Interview: Improving Training for Teachers of Dual Language Learners

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This post is the second in a periodic series of interviews from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. The series, titled “Spreading the Word(s),” is a key part of the Work Group’s “spotlighting” track of work (outlined in our launch post). The interviews seek to draw attention to people doing interesting policy, advocacy, and instructional work with dual language learners (DLLs).

Marie Bouteillon has seen the education of DLLs from a variety of different perspectives. She calls herself “a product of dual language”: her family immigrated to the United States when Marie was seven.  She attended American schools for four years while her mother homeschooled her in French every day.  When her family moved back to France, Marie attended a dual language school for middle and high school. After graduating from McGill University, she taught English in Shanghai for a couple of years before returning to the United States to complete her Master’s in Bilingual Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Upon graduation, Marie founded New York City Public Schools’ first French dual-immersion program at Brooklyn’s P.S. 58. She’s taught kindergartners and 5th-graders in that dual-immersion program—and helped found several other dual-immersion programs in the same borough. She’s mentored student teachers, been an instructional coach, and taught in the French Track of Hunter College’s Masters of Bilingual Education Program. Now she runs Creative Bilingual Solutions, a consulting firm that supports the creation and development of quality language supports for DLLs and non-DLLs alike.

Q: Dual-immersion programs are very hot right now. We’ve written a bit about New York City’s upcoming expansion of these programs and advocacy for a similar expansion in D.C. These programs are easy to promise and harder to deliver—what are some of the challenges for successful implementation?

It can be hard to get the balance of student languages right. Due to the fact that few programs are district-wide, zoned schools pool from their catchment zones. These catchment zones rarely reflect an equal distribution of DLLs and English Proficient (EP) kids. As such, programs in predominantly DLL settings are one-way developmental programs and programs in predominantly EP settings are foreign language immersion programs. These two sets of students rarely mix. Having district-wide initiatives that pull from both sets of students and actually require a balance of both students instead of only one subgroup would give both sets of students better access to the other language. For DLLs, it would increase their chances of developing English and actually give them an advantage in the school setting, thereby adding value to their home language. For their families, it would mean participating in a program that the dominant group endorses—something that is very attractive to low-income families. For EP students, it would accelerate their target language development and open their minds to the lives of other students. Setting aside at least one-third of the seats for both DLLs or EP students would be ideal.  In fact, I’d much prefer for this linguistic mix to include students who do not speak any or very English, students who speak both English and Spanish proficiently and students who are heritage speakers of the target language in addition to monolingual English students.

Of course, not all district-wide dual-immersion programs are equally balanced. In some school districts (in NYC for instance), if a dual-immersion program is created, priority is given to dual language learners. In some instances, that means that there is not one single EP student in the class and that students have no model other than the teacher for English. Not only are their neighborhoods ghettoized, but so are their schools and classroom experiences. In my travels I have noticed that dual-immersion programs with mostly EP students have far smaller class sizes (18–22) and programs with mostly DLLs have many more students (25–32). Parents of DLLs often have fewer strings to pull and less financial backup to make smaller classes happen. They simply don't have the advocacy network. Mixing both groups and limiting the number of students per class based on number of DLLs would make far more sense.

And while dual-immersion programs are trendy in elementary schools, they often aren’t extended long enough to be fully effective. Once students are seen as English proficient, districts do not feel the need to extend dual-immersion to middle school or high school settings. I experienced this first hand. When a talented principal and I submitted a plan for a dual-immersion middle and high school in NYC that would welcome French, Spanish and Mandarin speakers, we were told that there was no need for such a program in our district because there simply weren't enough DLLs.

The reason for that is because the dual-immersion programs in my district are for the most part very successful and students “tested out” of the English proficiency exam in elementary school. By middle school, only newcomers were DLLs. Those students were given mediocre options with only a little Spanish, French or Mandarin here or there in middle school. Some middle schools in my district don't even offer a foreign language, thereby devaluing all of the efforts those students put forth for their first six years of education. Basically, some districts see dual programs as remediation for the need to learn English. They do not see the long-term advantage it would give those students to be fluent in two languages at an academic level. Research now shows if you were schooled in dual-immersion and then received no formal education in one of the languages for seven years, you lose the language.

Q: What about implementation challenges at the classroom level?

There’s a limited supply of trained, certified dual-immersion teachers. If dual-immersion teachers could just get an extension online as I did for my English as a Second Language (ESL) license, that would increase the number of teachers on the market. Current online options require doing a full Master's degree, when really 5-6 courses would be enough to complete the certification. California has many English Language Development (ELD) certification systems. If the same idea could be applied to dual-immersion across the country, it would reduce the cost and time associated with getting the necessary certification.

And then burnout rates for these teachers are high. In the program I founded, we lost over 20 dual-immersion teachers over the course of eight years—there were only 12 dual-immersion teaching positions at my school. Over that same period, my school lost fewer than 12 mainstream or special education teachers for the remaining 50 teaching positions. Teaching in dual settings is incredibly challenging. It requires passion, determination and stamina.

