OCR Ponders ESL Teacher Certification in Pa.

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 13, 2000 9 min read

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights is considering how to resolve an unprecedented complaint that Pennsylvania violates the civil rights of students with limited proficiency in English because it doesn’t require teachers of English as a second language to be certified in the subject.

Many states do not require such a credential, but Pennsylvania is the only one that doesn’t offer teachers any kind of certificate, endorsement, or certification in ESL, according to a state-by-state review.

Norma V. Cantú, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in an interview last week that her office was still trying to determine if the complaint, filed by the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center in October, could be resolved without an investigation.

“Whether we investigate depends upon communication with the state,” she said, adding that any decision the Education Department might reach in the case would apply solely to Pennsylvania and not to other states.

But Ms. Cantú stressed that teacher qualifications are a major issue for all states and districts to address to ensure the programs they choose for limited-English-proficient students are “sound, supported, and evaluated"—words she used to summarize the bottom line for federal civil rights law.

Len Rieser, a co-director of the Philadelphia law center, said he filed the complaint because the Pennsylvania education department has chosen not to devise a certification for ESL teachers even though professionals in the field formally asked it to do so two years ago.

It’s true that state education officials view ESL teacher certification as unnecessary, said Linda A. McKay, an assistant counsel for the state education department. “Since certification isn’t a federal requirement,” she said, “we believe we have the discretion to decide how to serve the students.”

Ms. McKay contends that it might be impractical and expensive for a small or rural district to hire a certified ESL teacher if it had only a few students with limited English skills. She emphasized that ESL teachers in Pennsylvania “can’t just be anyone walking off the street,” but that rather they must have state certification either in elementary education or a content area of secondary education.

The complaint alleges that Pennsylvania’s teacher-certification policies discriminate against LEP students because the state requires certification in many other areas—including environmental education and data processing—but not in ESL.

“It certainly doesn’t make any sense to me that one would go to such trouble to set standards in every other area, and leave things wide open for ESL,” Mr. Rieser said. “It’s extremely shortsighted of Pennsylvania not to address this issue at a time when we’re seeing growing numbers of kids with non-English-speaking backgrounds coming into the system.”

Ensuring Quality

Given the recent influx of immigrant students, some educators say the time is ripe for all states to require those who are directly responsible for teaching English to LEP students to be certified either in English as a second language or in bilingual education.

In Pennsylvania, as well as many other states with relatively small concentrations of immigrant students, ESLnot bilingual education—is the most common method for teaching English to students with limited proficiency in English.

English-as-a-second-language classes typically are attended by students who speak many different languages, and all instruction is in English. In bilingual education, students share a native language and may receive academic instruction in that language while learning English.

The group Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, found in 1997 that only Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia didn’t provide some kind of certificate, endorsement, or certification for ESL teachers. But education officials in all of those states, except Pennsylvania, say that they have since established policies to recognize ESL teacher credentials.

“All teachers need to be certified—we can’t have exceptions to the rule,” said Amy T. Wilkins, a policy analyst for the Education Trust, a Washington think tank that advocates improved teacher quality for disadvantaged K-12 students. “It should be content-area certification. Why would a math teacher know how to teach ESL?”

Representatives from the Council of the Great City Schools, the National Education Association, and TESOL agree. But Marci Kanstoroom, the research director for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, takes a different view.

“It would make more sense to let schools hire teachers with the right skills and then hold them accountable for teaching children English,” she said. “The more specific licenses we create, the harder it is for schools to staff well, because they have to look for certain credentials instead of finding the best teachers.”

Regardless of state policies, federal courts have ruled that school districts must provide qualified teachers for LEP students to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. States also have an obligation to monitor whether districts are meeting the federal law. Under federal law, states and school districts can be denied federal aid if they discriminate against students based on their national origin.

The clearest guidance to date on the subject of ESL teacher qualifications is contained in a 1991 memo issued by the OCR. It says English- immersion or ESL teachers must be “adequately trained.” It notes that preparation “can take the form of in-service training, formal college coursework, or a combination of the two.”

