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Leadership for ESL Teacher Recruitment and Retention

Kristin Grayson outlines strategies to confront teacher shortages

As the numbers of English learners continue to rise in U.S. schools, the need also rises for schools and districts to increase the number of qualified (content and pedagogically proficient), culturally competent, and credentialed teachers prepared to teach them. Schools often face difficulty in recruiting, hiring, and retaining quality teachers for English learners (ELs). However, with an intentional approach, schools and districts can have the best teachers in place to give them an equitable education. Nationwide, English learners account for roughly one out of every ten students, ranging from 22% of the student population in California to 1% in West Virginia (McFarland et al., 2017). Yet large achievement and opportunity gaps between ELs and non-ELs continue to exist (Quintero and Hansen, 2017).

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) integrates English language proficiency and academic achievement fully into school and district accountability systems for the first time, with the potential of ensuring that these needs are fully considered by educational systems. Nevertheless, there are concerns about how this can happen with the current shortage of teachers who are experienced, knowledgeable, and/or certified in teaching and implementing effective programs for English learners.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees that all students, regardless of national origin, have an equal and equitable opportunity to learn in U.S. schools. And the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision further defines this as the right of students to be given the support necessary to learn and achieve even if their home language is not English.

Schools cannot simply force ELs to sink or swim in a mainstream classroom. They must implement appropriately designed language programs that consider the variation of educational needs due to different backgrounds, such as age, refugee status, country and language of origin, and/or previous amount of formal schooling. In addition, schools must provide English learners with teachers prepared to meet their needs in a personalized environment (Lhamon and Gupta, 2015).

Research consistently indicates that ELs perform better when they have teachers who are trained and certified to teach in specialized language programs integrated throughout grade levels and content-area classrooms (López et al., 2013; Robledo Montecel and Cortez, 2002). Yet at least six Southern states still do not require such certification, and other states lack strong, relevant certification standards, with a wide variation in requirements (ECS, 2014). With the projection of a teacher shortage for all students increasing in the coming years across the country, the shortage of qualified teachers for ELs remains an even bigger concern. States need to pursue and implement specific policies with the necessary resources to sustain an effective, quality EL teacher workforce. Importantly, states must resist efforts to water down teacher certification requirements that undermine the availability of well-prepared teachers for ELs.

Darling-Hammond et al. (2016) suggest three specific ways to improve the pool of qualified teachers for English learners:
Develop career ladder programs in partnership with local universities to empower paraprofessionals to become certified teachers with specializations or certifications in bilingual education or ESL;

Renew or continue the normalista programs that, through university partnership, certify teachers from other counties in bilingual or ESL instruction (see also Cortez and Robledo Montecel, 2002); and

Continue partnerships with local universities to enhance their teacher education programs with pedagogy for EL education.
Harris and Sandoval-Gonzalez (2017) also promote the enrichment of university education programs to prepare educators to fill the increasing demand for teachers of dual language programs as more families—English-speaking and non-English-speaking—acknowledge the benefits of bilingualism and biliteracy for their children.

Current teachers should be allotted sufficient professional development time to learn how to better serve their EL students, while explicitly recruiting, training, and retaining bilingual/bicultural teachers (Lavadenz and Colón-Muñiz, 2017). Another approach is exemplified in IDRA’s Transitions to Teaching alternative certification programs, which prepared science and math content-area experts to be teachers with specializations in ESL or bilingual education (IDRA, 2017).

Once qualified teachers are in schools and districts, it is important to retain them. It is critical that schools have an asset-based atmosphere of cultural competency that celebrates diversity of students and staff and acknowledges the benefits of a diverse teaching force (Darling-Hammond et al., 2016). Teachers require authentic support from their districts, and they need the best resources to use with their students. They also need opportunities to continually enhance their professional capacity by learning best practices from the latest research within a network of support. Financial incentives for education, recruitment, and retention are other ways that districts can recruit and retain qualified teachers.

While there are no easy or quick fixes to the shortage of qualified teachers for English learner education, it is imperative for states, districts, schools, and teachers to promote equitable education for ELs and demand that it be seen not as only a wish but a moral obligation to protect the rights of students.

The IDRA EAC-South provides technical assistance and training to build capacity of local educators in the U.S. South to serve their diverse student populations, including ELs. Please see our website for additional information and ways to request assistance from an equity center in our or your area. Working together, we can build and maintain the number of qualified and certified teachers that English learners deserve.

50-State Comparison. (2014). “Are ELL-Only Instructors Required to Hold a Specialist Certification or Endorsement?” Education Commission of the States.
Cortez, J. D. and Robledo Montecel, M. (2002). Alianza: Our Legacy and Our Future. IDRA.
Darling-Hammond, L., Furger, R. C., Shields, P. M., and Sutcher, L. (2016). Addressing California’s Emerging Teacher Shortage: An Analysis of Sources and Solutions. Learning Policy Institute.
Harris, V. R. and Sandoval-Gonzalez, A. (2017). Unveiling California’s Growing Bilingual Teacher Shortage. Californians Together.
Transitions to Teaching—IDRA Project (2017). “Empowering Teachers to Serve Today’s Classrooms.” IDRA.
Lavadenz, M. and Colón-Muñiz, A. (2017). “The Latin@ Teacher Shortage: Learning from the Past to Inform the Future.” Center for Equity for English Learners at Digital
Commons, Loyola Marymount University and Loyola Law School.
Lhamon, C. E. and Gupta, V. (2015). “Dear Colleague Letter: English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents English Learners.” U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education.
López, F., Scanlan, M., and Gundrum, B. (2013). “Preparing Teachers of English Language Learners: Empirical Evidence and Policy Implications,” Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21(20).
McFarland, J., Hussar, B., de Brey, C., Snyder, T., Wang, X., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Gebrekristos, S., Zhang, J., Rathbun, A., Barmer, A., Bullock Mann, F., and Hinz, S. (2017). The Condition of Education 2017. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
Quintero, D. and Hansen, M. (2017). “English Learners and the Growing Need for Quality Teachers,” Brookings, Chalkboard.
Robledo Montecel, M. and Cortez, J. D. (2002). “Successful Bilingual Education Programs: Development and Dissemination of Criteria to Identify Promising and Exemplary Practices in Bilingual Education at the National Level,” Bilingual Research Journal, 26(1).

Kristin Grayson, PhD ([email protected]), is an Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) education associate. At Our Lady of the Lake University she earned her joint PhD–MBA degree in leadership studies. She has written numerous articles on the education of English learners, culture, quality teaching, and student engagement. She has a master’s degree in bilingual, ESL, and multicultural education from the University of Central Oklahoma. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter (