Oct. 7, 2021
This June marked the 30th anniversary of Castañeda vs. Pickard—a seminal case that specified three criteria for assessing the adequacy of language development programs for English learners (ELs). One of the criteria specifies that programs must be “implemented effectively with sufficient resources and personnel,” which includes teachers with the specialized knowledge and skills to support ELs' language development and academic growth. Yet, year after year, many states report shortages of EL teachers, which have a direct impact on the educational experiences and services that our nation’s five million English learner (EL) students receive.
A recent study by Christine Montecillo Leider, Michaela W. Colombo and Erin Nerlino examines the role that state education agencies (SEAs) play in ensuring that teachers are adequately prepared to teach ELs, and in turn, meet expectations specified in Castañeda and laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Using teacher certification requirements as a proxy for teacher preparation, the researchers identified and analyzed the types of credentials available (e.g. bilingual education, English language development, sheltered english instruction), approved methods for earning a credential, and whether the credential is standalone or an add-on endorsement.
So what did they find? First, access to bilingual credentialing is uneven, with only 24 state education agencies offering a bilingual credential. A total of 19 SEAs offer bilingual credentials as an add-on and three states (Alaska, Idaho and New Mexico) offer it as a standalone credential and add-on endorsement. Additionally, the researchers observed that eight of the ten states with the highest percentage of EL students offer a bilingual credential, while in states where fewer than six percent of students are ELs the option of earning a bilingual credential is nearly nonexistent.
The ways in which teachers earn a bilingual credential varies considerably, with eight states requiring completion of an approved bilingual education preparation program and 15 requiring a combination of passing an assessment, taking requisite coursework, completing a practicum and/or demonstration of proficiency in an additional language or English. And in states where coursework and a practicum are necessary, the requirements run the gamut from 12-20 credits and 45-100 hours of field work.
The variability in access to a bilingual credential is a notable finding given overwhelming evidence on the positive impact of bilingual education on EL students’ language learning and academic achievement. The authors point to shifts in federal policy, from a focus on bilingual education (e.g., Title VII, the Bilingual Education Act) to the acquisition of English (e.g., Title III of No Child Left Behind), as being partly to blame for the lack of bilingual credential programs.
The authors also found that the type and number of requirements to earn an English Language Development (ELD) credential, which is offered in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, vary wildly across states (See map below). A total of 45 states allow teachers to earn an ELD credential as an add-on endorsement to their teaching license and 30 states offer the ELD credential as a standalone certification (meaning that the teacher does not have to already be certified in elementary education, secondary education, etc). Eleven states require teachers to complete a preparation program specific to ELD, 28 states plus DC require teachers to pass a test, 10 states require a practicum (from 25-150 hours) and 21 states require coursework (from 12-30 hours). In addition, five states have an “emergency” pathway to earning a temporary ELD credential that expires after one year.
The authors state that this variability is problematic because it leads to teachers across states having “vastly different levels of pedagogical content knowledge and expertise for working with ELs.” They also argue that states that allow a teacher to earn a bilingual or ELD credential without participating in fieldwork reduces a teacher’s ability to effectively meet the needs of ELs. Multiple parallels are made between the decentralization of EL policies for identification, reclassification, and instructional methods and the inconsistencies observed in teacher preparation requirements to support ELs’ linguistic and academic development.
Every state should have strong certification requirements that align with what we know matters for EL education and enable the portability of credentials across states. New research on credentials further backs that these requirements must be comprehensive and not limited to a test-only.
Specifically, researchers Adrienne M. Johnson and Elizabeth Thorne-Wallington examined the impacts of states’ varying EL teacher certification policies on EL student outcomes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Each state was classified and compared based on their certification requirements (test only, coursework only and coursework and test) and the coursework required. If a state offered multiple pathways to becoming certified, the authors picked the least restrictive option (e.g. test only). Additionally, the authors added geographic weights to their statistical model to provide a stronger test of the relationship between state requirements and student outcomes— an approach that allowed them to better understand the variability between states.
Their findings reveal a significant negative relationship between test only certification requirements and EL students’ reading and math scores on the NAEP exam. In other words, student test scores are lower in states that only require a test for EL teacher certification. By contrast, in states that require both coursework and a test, EL students had higher scores in math and reading. The authors conclude that these results “provide strong evidence that the demonstration of memorized knowledge via a standardized test for teachers is insufficient preparation to adequately meet the diverse needs of English learners.”
Taken together, both studies reveal gaps in EL teacher preparation that in turn have tangible consequences for EL students. Solving this issue will be challenging given the realities of how teacher preparation and certification policies are determined and implemented. Policymakers should take note of the fact that less rigorous certification requirements have a negative impact on EL student learning and consider making adjustments to current practices. As much as we need EL teachers, we also need to ensure that the teachers working to support ELs are equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to help ELs succeed.
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