English-Language Learners

Shortage of Trained Bilingual Teachers Is Focus of Both Concern and Attention

By Peter Schmidt — February 12, 1992 6 min read
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As thousands of bilingual teachers gathered for a conference here late last month, the halls of the city’s convention center were lined with booths displaying Native American can art or literature from teacher recruiters.

How to meet the growing demand for trained bilingual educators clearly has become a source of serious concern to those who gathered here for the National Association for Bilingual Education’s annual convention. School administrators, deans of education schools, and state and federal officials all held meetings here to address the shortage.

Officials from the U.S. Education Department’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs announced that the agency is considering whether the federal Bilingual Education Act, due to be reauthorized in 1993, should contain more funding for teacher training, in particular for the in-service training of bilingual teacher aides.

And panels from both NABE and a separate organization, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, solicited comment on the development of national standards for teacher-training programs to ensure that new bilingual teachers and teachers of English as a second language are ready to enter the field.

All wrestled with the same basic issues: How to bring more people into the bilingual-teaching field without significantly lowering standards, and how to break the vicious cycle created when the lack of good bilingual teachers and professors deters language minority children from completing enough school to become bilingual instructors themselves.

Mixed Success in Placement

According to a report issued by the minority-languages office last year, about 5 percent of American schoolchildren can be categorized as limited-English-proficient. Assuming pupil-teacher ratios of 20 to 1, the report said, the nation is about 175,000 bilingual teachers short of serving their needs. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1991.)

Bilingual specialists in Asian languages and in such areas as science, special education, and vocational education are in especially short supply, the report said.

Many language-minority students are deterred from becoming bilingual teachers by lack of financial aid to finish college. Others find the path to teaching jobs blocked by tougher high-school-graduation and college-entrance requirements adopted in the name of education reform, several bilingual-program administrators at the conference asserted.

In addition, school districts appear to be having mixed success in placing bilingual and E.S.L. teachers where they are needed, according to an analysis conducted by Pelavin Associates for the Education Department’s office of planning, budget, and evaluation.

The analysis, based on the Schools and Staffing Surveys conducted by the Education Department during the 1987-88 school year, found that about 52 percent of bilingual teachers and 61 percent Of E.S.L. teachers felt best qualified to be teaching in those areas.

However, approximately 37 percent who felt best qualified to teach bilingual education and 30 percent who felt best qualified to teach E.S.L. did not have primary teaching assignments in those fields. The analysis also found that:

  • Nearly 90 percent of bilingual teachers that school year worked in kindergarten through grade 6, which leaves L.E.P. children in high school with little access to bilingual teachers, conference participants said. An equal proportion of E.S.L. instructors teach only in grades 7 and beyond.
  • Only 27.6 percent of bilingual teachers had a master’s degree in their field, compared with 42.3 percent of E.s.L. teachers and 38 percent of teachers in other areas.
  • Thirty-five percent of bilingual teachers have taught less than six years, compared with 25 percent of E.S.L. teachers and 19 percent of others.

State-Level Problems

Participants at the conference blamed much of the bilingual and E.S.L. teacher shortage on lack of consensus among state education agencies and colleges and universities on how teachers in these fields should be prepared.

At one session on state-certification requirements, the moderator asked participants to refrain from using the acronyms for various tests and credentials because the names vary so much from one state to another.

The session participants, mostly from the education departments of universities in the Southwest, informally discussed developing a regional bilingual credential to enable bilingual teachers to move easily from one state to another.

But getting states to work together will solve only part of the problem, the session participants said.

“The major conflict comes between the states and the institutions of higher education,” said Herman S. Garcia, an associate professor of bilingual education at New Mexico State University and a member of a NABE commission established in 1989 to develop national guidelines for bilingual-teacher training standards.

Often, several conference participants noted, recent graduates seeking certification are discouraged when they find that their state requires courses beyond those they had been encouraged by their universities to take. Many students do not learn of such requirements until late in their college careers or after graduation, Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Garcia and Jay R. Fuhriman, a professor of education and the director of bilingual education at Boise State University, said many universities have been reluctant to acknowledge the necessity of special training for bilingual teachers, or are hesitant to make large investments in bilingual-education programs funded largely through federal grants that can dry up within a few years.

In preparing E.S.L. teachers, most training programs focus on adult education, said Lydia A. Stack, the president of TESOL.

Moreover, Ms. Stack said, most master’s programs in teaching English as a second language are administered by the English or linguistics departments of universities, while the training of elementary- and secondary-school teachers takes place within schools of education.

While some E.S.L. teachers may be discouraged from trying to get jobs in the handful of states that have rigid E.S.L. certification requirements, Ms. Stack said, far more are discouraged from getting the training they need because their states have virtually no such requirements. As a result, she said, if “you speak English, you teach English.”

Incentives No Solution

In an effort to attract more bilingual teachers, many school districts, especially in California, offer incentive pay or free training.

But such programs often serve only to draw teachers away from other jobs where they are needed or to attract less-committed people to the field, many bilingual-education experts assert.

Other states have turned to alternative-certification programs to fill their vacancies for bilingual teachers.

But Robert D. Milk, the director of bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, argued during the conference that “alternative certification laws are a two-edged sword” that provide needed personnel but undermine universities by providing training not rooted in course work.

“We are getting a conflict out in the field between trained bilingual teachers and non-trained bilingual teachers,” observed John Haleon, an assistant professor of research, evaluation, and development at the University of Northern Colorado.

The NABE teacher-training standards, which may not become final until 1993 or later, may help resolve the bilingual-teacher shortage by ensuring that graduates of university programs are ready to enter the field without much additional training, said Mr. Garcia of New Mexico State.

Ms. Stack, the president of TESOL, said her organization hopes by this summer to release guidelines for E.S.L. certification standards to ensure that teachers in that field are qualified.

The groups consulted together in developing their standards, members of the organizations said.

The New York State Department of Education, meanwhile, has embarked on an OBEMLA-funded program to coordinate the efforts of the state education department, school districts, and universities to ensure that each party knows what the other wants or has to offer.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Shortage of Trained Bilingual Teachers Is Focus of Both Concern and Attention

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