English learners are one of the fastest growing student populations in the country, yet the number of specialized educators for them is lagging behind.
The number of certified licensed English learner instructors decreased by about 10.4 percent between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, according to the latest federal data available. The national English learner population grew by 2.6 percent in the same time period.
“It just is a huge disconnect in terms of what we’re seeing with our student demographics and looking at projections of what’s to come,” said Diane Staehr Fenner, president and founder of SupportEd, a consulting firm focused on English learners’ education.
And teachers generally seem to feel they are not fully prepared to best support English learners. In February, Education Week posted an unscientific poll asking teachers: Do you feel like you have enough training to teach English learners? Of the 1,248 responses, 39 percent said yes, and 61 percent said no.
While English learners typically work with specialized instructors for their language development, many spend most of their school days in classrooms with non-English learner peers. It’s why researchers and educators alike call for broader training for all teachers and school leaders in best practices for supporting English learners—especially with national gaps in specialized English learner staffers.
“We all need to be trained in working and sharing the responsibility and the joy,” Staehr Fenner said.
Policy change is needed
At the federal level, there have recently been financial investments in expanding educator training for working with English learners.
In October, the U.S. Department of Education awarded nearly $120 million in professional development grants for improving instruction for English learners. In February, the department awarded over $18 million in grants for teacher-preparation programs for teachers of color, and projects geared toward diversifying the national teacher pipeline. Winning projects included an emphasis on preparing more bilingual and multilingual educators.
But federal grants are only one part of the equation. States—which have greater control over enacting English learner policies—could require training in best practices for English learners as part of teacher recertification, Staehr Fenner said. They could make it flexible for educators by covering costs for training.
Preservice training for all teachers should also incorporate best practices for English learners, she added.
But at the national level, it’s a patchwork of requirements for general education or content-area teachers.
In a 2020 study, SupportEd found that only four states at the time had some type of English learner professional development requirement for recertification: Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York.
California, Florida, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas were among the states that required districts to offer English learner professional development, though not as a requirement for individual teachers’ recertification, the study also found.
States also need to focus on building up staffing for English learner instructors.
That can be done by offering competitive compensation for teachers with specialized language skills, and investing in grow-your-own teacher programs specifically for this type of instruction, Staehr Fenner said.
Students set to graduate with a Seal of Biliteracy, for instance, can receive concurrent college credit while in high school to one day become English as a second language teachers.
So far, Staehr Fenner has seen the most investment in educator preparation for supporting English learners at the district level, spearheaded by superintendents and English learner department heads committed to equitable education for their students. These cases, however, are often outliers in the national landscape, she said.
The Russellville City schools district in Alabama, for instance, used its federal pandemic relief funds to hire bilingual aides as part of its efforts to improve the quality of education for a student population that is now a quarter of the whole district.
Change is happening, but in outlier districts
Norwalk Public Schools, in Connecticut, is another example.
When Alexandra Estrella started as superintendent of the Norwalk district in 2020, she had to turn around low graduation rates for the district’s growing English learner population.
To do this, she led a comprehensive review of district policies and programs, a student roundtable, and a listening tour within her first year. She and her educators spent half a semester studying what English learners went through as students, and what they needed, especially as they navigated the coronavirus pandemic. Based on this review, district leaders then shifted programming to meet those needs.
That included offering English learners and other students receiving specialized services the option to attend school in person early in the pandemic to avoid disruption of their services. That move ensured, for example, that English learners had access to in-person conversations in English for their language development. The district also offered afternoon and evening classes for older English learners who had jobs to support their families.
Longer term, Estrella restructured professional development in the district by requiring school leaders to immerse themselves in best practices for English learners, followed by teachers, and English learner instructors who were also trained as professional development leaders in the district. Estrella also added coaches and interventionists at every school in the district so that teachers always had somebody to lean on for support in the classroom.
That way the message was clear that English learners’ success was not solely in the hands of the district’s English as a second language staff.
“I firmly believe that it first starts with the leadership. The leadership needs to know what it needs to look like and feel like in order to be able to effectively execute it,” Estrella said.
Much of the restructuring aimed to shift deficit mindsets some educators might have had around English learners’ abilities.
“A lot of times people come from the mindset that just because the child doesn’t know the language at the time that they are an empty vessel,” she said. “When in reality our children, even when they have limited education and educational experiences, they bring a wealth of knowledge that will help them advance within their learning experience.”
The restructuring and investments have so far paid off with a 10 percent growth in the number of English learner graduates within a year of programming shifts, Estrella said. But there’s still work to do to make sure every student is able to academically and linguistically succeed, and that’s all accomplished first by making systemic changes.
“A system produces the outcomes that it’s intended to produce,” Estrella said.