Scarcity of Language Teachers Retards Growth

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Even with growing demand and the prospect of new federal and state aid for improving foreign-language instruction, expanding offerings is especially difficult because of a shortage of qualified teachers in what are deemed critical languages, many experts say.

Here in Portland, officials have hired native speakers to staff classrooms for the Mandarin Chinese-immersion program at Woodstock Elementary School and Hosford Middle School.

Many of the teachers, who may have had some teaching experience in their native China, are working under limited state licenses while they complete coursework for full licensure.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, foreign-language teachers must meet the requirements for being “highly qualified” that their counterparts in other core subjects are also held to. That generally means holding a standard license and demonstrating content knowledge, such as through a college major in the subjects they teach.

But Oregon has no state endorsement for teaching Chinese, as it does for the more-common languages.

Attracting native speakers with teaching experience, however, is not a sure strategy, according to Michael Bacon, who works with foreign-language teachers in the 47,000-student district.

“We often have an applicant pool of people with, say, two master’s degrees and a doctorate pending,” he said, “but what they often lack is experience dealing with American children, and they almost always do not have certification.”

Expanding the Pool

The district frequently provides professional development to help the teachers come up with more-interactive instructional approaches, in contrast to the traditional, teacher-centered methods they may have used in China.

School leaders and policymakers will need to find new ways to expand the pool of teachers before districts can offer the kind of comprehensive, ongoing language instruction experts say is needed, according to Michael Levine, the director of education programs for the New York City-based Asia Society. Accelerated-licensure programs and initiatives for retraining teachers of other foreign languages could help, he said.

“Shouldn’t we make available to those teachers who are interested in teaching these critical languages some kind of mechanism for doing so?” Mr. Levine said. “The key question in all of this is, where are we going to find the teachers?”

PHOTO: Shin Yen instructs her kindergarten class entirely in Mandarin Chinese at Woodstock Elementary School in Portland, Ore.
—File photo by Rick Bowmer/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 29, Page 23

Published in Print: March 29, 2006, as Scarcity of Language Teachers Retards Growth
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