Rise in Foreign Language Enrollments Spurs Teacher Shortage

By Anne Bridgman — September 12, 1984 7 min read

A 70-percent increase over the past three years in the number of Oklahoma public-school students enrolled in foreign-language courses has sent educators scrambling for ways to recruit language instructors.

“I’m getting calls every day from school administrators who want to hire foreign-language teachers, and we don’t have them,” said Al Gage, a foreign-language specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Education. “We’re in a bind [and] we’ll be in a bind for a while.”

The number of teachers teaching foreign languages in Oklahoma’s public schools has risen by only 12 percent during the last three years, according to Mr. Gage. In addition, he noted, “We’ve only been graduating 12 to 15 foreign-language teachers [a year] from teacher-training institutions.”

Mr. Gage attributed the increase in high-school enrollments to the University of Oklahoma’s announcement that freshmen entering in September 1986 must either have two years of foreign-language training or take more than 10 hours of language instruction in college; to Oklahoma State University’s requirement that students take 10 credit-hours of foreign-language training for a bachelor of arts degree; and to the growing interest among students in international affairs.

And an additional spur has been initiated by the state. Late last month, the Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education met with the state board and Gov. George Nigh to give final approval to a set of college-entrance requirements for all state institutions that places as a “high-priority elective” two years of foreign-language instruction, according to Mr. Gage.

The situation in Oklahoma mirrors that in a number of states across the nation, which have had to add high-school foreign-language classes in response either to the re-institution by colleges and universities of language requirements for entrance and graduation or to new high-school graduation mandates.

Among the developments:

Utah has experienced a 50-percent increase in the number of high-school students enrolled in foreign-language courses in the last year. Steven W. Durrant, chairman of the department of languages at the University of Utah, attributes the increase, in part, to an announcement by the university that, beginning in 1987, it would require all entering freshmen to complete two years of foreign-language study. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1984.)

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates it will need an additional 1,500 foreign-language teachers to meet a requirement, adopted in February but delayed for at least one year, that districts use 30 minutes of time added to the school day to teach foreign languages to academically able students. (See Education Week, March 7, 1984.)

The Texas Education Agency in March voted to require, effective3this month, that all school districts offer at least two years or two levels of the same foreign language and that students who choose to participate in the advanced high-school program complete two years of instruction in the same foreign language, according to Robert LaBouve, director of languages for the education agency.

Mr. LaBouve said he did not expect that there would be a critical shortage of foreign-language teachers in the larger districts because 70 percent of the districts already offer two levels of a foreign language, but he noted that smaller districts might experience problems.

The New York Board of Regents last March voted to phase in over the next five years a requirement that all public-school students take two years of foreign-language instruction before grade 9, according to Paul Dammer, chief of the bureau of foreign-languages education in the New York State Education Department.

Mr. Dammer said a possible teacher shortage is “the big question mark.” One of the reasons the requirements will be phased in slowly is to allow school officials time to respond to the need for more teachers, he said.

Virginia, which last year began requiring that all students seeking an advanced-studies diploma take three years of a foreign language and that all schools offer at least one foreign language to 8th-grade students, faces a severe teacher-shortage problem, according to state officials.

“We very definitely have a shortage of teachers,” said Helen P. Warriner-Burke, associate director of foreign languages for the Virginia Department of Education. Enrollment in high-school language courses has increased 3 to 6 percent in the last 10 years, she noted, adding that she was “certain from field reports that it’s going to be up at least 3 percentage points this year.”

Elementary Programs

Even in states that have not instituted foreign-language requirements, some educators have moved to set up elementary-level language courses to assure that high-school students will be proficient.

In New Mexico, for example, the Albuquerque Public Schools are scheduled to begin in November an elementary-school Spanish-language program designed to make students fluent by the time they graduate from high school.

This fall, 40 teachers will begin to teach Spanish to elementary-school children in 15 to 18 of the district’s 73 schools, according to Hugh H.el5lPrather, director of elementary instruction for the district.

Turnaround Seen

The increases in foreign-language enrollments reported by state education officials may signal a reversal of a decline that began 70 years ago.

According to a report by the National Advisory Board on International Education Programs, enrollments in foreign-language courses began declining in 1915, when 36 percent of high-school students were enrolled in such courses. In 1980, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 15 percent of high-school students took foreign-language courses.

And a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, “Foreign Language Education in American High Schools,” points out that as recently as 1980, 58 percent of sophomores in the academic track attended schools that had no foreign-language graduation requirement.

Related to Colleges

Richard Brod, director of foreign-language programs for the Modern Language Association, sees a strong correlation between increased college requirements and larger high-school enrollments in foreign-lan3guage courses. In the past three years, Mr. Brod noted, an increasing number of colleges and universities across the nation have begun to re-institute entrance and exit language requirements for bachelor’s degree candidates.

In 1966, Mr. Brod said, about 33 percent of colleges granting the B.A. degree had foreign-language entrance requirements, and 89 percent had graduation requirements for degree candidates.

And although last year only 14 percent of colleges required foreign languages for admission and 47 percent had foreign-language requirements for the B.A. degree, the recent figures represent a “trend toward restoration,” he said.

Mr. Brod also credits students’ growing awareness of international affairs and the back-to-basics movement for the increase in foreign-language enrollments.

Teacher Shortage

But while proponents of foreign-language instruction are heartened by the resurgence of interest in such study, they are worried about the shortage of capable teachers and the consequences of relying on those who are inadequately trained.

“If administrators are eager to restore language study,” Mr. Brod said, “but they can’t restore good teachers, then it’s not a healthy situation. The universities really have to gear up again for training good and better [language] teachers.”

But education-school officials note that, even if they are able to recruit students into foreign-language-training programs, it will take some time before they make a dent in the current shortage.

Edward D. Allen, professor of foreign-language education at Ohio State University, one of the largest teacher-training institutions in the country, noted that the romance-languages department three years ago hired a faculty member to work full-time as a liaison between high schools and the college of education “in an attempt to recruit more students.”

But he added: “It takes four years for a person to become a teacher.”

Resort to New Strategies

In the meantime, educators in the handful of states that have instituted foreign-language requirements for high-school graduation say they are having to come up with innovative strategies to recruit and retrain teachers. Among them:

Establishing consortia of rural schools to share foreign-language teachers.

Waiving, at least temporarily, teacher-certification requirements to attract people fluent in a foreign language but lacking professional training.

Retraining teachers who are certified in other subjects but who have an interest in teaching foreign languages.

Using English-as-a-second-language and bilingual teachers as foreign-language instructors.

Arranging teacher-exchange programs with foreign countries to recruit foreign-language teachers.

Lowering the passing scores on teacher-certification language tests.

Establishing interactive-television or computer-assisted instruction programs, correspondence courses, and summer-school classes.

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Rise in Foreign Language Enrollments Spurs Teacher Shortage