The memo also says that schools cannot “in effect relegate LEP students to second-class status by indefinitely allowing teachers without formal qualifications to teach them while requiring teachers of non-LEP students to meet formal qualifications.”

Some observers maintain that the OCR should spell out more specifics of what “adequately trained” means, but Ms. Cantú says federal officials have no immediate plans to do so.

“We don’t provide the level of detail of, ‘You’ve got to have an endorsement; it requires this amount of hours or these courses.’ That’s not how our office does business,” she said. “I’m walking this line here where I’m enforcing the law that prohibits the states and school districts from denying opportunity for kids. At the same time, I can’t make educational decisions for states and school districts.”

Yet, Ms. Cantú acknowledged, agreements forged between the OCR and individual school districts sometimes do contain specifics about qualifications, depending on the facts involved in the cases and whether the states that those districts are located in require an endorsement or certification.

For example, the OCR is currently requiring at least a half- dozen school districts in Utah to step up efforts to provide LEP students with teachers who have “ESL endorsements,” the agency’s records show. Utah mandates that ESL teachers have such endorsements, but a number of districts there haven’t been able to find enough teachers to serve a recent increase in immigrant students.

But by contrast, in a similar case with the 6,400-student Chester Upland district near Philadelphia, OCR officials told the district in a 1997 compliance agreement to “demonstrate that teachers have mastered the skills necessary to teach effectively in a program for LEP students” and to evaluate the classroom performance of such teachers.

Views on Certification

Mr. Rieser of the Education Law Center says it’s wrong to rely on enforcement action by the OCR to guarantee that the educational needs of LEP students are met.

“I don’t believe in trying to manage an educational system through complaints and investigations,” he said. “We need leadership from the state, doing the things that are needed to support districts, like developing certification programs at the higher education level so there will be qualified teachers available.”

It is rare for anyone to file a civil rights complaint on behalf of LEP students in Pennsylvania, Mr. Rieser noted, adding that many parents of such students “don’t even know they could file a complaint.”

Currently, the Chester Upland and Lancaster school districts are the only Pennsylvania districts that federal education officials—acting on complaints—have required to fix problems regarding how they educate LEP students, according to OCR records.

Ms. Cantú said that OCR receives few complaints concerning LEP students nationwide, and attributes that in part to the fact that their parents may be poor, do not speak English, and generally lack access to information.

Some Pennsylvania educators and administrators who work with LEP students said in recent interviews that they favored state- required certification for ESL teachers.

“We would have access to more qualified candidates,” said Mary I. Ramirez, the director of the office of language equity issues for the Philadelphia school district, which has backed the creation of a state endorsement or certification in ESL. The 210,000- student district enrolls about half the state’s 24,000 LEP students and often struggles to find qualified teachers, Ms. Ramirez said.

Philadelphia has established its own criteria to determine if ESL teachers are qualified, requiring 15 credit hours of ESL coursework and a passing score on an ESL test.

Fran F. Royston, the K-12 ESL supervisor for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional education office that provides services to LEP students in 30 Pennsylvania districts on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, said she, too, supports a state certification in the subject.

“It would increase attention given to appropriate training for teachers who are going to work specifically with English-language learners,” she said. “It would have the side effect that it would increase the training for all teachers who increasingly are going to have English-language learners in their classrooms, and ultimately help the kids themselves.”

But Theresa N. Luu, who administers programs for LEP students for Chester Upland, said she’d prefer that the state require all teachers to take a few ESL courses, rather than create a specific content-area certification.

Her district is viewed as distressed—it’s been taken over by the state because of poor student performance—and Ms. Luu has found it difficult to recruit ESL teachers. Her top criteria for filling such positions is to hire candidates with strong academic backgrounds and with certification in elementary education, English, social studies, or a foreign language— certification areas that she views as the most related to ESL.

“Teaching candidates in general need to be more qualified,” Ms. Luu said. “With the interrelatedness of everyone in the world, they need to know how to teach students from diverse backgrounds.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as OCR Ponders ESL Teacher Certification in Pa.

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