International Opinion

Shortage of Dual-Language Teachers: Filling the Gap

May 14, 2015 6 min read
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One of the biggest problems facing the world languages field is the lack of teachers. Emily Liebtag, Manager of Curriculum and Instructional Design, VIF International Education and Caitlin Haugen, Executive Director, Global Teacher Education, examine the growing the demand and the potential supply.

by guest bloggers Emily Liebtag and Caitlin Haugen

When examining teachers in dual language programs from a supply and demand perspective, the numbers do not add up.

Dual language programs are increasing across the country—from just over 200 programs in 2000 to nearly 2,000 by 2011. This does not come as a surprise. Research on dual language programs indicates overwhelmingly positive outcomes for students. Program participants are less likely to drop out and have higher academic achievement in certain subjects. Students who learn another language exceed their peers academically, have increased cognitive function and performance, and are more globally competent—and effective immersion programs often lead to students becoming bilingual.

Many states are beginning to formally acknowledge students for being biliterate and/or bilingual with a seal of biliteracy where students get recognition on their diplomas for competence in another language.


Thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C. have implemented dual language programs in more than 20 languages, and demand is only rising. State-wide pushes, such as those in North Carolina, have already proven successful. These programs are also growing in popularity in California, despite Proposition227 which banned bilingual education in the 1990s, including the first Vietnamese program in the state this fall. Utah is making great strides to establish dual language programs as the norm.

Individual districts and regions are also strategizing to provide more dual language options to their students. In New York City, the Education Department is adding 40 additional programs on top of their existing 150 for the 2015-16 school year. The Houston Independent School District has more than 50 dual language programs and plans to add more. Boston Schools are changing legislation to include dual language as a priority.

High-quality instructional personnel who are proficient in the language of instruction are critical to the success of dual language programs. With a nearly ten-fold increase in programs, a rising demand among states and individual districts, and evidence supporting the benefits of dual language learning programs, it is also no surprise that the demand for educators available to teach in these programs has skyrocketed. Considering the lack of language study among teachers (a topic we explored in a previous post), supply of these teachers is not keeping up with the growing demand.


The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) has cited finding highly qualified teachers as the greatest challenge in implementing an immersion program. Aside from needing to be fluent in the target language, teachers also need to be competent in language learning strategies and the relevant pedagogical skills. Joan Lachance, assistant professor of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) in the College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, notes, “Dual language teachers need unique skills in order to fully collaborate with parents, school administrators, and other stakeholders in order to explain language acquisition, multilingual cognition, patterns of student learning outcomes, and what is to be expected within dual language classrooms.”

Teachers with these skills are not easy to find. Thirty-two states and D.C. report shortages of bilingual teachers, and the Department of Education cites bilingual education as a high-need field. Furthermore, with bilingualism in high demand in all fields, educators with language skills often leave schools for more lucrative careers. Also, teacher preparation is not prepared to respond to the demand. CARLA notes, “While the skill set needed is indeed highly specialized, the university-level teacher education demand for this specialty is relatively low when compared with other areas ... As a result, coherent immersion teacher education programs in the U.S. are almost non-existent.”

Lachance conducted a two-year study, interviewing teachers and administrators, in order to develop a dual language endorsement within the college’s teacher preparation program. “In many cases,” she notes, “current dual language teachers have come from either the Foreign Language Education (FLED) background or the TESL background. While many of the standards within both disciplines overlap, there are specific nuances where they differ, the main being the focus on teaching content standards through a target language—academic development in two languages. Teacher preparation programs often examine literacy development in one language. In most cases, there is no focus on biliteracy, simultaneous biliteracy, and how reading and writing are acquired differently in different languages.”

Many states rely on creative approaches to recruit qualified teachers because traditional teacher preparation is not able to keep up with demand. Delaware recruits teachers before they graduate. Oregon has awarded state-sponsored grants to incentivize hiring diverse graduates and promoting language study, and depends on visiting teachers from overseas (a practice also used in Utah, Wisconsin, and many other states). Many of the existing strategies, however, are ad hoc and inconsistent, and teacher preparation programs in the U.S. must rise to the occasion to address significant gaps between demand for dual language programs and the teachers qualified to teach in them.

Supply Meets Demand: Filling the Gap

Fortunately, there are existing and emerging options for teachers to advance their skills and gain the knowledge needed to fill these vacancies.

Many organizations offer support and professional development for dual language teachers. The Houston Independent School District is using online professional development to support dual language teaching and learning. Universities in Minnesota, California, Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, and Louisiana offer certificates specifically for dual language teachers. The Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education has proposed a licensing option. Numerous universities offer programs in bilingual education. While these programs tend to focus on teaching in one-way or transitional programs, some provide language instruction or act as resources to aspiring dual language teachers.

States are also responding. Utah requires all dual language teachers to be endorsed, and provides several options for both pre- and in-service teachers, including university partnerships across the state. Rhode Island provides pathways to dual language certification, and North Carolina is making progress to transform teacher preparation to consider dual language training—a trend that Lachance attributes to the global education plan.

In some cases, individuals personally tackle the issue. Richard Carranza, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, works closely with local universities to strengthen the pipeline of teachers with the language, culture, and pedagogical knowledge to meet the needs of his bilingual learners—and openly admits it is a challenge to find them.

This is a promising time for dual language programs—parents, educators, policymakers and employers are advocating for these programs and making them happen across the U.S. We are encouraged by the growing demand because it means students are reaping the benefits of learning another language and becoming more globallycompetent. We argue that an intentional focus on training and recruiting teachers for dual language programs—especially through teacher preparation programs—is a wise human capital investment for the 21st century.

Follow Emily and VIF International Education, Caitlin and GTE, Asia Society, and Heather on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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