If we really want to retain quality dual-immersion teachers, we need to recognize that they require certain accommodations. Class sizes tend to be larger, especially in side-by-side programs where teachers share two sets of students. Teachers are rarely given more time to assess students, analyze student work, communicate with families and plan together. One of three things needs to happen:

  1. States must mandate smaller class sizes for classes with a certain number of DLLs (e.g. as they do for self-contained special education classes), OR
  2. Teachers in dual-immersion settings must be given extra pay to compensate for the additional time that they have to work when their class sizes are much larger (e.g. side-by-side teachers should be paid more for sharing two sets of students), OR
  3. Classes should be mixed with a proportion of DLLs and a proportion of English proficient students (e.g. just like schools put 60% high-functioning students in Integrated Co-Teaching settings and 40% of students with Individualized Education Programs).
Q: You mentioned teacher preparation for dual-immersion and ESL teachers. What’s the current state of the training pipeline?

Every year when I welcomed a student teacher (or three) to my classroom, they hadn't even seen how to write a lesson plan. They had never heard of content, skill or language goals. They didn't know how to offer visual and kinesthetic supports to language learners. They had little knowledge of how to actually organize differentiated learning, and how that looked in a dual-immersion setting. They were at a complete loss when it came to communicating with families about students' academic, social and linguistic growth. Like them, I learned this on the job. Many programs at the graduate level continue to focus on the policy implications of bilingual education, the theoretical frameworks, the research and the social justice aspect of the job. This coursework prepares us for policy, PhDs, and advocacy work.

Of my 11 closest friends at Teachers College, only three of us were still teaching last year. Many decided to leave the profession within one or two years, saying that they had been inadequately prepared—after paying more than $40,000 for their education. Such bright people. What a loss! Perhaps a way to encourage innovation in the teacher preparation field is to award a special quality seal by really analyzing the coursework required and each course syllabus. Before I taught my courses at Hunter College, one graduate-level instructor had decided that an assignment worth 20% of the students' grade was to come to class with a poem for a "Fería de la poesía" (a poetry celebration). That's it! The students didn't have to explain how they would present the poem, connect it to the standards, and derive skills or strategies to teach, or at least identify the qualities of writing in the poem. How rigorous is that? And how practical is that in the context of a dual-immersion classroom? Truly, it's an insult to the profession.

Q: What would improved teacher training for supporting DLLs look like?

Teaching is a profession that you learn from by observing and doing. Observation needs to be done both independently and with guided assistance to explain what the model teacher is doing that is a best practice.   I teach two graduate bilingual education courses in French, and I consider myself very lucky because I am able to pull from the amazing arsenal of video resources that our Canadian neighbors have developed. Whether you are an early childhood teacher or a secondary science teacher, you can find many videos online to show you how to hone your craft.

And yet, Teaching Channel, a website I use constantly to teach classroom management techniques and other instructional strategies, has literally not one video of a teacher teaching and explaining what he or she is doing in the target language. How do you learn to teach in a target language, if the focus of every dual language video is how to teach students English? I'm working with a professor at NYU to showcase a few best practices in Mandarin Chinese in dual-immersion settings. We're just getting started on selecting model teachers. Ideally, I would want this type of recording and sharing effort to be done across several languages in very successful dual-immersion settings because seeing is understanding.

As I mentioned before, we need more professional pathways for these teachers. The costs and time investment associated with getting a graduate degree are barriers to entry for many ideal teacher candidates. We could increase our pool of candidates if teacher preparation programs at the undergraduate level were encouraged to offer additional certification in bilingual education such as a concentration or specialization added onto an Early Childhood/Childhood/Secondary Ed license.

Q: What can schools do to support teachers of DLLs?

Many schools and school districts provide the same literacy, math, social studies and science professional development to all teachers regardless of student population, but certain literacy practices that work for general education students could actually hinder the development of language and literacy for language learners. Isolating professional development providers who support both language and literacy development by giving specialized or modified seminars would help teachers in the field apply the best instructional practices for their students.

Even in NYC, where many students are language learners, there are very few bilingual instructional coaches or bilingual pedagogical growth coordinators. Instead, novice teachers are supervised by other teachers who do not speak the other language and are not certified in either ESL or bilingual education. When teachers are assigned mentors, it is up to the mentor and mentee to make time for collaboration. They are not given additional time to prepare lessons together, observe each others' classes, or debrief about teaching.

Change on this starts at the school leadership level. North Carolina has started a new certification program in immersion for its administrators, acknowledging that leading a school with a dual program requires some expertise. I work with many administrators whose only training has been theoretical workshops. Some districts mandate a one-size-fits-all model when you really need to look at each program’s student population, teacher qualifications and availability of resources in the target language.  A particular model might fit one school environment, but not the school next door.  Leaders need to be coached in looking at their students, their teachers and their available resources first before making any programmatic decision. It will ensure longer program sustainability if these programs are tailored to buildings’ needs. There is a lot of flexibility within dual immersion. It’s all about making the right choices at the right time. Once principals have studied their specific environments, they can look at what the research says on their variables and identify the best scheduling, language distribution and biliteracy models.

Administrators need support beyond the initial elaboration of a plan. Many need specific coaching on what best practices look like in dual immersion settings. Administrators have even fewer opportunities than teachers in terms of learning from other well-informed administrators' policies and successes. Intervisitations and collaborative work groups would be immensely beneficial if they included both administrators and teachers.

Professional development is an indispensable component to success, but alone it is not enough.  Principals and teachers are always asking for additional resources in the target language. Few districts and states recognize that resources are sparse and expensive in target languages. When those resources are not available, educators need time to create them. When districts change curricula (e.g., with the roll out of the Common Core State Standards), dual-immersion programs need additional funding to locate and/or develop their own resources.

--Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work."


Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.