How States Can Take a Grassroots Approach to Training More Bilingual...

English Language Learning

How States Can Take a Grassroots Approach to Training More Bilingual Teachers

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Mar 6, 2024

How States Can Take a Grassroots Approach to Training More Bilingual Teachers

When Adriana Cervantes-González started school in California as a child, it was at a time when state policy was determined to get all English-learning students proficient in the language within one year. That meant that bilingual education was out, in favor of English immersion.

As a kindergartener who spoke only Spanish, Cervantes-González had a part-time bilingual aide in her otherwise English-only classroom.

“She was only there two days a week in that Prop 227 era, but my stomach would hurt all the other days,” Cervantes-González recalls, “because I knew those were the days when Mrs. Alcantara was not there in the classroom.”

Cervantes-González is now the program manager at the California Center on Teaching Careers, a public agency tasked with increasing the pool of qualified teacher candidates in the Golden State. That includes bilingual teachers, who are in high demand across the country.

In seven states, the need for bilingual education teachers is especially dire. Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin have reported bilingual teacher shortages during the 2023-24 academic year, according to federal data. Another 18 states and the District of Columbia have been struggling to find enough people who teach English as a second language.

Experts say the dearth of bilingual education teachers in the U.S. stems from a lack of role models, inaccessible and unaffordable higher ed teacher training programs and weak academic language skills among would-be educators. Here’s how leaders at the California Center on Teaching Careers are taking steps to overcome those hurdles — measures that might work in other states, too.

Where Is Growth Happening?

While California and Texas have the most English learners in public schools — perhaps unsurprising given their proximity to Mexico — the states experiencing the most growth among school-age English learners are mainly outside the Southwest. From 2000 to 2020, Delaware experienced the highest increase in its percentage of English learners, followed by Maryland and Virginia.

During the 20-year span, the number of states reporting a bilingual teacher shortage went from seven to 11. States reporting a shortage of English as a second language teachers rose from 12 to 28.

Of the top eight states with the highest English learner growth, Delaware, Maryland, Texas, Illinois and Rhode Island have continued to report shortages of bilingual education teachers, English as a second language teachers or both during the 2023-24 school year.

What Barriers Remain?

With the steady growth in both the number of English learners and the need for bilingual teachers, what is standing in the way of getting enough qualified teachers into bilingual classrooms?

Marvin Lopez is executive director of the California Center on Teaching Careers, which has plans to open a rural bilingual teacher residency program in 2025. He says that the challenges in increasing the bilingual teacher pipeline are multifaceted.

In California, where 56 percent of public school students are Latino, many simply didn’t have teachers who could serve as role models, Lopez says. The Golden State is home to more than 1 million English learners, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“For me as an EL learner, having someone in the classroom that not only looks like you, but that you can relate to and understands some of the barriers that you're going through, certainly impacted me and and encouraged me to continue with my education,” Lopez says of his own experience growing up in California as an English learner, “because I did have not only a teacher, but an adviser, someone that could give me guidance, [someone] that I could easily approach.”

For bilingual Californians who are a product of the “English only” school era, the bilingual education career path is a chance to reframe their dual language abilities as an advantage, Cervantes-González says.

“We do have many bilingual students who just don’t envision themselves being a bilingual teacher, and that’s where bilingual education has an opportunity to expand on the knowledge and assets that students have,” Cervantes-González says, “so that they see it as an opportunity and not a barrier to apply their language in a school setting.”

A traditional four-year degree isn’t a financially feasible path to teaching for some, Lopez adds, while the state’s history of focusing on English-only education has shrunk the pool of Callifornians who are proficient in Spanish. Mandatory English immersion wasn’t repealed in California until 2016.

Geography is another hardship for potential bilingual educators. The center’s forthcoming teacher residency is based in Tulare County, which makes up the southern part of the state’s Central Valley region. About half of its 473,000 residents speak a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census data, and 67 percent are Hispanic. The closest universities to the rural area are roughly 40 miles and 70 miles away, Cervantes-González says, putting a traditional four-year teaching degree out of reach for those who can’t relocate.

“It's the accessibility to those venues that is one of the challenges, and so we brought [the residency] to the Central Valley,” Lopez says. “We developed those programs so that we can continue to grow that pipeline.”

The California Center on Teaching Careers bilingual residency program will be a combination of career training classes and practical experience, where student-teachers who take part in the one-year residency will co-teach with a mentor and gradually increase their classroom responsibilities.

In addition to lofty initiatives like the bilingual teacher residency program, Cervantes-González says that increasing the pipeline includes improving outreach to potential teacher candidates. That could mean helping a potential residency student understand the application process, or talking to a high school student about becoming a teacher during a career day.

“In our region where we serve here in California, in terms of educational attainment, it's still a challenge, and so I think definitely an opportunity to mitigate that is sharing, ‘This is how you can prepare to be a bilingual teacher,’” Cervantes-González says. “There are lots of supports that the center offers to candidates that they might not know exist yet, so we're reaching out to them early on to be able to do that. Toma un pueblo; It does take a village.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up