English-Language Learners

Recruiting More Bilingual Teachers: The Challenges and Solutions

By Ileana Najarro — September 19, 2023 5 min read
Spanish teacher Titi Martin-Borregon teaches fourth grade Spanish/English dual language class students at the New Mexico International School in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 23, 2022.
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Research points to dual language immersion programs—where instruction is given in two languages with roughly equal shares of native speakers for both—as an ideal model for the nation’s growing English learner population.

Yet researchers at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, found that only about 16.5 percent of all English learners are enrolled in some form of a bilingual program, with 7.9 percent specifically in dual language immersion programs, according to state data from 2019-20.

Part of the challenge of enrolling more English learners into these programs is the lack of bilingual staff in K-12 schools, as new research has found.

A new report from The Century Foundation examines the common challenges that make it hard to build a pipeline of bilingual educators, as well as potential policy solutions.

The goal is for the number of bilingual educators to grow to serve the needs of a more multilingual public school student population, and to create opportunities for more multilingual students to build successful professional careers as teachers, according to report co-author Conor P. Williams, a senior fellow at the think tank.

“Even though we should pay public school teachers much more than we do, it is still the case that being a public school teacher in many communities is the beginning of a path into the middle class,” Williams said.

Why it’s hard to grow a bilingual educator pipeline

Through literature review, data analysis, case studies, and interviews with teacher candidates and state and district education officials, Williams found that three major challenges stood in the way of helping more multilingual individuals become certified teachers.

  • Financial hurdles: Young bilingual adults may not be able to afford traditional pathways to the classroom such as paying tuition for teacher training and credentialing.
  • Logistical complications: Young bilingual adults may have a hard time following standard sequencing set at the state or local level. Unpaid, full-time student teaching may be required toward getting licensure and teacher candidates may already be working other jobs to get by and pay their way through school, Williams said, creating a simultaneous time and finance challenge.
  • Linguistic barriers: U.S. teacher training programs are largely designed for monolingual, English-dominant teachers. “If you are a native Vietnamese, Spanish, or Hmong speaker and you’re trying to get a role teaching in your native language, or maybe in your native language and English, you face unique pressures around a monolingual English teacher licensure exam that other teachers that are native English speakers, or are English dominant may not,” Williams said.

The need to find solutions to these challenges stems in part from the growing demand for dual language instruction as the English learner population is now about 10 percent of the whole public school student population.

Specifically, the number of English learners has grown in parts of the country that historically had not seen a large number of these students, said Amaya Garcia, deputy director of PreK–12 education with the education policy program at the left-leaning think tank New America.

“There are many communities that are not set up to be able to even offer these [dual language] programs because they don’t have programs in place to support the bilingual teacher pipeline,” Garcia said.

But even as demand for solutions grows, there remains the national challenge of general teacher shortages leaving state and local policymakers paying less attention to building up a bilingual teacher workforce in particular, Garcia said.

She added that not all states even have bilingual certification programs that would ensure teacher candidates can teach in multiple languages and engage in that level of pedagogy.

What policymakers can do to grow a bilingual education teacher pipeline

The Century Foundation report, and Garcia’s own research, offers six potential ways federal, state, and local policymakers can assist teacher candidates in overcoming the hurdles they face toward credentialing.

  • Federal and state policymakers should launch new grant programs explicitly targeted at growing bilingual teacher training pipelines and increasing the linguistic diversity of the U.S. teaching force.
  • State policymakers should examine their state licensure system to ensure that each of its components is essential to supporting high-quality instruction—and that no components worsen bilingual teacher shortages.
  • Federal, state, and local policymakers should invest resources in alternative teacher certification programs, particularly those tailored specifically to the needs of bilingual teacher candidates. These alternative programs include teacher residencies and apprenticeship programs. Garcia’s research has found promising results from districts’ grow-your-own programs that fund the teacher pathways for local community members and students themselves.
  • State and local policymakers should work with traditional teacher training programs to align the scope and sequence of their courses as efficiently as possible with state teacher licensure expectations for bilingual teachers. This could include flexible scheduling of classes, or even offering courses online.
  • State and local policymakers should structure scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid programs to cover the cost of that coursework, with a specific focus on growing bilingual teachers.
  • Local policymakers should establish specific bilingual teacher pathways for current bilingual staff—particularly paraprofessionals.

While the process of becoming a certified bilingual educator has been around for years as a way to measure quality, Williams and other researchers have noted that perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate if all the processes in place are in fact beneficial for students and aren’t robbing them of the chance at learning from a diverse, bilingual teacher cohort.

“What can we do to streamline this process and ensure that when we have rules, when we have quality control, when we have various credentials, that we’re only requiring the ones that actually correlate to better outcomes for kids,” Williams said.

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