More than 5 million students in the public school system are English language learners.
Two weeks from now, thousands of teachers, researchers and policymakers from across the country will descend on Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they’ll attempt to solve one of the most pressing but often overlooked issues in education today – the shortage of bilingual teachers.
“There’s been a lot of talk, but our K-12 education system has not paid close enough attention to the need to increase resources to ensure we have teachers who can provide that,” says David Rogers, the executive director of Dual Language Education of New Mexico, a nonprofit that works with low-income communities to close achievement gaps.
Rogers is one of the organizers of the the 20th annual La Cosecha conference, where the 2,500 expected attendees will convene for three days to begin solving a situation that many say is becoming more dire by the year.
“The short answer has been recruiting them from Puerto Rico, Spain or Mexico,” Rogers says about how the vast majority of school districts today find their bilingual teachers. “They have the right academic qualifications, but they don’t always have the socio-cultural understanding of the students we serve in the U.S.”
The U.S. has always been short on bilingual teachers, especially those needed in low-income urban and rural communities where English is not the first language for many families and children.
But compounding the issue at this moment is the uptick in the percentage of Hispanic students for whom English is a second language, the influx of migrant children streaming across the border from Central America, and the increase in demand for dual-language programs for traditional students, all of which are occurring during a wave of teacher retirements.
“Now we’re seeing our good bilingual education teachers retiring and there are no new teachers to replace them,” Rogers says. “There was already a shortage of teachers, but now this is a crisis.”
Today, more than 5 million students in the public school system are learning English, a number that has more than doubled since 1998, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And a 2013 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, a policy and advocacy group that represents most of the nation’s largest school systems, found that about half of large city school districts either have a shortage of teachers for those learning English, or will have one within the next five years.
Puerto Rico has become a particularly fertile recruiting ground for school districts, especially since its teachers are already U.S. citizens, they don’t require green cards, and the island is slogging through an economic downturn.
But that solution, many dual language educators say, is neither sustainable nor good policy.
“We rely heavily on programs like visiting international faculty,” says Joan Lachance, assistant professor of Teaching English as a Second Language in the College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who did her graduate school work in Puerto Rico.
“They are always temporary positions,” she says. “The question comes back to how can we prepare our own teachers for this. How can we tap teachers who may already have a language experience in their background? How can we locate people who haven’t considered dual language and make them consider it?”
There’s no simple answer. The profession of teaching is having trouble recruiting and retaining quality teachers, and recruiting bilingual teachers, or preparing teachers for a specialized field like dual language, has been particularly challenging.
“Dual language education is so much more complex than just providing translation from one language to another,” Lachance says. “It’s a very specialized field.”
On the plus side, education policy experts say that school superintendents across the country are beginning to ask schools of education to prioritize the field. And that’s a sure sign, they say, that they’re beginning to recognize the implication that dual language speakers will have on the U.S. economic and international competitiveness.
“This is a civil rights problem, but it’s also a problem that threatens our national interests,” says Santiago Wood, the national executive director for the National Association of Bilingual Education.
Wood spent decades as a teacher and later a superintendent in several school districts across California. He personally recruited teachers from Mexico, Spain, and Hong Kong, among other countries.
“What do you call a person that speaks one language,” he quips. “American. It’s in our best interest to be globally competent. It is that simple.”