Building a Sustainable Bilingual Teacher Pipeline
By: Dr. Feliza I. Ortiz-Licon and Dr. Anya Hurwitz
Almost 12 million students enrolled in our nation’s public schools speak a language other than English at home. An approximate 5 million are classified as English learners (ELs) or Multilingual Learners (MLs); a more accurate term that describes a student mastering both their native language and acquiring English at the same time. Altogether, this student group is the fastest growing population in our public education system and their racial and linguistic diversity is an asset that should be nurtured in the classroom. Yet, our education system is falling short in addressing the cultural, linguistic, and academic needs of our multilingual learners and properly preparing this numerous student population to assume a prominent role in the future economy and workforce.
If you look at every measure of academic success — graduation rates, college preparation, college enrollment — you’ll notice a consistent pattern that schools are not doing enough to help MLs succeed. Unfortunately, the pandemic has only exacerbated these persistent academic disparities for this student group.
California is a prime example of the compounding inequalities facing MLs. During the peak of the pandemic, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reported that less than half of English learners in middle and high school participated in distance learning, which not only impacted their classroom grades, but their overall academic progression. This same trend can be seen in district after district across the country.
As we hear calls for equity to be front and center in all recovery efforts and education policies, it’s important to ask: how can we provide educational equity for our ML students?
While there are many ways to answer this question – higher expectations, robust curriculum, relevant materials, designated language instruction, and more bilingual early childhood education programs – one important place to begin is by building a sustainable bilingual educator workforce.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, America was already facing a bilingual teacher shortage. States like Texas date this shortage back to 1990, while others like California have seen this shortage grow since the early 2010s. But the pandemic, too, has exacerbated this shortage as more bilingual teachers have left the profession. At the heart of this exodus is the extra labor that has been placed on bilingual teachers, the lack of support, burnout after teaching through the pandemic, the need for quality instructional materials and adequate compensation.
Yet, our schools need more bilingual teachers now and in the years to come.This is driven by the reality that there are more and more bilingual students and Dual Language Learners (DLLs) enrolling in our public schools. In fact, there is an increased demand for dual language (DL) and bilingual programs across the country among English-dominant families, many of whom recognize the benefits of bilingualism and seek these programs for their children, but there are not enough teachers to meet this growing demand.
State and school leaders can build a sustainable bilingual teacher pipeline by engaging in the following strategies:
- Every discussion about educator diversity must include bilingual teachers. We absolutely support the growing movement to ensure our nation’s educator workforce is more racially and ethnically representative of our student population. But sometimes linguistic diversity gets left out of the conversation about educator diversity as are bilingual teachers. Recognizing this, our organizations recently joined the 1 Million Teachers of Color campaign to ensure that issues impacting bilingual teachers are also addressed in this conversation.
- Districts should consider “Grow Your Own” strategies to meet the demand for more bilingual teachers. According to a 2016 New America report, one in five paraprofessional educators in the United States speaks a language other than English at home, the same as the proportion of students. A recent SEAL policy brief about California’s Bilingual Teacher Professional Development Program finds that districts, with support from state policymakers, can successfully develop “Grow Your Own” programs as a way of meeting the demand for more bilingual teachers. This teacher preparation strategy focuses on developing and retaining teachers from the local community. Experts say it is a meaningful way to address teacher shortages and increase the diversity of the teacher workforce.
- Make it financially reasonable to become a bilingual teacher. Many educators will already tell you that there are financial obstacles when it comes to teacher preparation, not only is there the cost to attend a teacher preparation program and earn your degree, but there are tests required to become certified. Bilingual educators must take additional tests not only to be certified, but to be certified as bilingual. Providing financial incentives and reimbursements so that the financial burden does not fall on educators can go a long way in retaining candidates in the teacher pipeline.
- Retain and Invest in the growth of bilingual teachers. It’s not enough to get more bilingual teachers into the classroom if they are going to enter an emotionally and mentally taxing environment that places extra burden and tasks on them. Providing bilingual K-12 teachers and early childhood education teachers with appropriate support measures in the form of professional development, coaching, stipends, promotions, and mentorship can enhance the experience and boost retention rates of bilingual educators.
Our schools cannot continue operating with a bilingual teacher shortage because we have seen how this approach hurts our bilingual and ML students. It’s time to get serious about building a sustainable bilingual teacher pipeline and workforce that will better meet the needs and improve outcomes of our public school students.
Dr. Feliza Ortiz-Licon is the Chief Policy and Advocacy Officer at Latinos for Education (L4E). Prior to joining L4E, Feliza served a five-year term of the California State Board of Education where she championed the passage of the asset-based, English Learner Roadmap policy.
Dr. Anya Hurwitz is the executive director of SEAL, an educational nonprofit dedicated to centralizing the needs of English Learners and Dual Language Learners. In the early part of her career, she worked as a teacher, school leader, and district administrator in NYC. She joined SEAL in 2014 and became executive director in 2017.