Teaching Profession Opinion

Ill. Pulls the Rug Out With New ESL-Endorsement Requirement for Teachers

By Marilyn Rhames — January 13, 2015 5 min read
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Imagine losing your teaching job of, say, ten years because a new state law deems you unqualified to teach immigrant children.

My principal just told the staff that a law passed last June requires every teacher in Illinois to have an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement if instructing 1 to 19 students of that population, or a bilingual endorsement if serving 20 or more students of that population.

Many teacher preparatory programs in Illinois have started making the ESL or bilingual endorsements a graduation requirement, but veteran teachers like me who do not have this credential will NOT be grandfathered in—despite our many years experience working with ESL/bilingual students. We might have just three years or less to get endorsed or potentially lose our jobs, the principal explained.

This created quite a buzz in the meeting, especially once we heard the price tag: $600 to $800 per course for the six to seven courses. Plus, the college courses in the yearlong program—including a possible summer semester—are usually offered sequentially, so if you don’t join at the beginning, you may not be able to enroll until the following year.

Wow. Teachers sat there stunned.

Not only did state legislators put a heavy financial burden on teachers, they assumed that working parents like me have all this extra time after work to take college classes that even our principal didn’t think we needed.

These lawmakers obviously didn’t consider that every hour teachers spend studying for an ESL or bilingual endorsement after work is an hour that we won’t have to prepare to teach our ESL and bilingual students.

Additionally, it’s time away from doing other important teacher activities like grading assessments, communicating with parents, and helping our own children with their homework. (Situations like this make teachers feel guilty to admit that some of us also want to come home from work and watch a couple hours of TV.)

Did the lawmakers build in raises or bonuses for the teachers who get this credential? Of course not! They did, however, provide subsidies to universities to reduce a $12,000 endorsement program to $3,600 to $5,600. That sounds like a better deal for the schools than for the teachers! In fact, this ed policy feels more like a tax, not just on teachers’ income but on our already limited time.

Perhaps no one is more disappointed by this new law than my friend and one-time guest blogger Sara Urben. Sara earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction in 2008; a master’s in Reading in 2010; her National Board Certification in 2012; and has done a fabulous job as a Spanish dual-language teacher for the past seven years (I know because she taught my daughter last year).

While she recognizes she could learn something from more graduate level courses, Sara is really burned out from grad school and feels like participating in study groups and going to self-selected professional development would be most beneficial to her practice.

More upsetting is the fact that complying with this ESL/bilingual endorsement mandate would mean adding more debt to the mountain of student loans that Sara has been trying so hard to pay down.

I predict this could be the final straw for teachers who have been debating on whether or not to stay in the classroom in Illinois. While states like Arizona and North Carolina are facing an endemic teacher shortage, states like Illinois seem almost hell-bent on pushing quality, experienced teachers like Sara and me out.

You would think Illinois would have learned from its mistakes. In 2010, Illinois became the first state in the nation to require English learner services in preschool. This initiative may have sounded laudable, but it was riddled with false assumptions: 1) there aren’t nearly enough early childhood educators holding an ESL or bilingual endorsement nor willing to drop everything to go get one; 2) the state of Illinois, which is nearly bankrupt, could not afford this initiative when legislators passed it; and 3) language experts have argued that English immersion in preschool is precisely the best way for young children to learn the language.

This new law has brought out the conspiracy theorist in many of my colleagues.

One teacher at my staff meeting commented that the mandate must have been the brainchild of higher education lobbyists.

Another teacher said that he heard that a single legislator who has a disdain for charter schools pushed for this mandate because he knew how devastating it would be for charters to comply, since charters typically have the autonomy to hire teachers without following the state’s rigid certification rules.

I myself wondered if this policy would serve to ease or worsen Illinois’ public pension deficit, which is presently $111 billion deep and the worse in the nation. Could firing experienced teachers who don’t get this endorsement and hiring new teachers whose endorsement is embedded in their teaching degree some how serve to alleviate the pension crisis?

Don’t get me wrong. I am 100 percent for improving the quality of education for ESL and bilingual students. Some 80 percent of my students are Hispanic and a significant percentage are ESLs. Of course we have and need language-learning experts on staff, but trying to make every teacher an expert in English language acquisition is only going to decrease quality of the school’s language services—or worse, distract from the core content that each teacher was hired to master. Educators shouldn’t strive to become the proverbial “jack of all trades, master of none.”

As a hobby, I take weekly Spanish lessons, and I’ve been doing so on and off for the past seven years. In 2009, I even traveled alone to Guatemala to enroll in a Spanish language school. I absolutely love the language and enjoy learning about the various cultures of the people who speak it.

Still, as an educator licensed to teach K-8 with an endorsement in middle school English and science, I never felt compelled to get an ESL endorsement. I focused my efforts on becoming an excellent English and science teacher, and I collaborated with special ed and Spanish dual language teachers for their expert advice and support. As a result, my ESL students succeed in class and on standardized tests.

A teacher with a solid grip on content and curriculum, who collaborates with other teachers to enhance instruction and builds meaningful connections with students, should be favored above all else.

More red tape, more deficit spending (by states and teachers) on credential making, and more top-down, high-stakes mandates for educators won’t translate into better learning outcomes for immigrant students.

*Minor updates added 1/14/15

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