Advocates for English-language learners nationally are keeping a wary eye on legislation in Florida that would significantly reduce the state’s tough training requirement for reading teachers who work with such students.
The bill, which has won approval from the Florida Senate and from a House committee, would cut to 60 the number of in-service hours in teaching English as a second language required of reading teachers who work with ELLs, down from the current requirement of 300.
The measure has the backing of at least one local teachers’ union affiliate, although the Florida Department of Education has taken no position, and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who vetoed a similar bill last year, has not said what he will do if the new version reaches his desk this year.
But the bill is raising eyebrows among some ELL advocates at a time when education officials in other states are considering adopting training requirements for nonspecialists who teach English-learners.
“The approach to teaching reading is not the same for ELLs,” Margarita Calderón, a professor and research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in an e-mail message. “All reading teachers need extensive training—almost a second master’s degree—on the linguistic, meta-linguistic, and meta-cognitive processes for integrating reading, language, and content.”
In general, said Ms. Calderón, state officials are trying to increase professional development for all teachers and administrators on how to be effective with English-language learners.
Arizona, for example, has requirements for mainstream teachers certified after 2006 to receive 90 hours of in-service training in how to work with ELLs. California requires all teacher-preparation programs at colleges and universities to train teachers in how to work with ELLs, and Virginia established similar requirements in September. Ms. Calderón said that such training is especially important for teachers who work with students in grades 4-12 who have been in U.S. schools since kindergarten but who are still learning English.
We understand the concerns on both sides of the issue. We are concerned about the quality of training and the number of hours."
National reading experts agree that reading teachers need specialized training to be effective with English-language learners, but they don’t agree on how many hours of training should be required.
“There are specific techniques and approaches used in the teaching of reading to English-language learners, such as sheltered English, that you aren’t going to get in regular preparation,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education and the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. With sheltered English, teachers modify how they use English to make it more understandable, such as using shorter sentences or commonly spoken words, to teach academic content.
“I don’t know what the right number of hours is,” said Mr. Shanahan. “Is it OK to cut the hours from 300 to 60? Maybe.”
At least four states specify that mainstream teachers receive training in how to teach English-language learners.
37,000 ELLs, 13 percent of students
All teachers and administrators certified after Aug. 31, 2006, must take 90 hours of in-service training in “Structured English Immersion,” the method Arizona uses to teach ELLs. Teachers certified before that date must take 60 hours. By the start of the 2009-10 school year, all colleges and universities must incorporate 90 hours of ELL training, or about two 3-credit-hour courses, into their teacher-preparation programs.
1.6 million ELLs, 25 percent of students
All teachers with at least one English-learner in a classroom must be certified to work with ELLs. Some school districts require that all teachers have certification to work with ELLs. One route to certification involves taking 12 semester hours worth of specialized coursework and passing an exam.
233,900 ELLs, 9 percent of students
English language arts and reading teachers must take 300 in-service hours of training. Social studies, math, science, and computer teachers take 60 hours. Teachers of other subjects take 18. School administrators and guidance counselors take 60 hours.
84,000 ELLs, 7 percent of students
In September, the Virginia state board of education added new requirements that colleges and universities must integrate the teaching of methods for working with ELLs into their teacher-preparation programs.
Sources: Arizona, Florida, and Virginia Education Departments; California Commission on Teacher Credentialing
Mr. Shanahan said he would need to examine the curriculum used for professional development for Florida’s reading teachers to determine how many hours are enough.
One of the Florida bill’s sponsors, Sen. Stephen R. Wise, a Republican, said a reduction in training hours is necessary because the state education department didn’t use the proper channels to set the requirement of 300 hours.
The Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, hasn’t taken an official position, according to Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the state organization.
“We understand the concerns on both sides of the issue,” he said. “We are concerned about the quality of training and the number of hours. I think the way the 300 hours came about was the department of education pulled the number out of a hat.”
But the Clay County Education Association, a branch of the Florida Education Association, is pushing for passage. Some teachers in the 2,500-member organization think the requirement of 300 hours is unnecessary.
A reduced training requirement also gets support from Maria S. Carlo, an assistant professor of education at the University of Miami and a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s advisory panel for Reading First, the flagship reading program of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. She said she found a great deal of overlap between the state’s current standards for both reading and ELL instruction.
“If those areas where there is overlap got appropriate attention in the curriculum, I think a single course [on teaching ESL] would be enough to supplement the reading preparation, assuming the course provides the right content,” said Ms. Carlo, who testified in January before a Florida Senate education appropriations committee in favor of the bill.
Opponents Fear Dilution
In her view, a single course—equal to about 60 hours of seat time, she said—should cover applied linguistics, second-language acquisition, and the demographics of English-learners.
But state Sen. Nan Rich, a Democrat, said she voted against the bill because her constituents in Broward and Miami-Dade counties told her it would dilute the quality of instruction for ELLs.
The Sunshine State TESOL of Florida, a branch of the national group Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, and some civil rights organization, such as the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, have taken a similar position on the bill.
Eric Dwyer, a TESOL professor at Florida International University in Miami, recently spent a day meeting with legislators in the state capital, Tallahassee, trying to convince them the proposed bill would reduce the quality of education for English-language learners. He’s particularly concerned that English-learners at the secondary level will lose out if reading teachers don’t receive 300 hours of in-service training on how to work with them.
“The content is thicker” than in elementary school, he said. “The vocabulary demands for kids who move here when they are in 8th grade and beyond are immediately abstract and not concrete.”
Reading teachers need special skills, such as understanding differences between languages, to be able to help English-learners, he said.
The Florida House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill sometime during the current legislative session, which wraps up May 2.
A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Reading teachers could work with English-learners with 60 hours of seat-time.