Addressing the English Learner Teacher Shortage

Monday, April 1, 2019
Black male teachers in a circle with students on carpet

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a multimillion-dollar grant to Aquinas College in Michigan intended to address the shortage of English Learner (EL) professionals in that state. A press release about the grant outlined the gravity of the situation, noting that “about 88,000 students in Michigan need an ESL education, but there are currently only about 300 ESL programs available statewide.” (Note that "ESL" and "EL" are not exactly interchangeable terms; this resource helps explain the difference.) Michigan representatives stated at the time that the infusion of financial support from the federal government would be used to help license new EL teachers and allow current classroom teachers and support staff to access EL-specific training that would better inform their practice. Although this specific grant applied only to a handful of Michigan districts, it tapped into a wider concern: There are not enough EL teachers in the United States.


This shortage is likely due in part to the fact that an increasing number of K–12 students in the U.S. are not native English speakers. As online education news resource Education Week reported, there were 12 million “emerging bilingual children” in schools across the country in 2016—an increase of around 1.2 million over a 10-year period. A majority of states, however, do not have a sufficient number of EL personnel on hand to help meet the needs of these students. This goes along with what sources such as the National School Board Association say is a nationwide teacher shortage, particularly in harder-to-fill areas such as STEM and bilingual education (bilingual teachers speak both English and the native language of their students, which, in many cases, is Spanish, the most common second language in U.S. schools).


Having bilingual staff on hand can be beneficial on multiple levels, as the number of dual-language programs that serve both native and non-native English speakers is rising. Indeed, research summarized by the Rand Corporation shows that native and non-native English speakers often benefit academically from a dual-language approach, with instruction delivered in both English and a second language. Using the Portland, Oregon, school district as an example, Rand Corporation researchers offered two important data points in support of the dual-language model. First, students in such programs were found to have “outperformed their peers on state accountability tests in reading” in grades five and eight. Secondly, non-native English speakers in Portland’s dual-language schools typically become proficient in English faster than those who do not attend similar programs.


According to Rand, “These findings are consistent with other research that finds [dual-language immersion] helps English learners become proficient in English at higher rates by middle or high school.” Here’s the thing to remember, though: Most EL students are not in such dual-language programs, and even when they are, Rand researchers have acknowledged that they likely come from families who are motivated to pursue—and have their children succeed in—such programs. Indeed, the researchers warned that the impressive results reported by Portland’s dual-language schools would quite possibly not be replicated if such programs became mandatory rather than choice-based.


Even when dual-immersion programs flourish, it can still be difficult to find and retain licensed teachers who are also fluent in a second language. “The U.S. has always been short on bilingual teachers,” U.S. News and World Report education reporter Lauren Camera acknowledged in a 2015 article documenting this challenge before calling attention to the reasons why this chronic situation is worsening, which include teacher retirement rates and rising EL student numbers. The question is what to do about it. Camera noted that one solution involves culling qualified candidates from locations such as Puerto Rico, although this is seen by many as “neither sustainable nor good policy.” For one thing, these jobs tend to be temporary, and what is needed is a permanent, on-site cadre of trained EL professionals.

Fortunately, new programs have emerged to help school districts grapple with the shortage of EL teachers and support staff. As a new federal education policy (the Every Student Succeeds Act) was coming into play in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education made two important changes: The government broadened the ways in which states and districts can use federal dollars to support EL students and provided more than $22 million in grant money to help states like Michigan grow their ranks of trained EL staff. Additionally, there are new EL-related programs underway at places such as the Bank Street College of Education, according to a 2017 piece by writer Kerry Best. On the online industry site Workspace Today, Best described the emerging efforts to address the EL teacher shortage—and noted that, unfortunately, most of these new training programs can only churn out a small number of candidates each year.


Arguing that “it’s time to think outside the box when looking for ways to address the growing shortage of ESL certified instructors,” Best advocated for the use of distance learning options (including the use of video conferencing, as provided by Workspace Today) as a means to reach teachers where they are, then offer the requisite EL-centered support and instruction.


Beyond this, a 2018 article in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine highlighted other innovative strategies, including mandated EL training for district staff and the use of an “instructional coaching model, assigning a cadre of teachers to provide districtwide support for effective EL instruction.” The piece, written by veteran educators from the University of Washington, also delved more deeply into specific examples of teachers leading the way toward improved EL strategies and support as a way to “leverage expertise” in the midst of a teacher shortage.


Ultimately, it seems there is a core need to creatively address the current shortage in a manner that best serves the rising number of EL students while still advocating for more resources and program options to help train a new generation of teachers. Thankfully, momentum seems to be building on both of these fronts.

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