. This is called “grow your own” or GYO.

New America is a policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Its Education Policy team carries out research meant to strengthen America’s educational system.

It says "grow your own" programs can both fix teacher shortages in states and increase the racial and linguistic diversity among teachers. It adds that local teacher candidates are more likely than overseas teachers to stay in the system. This saves schools money and resources over time.

This spring, New America released a list of "grow your own" guidelines for schools and states to follow. It advised states to offer a mix of ways for bilingual teacher candidates to receive necessary certifications. It also suggested training local candidates even if they do not have a college degree.

Reaching English Learners Act

Congressional lawmakers are also among those looking for ways to find and train bilingual teacher candidates.

Last year, several lawmakers introduced a bill meant to address the shortage of educators qualified to teach English learners. The bill is called the “Reaching English Language Learners Act.”

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.

Jim Langevin was among the lawmakers who proposed the bill to the House of Representatives, first in 2018 and again in February. Langevin is a Democratic Party congressman from Rhode Island. The bill has received support from Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress.

Langevin said the bill would provide critical resources to help English learners and their teachers.

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