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February 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 5

The Teachers Our English Language Learners Need

When it comes to providing all English language learners with the highly qualified teachers they need and deserve, we have a long way to go.

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Instructional StrategiesEquity
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We’ve heard a lot of discussion lately about the importance of “highly qualified teachers” for narrowing achievement gaps. These discussions are generally limited to issues of socio­economic status or race; it’s well known that children of color and low-income children are much less likely to have a “highly qualified” teacher in their classroom than other children are (Darling-Hammond & Berry, 2006).
What’s less well known is that English language learners (ELLs) also suffer from a teacher-quality gap (Samson & Collins, 2012)—and for these students, the problem is compounded. Without special preparation, even good teachers may find it difficult to meet the needs of English language learners. Unfortunately, the question of what constitutes a highly qualified teacher of ELLs has been largely left out of the conversations about teacher ­quality.
Given that about 10 percent of all students in the United States are English language learners (Migration Policy Institute, 2015), it’s surprising that concern about providing highly qualified teachers for these students hasn’t garnered more attention. The large and persistent gaps in academic outcomes for English language learners compared with other students indicate that something must be wrong with the teaching approaches we’re using. For example, in 2013 the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that 69 percent of ELLs scored below basic proficiency in 8th grade mathematics, compared with just 25 percent of native English speakers. Reading scores at 8th grade were also dismal; 70 percent of ELLs scored below basic compared with 21 percent of non-ELLs (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013). Scores at the 4th grade level were similar.
Of course, ELLs are by definition not sufficiently strong in English to score at the same level as native English speakers, but such enormous gaps, especially in mathematics, and a high school graduation gap double that of any other group (Callahan, 2013) suggest a serious problem.

Being a “Good Teacher” Is Not Good Enough

Research suggests that good teachers of ELLs share many of the traits and characteristics of good teachers in general (Goldenberg, 2013). In a 2014 study, Susanna Loeb and her colleagues asked, “Is a good teacher a good teacher for all?” and found that teachers who were effective with native-English-speaking students (as measured by increased test scores) also tended to be effective with English language learners. However, these researchers also found that teachers were relatively more effective with ELLs if they were fluent in their students’ home language and had a bilingual certification (Loeb, Soland, & Fox, 2014).
We believe that it’s not enough to provide English language learners with a generally good teacher. To close the achievement gaps and to build on ELLs’ strengths, we need to provide teachers for ELLs who have additional skills and abilities.
One such ability is bilingualism. The consistently strong English language arts and math outcomes for students who are educated bi­lingually indicate that teachers who are able to teach bilingually have special skills to meet ELLs’ academic needs (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2005; Umansky & Reardon, 2015; ­Valentino & Reardon, in press).
Various researchers have suggested that bilingual teachers have advantages because they use a broader set of pedagogical strategies; are more likely than monolingual teachers to believe that reaching out to and engaging parents is part of their job (Hopkins, 2013); and can better monitor what students are learning and adapt instruction to student needs (Maxwell-Jolly & Gándara, 2012).
Some researchers argue that the best teacher for ELLs is one who can communicate with them and their families, regardless of the language of instruction in the classroom (De Jong & Harper, 2005; Hopkins, 2013). Teachers who can communicate with ELLs in their native language, involving them in classroom discussions and activities, can improve students’ attitudes toward school and reduce the likelihood that they will drop out (Callahan, 2013). This is important because researchers have found that motivation can be a major challenge for English language learners, especially at the secondary level, where they may have difficulty fitting in and may feel like outsiders (Meltzer & Hamann, 2004).
In addition to bilingualism, research suggests a number of other characteristics that make a good teacher for ELLs:
  • Knowledge of language uses, forms, and mechanics (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002).
  • A feeling of efficacy with respect to helping these students achieve high standards (Garcia, 1996).
  • Strong relationship-building skills and attention to the social-emotional needs of students (Moll, 1988).
  • Cultural knowledge and the ability to incorporate this knowledge into instruction (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Milk, Mercado, & Sapiens, 1992).
  • Specific pedagogical skills, including knowing how to conduct formative assessment of students’ developing skills, organize the classroom to invite greater participation, and scaffold instruction for students who are struggling with English (Garcia, 1992).
Relatively little research has been conducted to determine the proportion of teachers of English language learners who have received training in using instructional strategies that most benefit ELLs. One 2013 study by Francesca López and her colleagues looked at state teacher certification requirements to see whether these requirements included knowledge of 10 areas that are key to the instruction of ELLs (for example, knowledge of teaching English as a second language and teaching literacy in the native language). The researchers found that only 14 states offered a specialist certification (such as English as a second language or bilingual certification); 15 states required all teachers to be exposed to some instruction relevant to educating English language learners; and 12 states had certification processes that did not mention any skills for teaching ELLs at all. No state required that teachers—specialists or otherwise—be competent in or even exposed to all 10 areas of knowledge and skills. These findings point to two clear conclusions: (1) States vary enormously in their teacher preparation and certification requirements for teachers of ELLs and (2) State requirements for those who will teach ELLs are not aligned with the abilities that the research suggests are important (López, Scanlan, & Gundrum, 2013).

Professional Development to Fill the Gap

Because teacher certification programs provide so little preparation for those who will teach English language learners, it’s up to professional development to fill in the gaps. But how much time do schools actually devote to professional development related to teaching English language learners?
The last national study on the topic commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that, on average, teachers who had English language learners in their classes received only 4.2 hours of professional development on instruction for ELLs over a five-year period (Zehler, Fleischman, Hopstock, Pendzick, & Stephenson, 2003). A statewide study conducted in California in 1999–2000 (when nearly one in four students in the state was an ELL) found that an average of 7 percent of professional development time was devoted to the instruction of ELLs (Stecher & Bornstedt, 2000).
In 2005, a survey of 5,300 educators in California found that among the teachers whose classrooms were composed of 50 percent or more English language learners, about half had either no professional development or only one session focused on the instruction of ELLs over a five-year period (Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005). In a more recent survey of more than 550 teachers in Los Angeles (a school district with more English language learners than any other in the United States), we found that considerably more time was being devoted to professional develop­ment focused on instruction for ELLs—17 hours per year on average—yet teachers did not view it as sufficient (Santibañez & Gándara, 2015).
One of the questions asked of teachers in the 2005 study was, What are your greatest challenges in meeting the needs of your English language learners? Both elementary and secondary teachers cited communication as a major challenge: The elementary teachers cited the inability to communicate effectively with parents, whereas the secondary teachers noted problems in motivating their students, presumably at least in part because of limited ability to communicate with them.
In the 2015 survey of teachers in Los Angeles, we asked about both the challenges of teaching ELLs and the supports that would be most helpful in educating these students (Santibañez & Gándara, 2015). Similar to earlier studies, the most frequently mentioned weakness in teacher preparation programs was their failure to train teachers to engage with parents of ELLs. (Only 35 percent of teachers noted that their pre­service program had prepared them “well” or “very well” for this.) When asked about their most pressing challenges when teaching ELLs, 72 percent of all teachers mentioned the related challenge of parents not being able to help out with schoolwork. Yet the responses indicated that this area was the least often covered in the professional development the respondents received. Curiously, communication with parents was also not mentioned among the topics the teachers wanted professional development to focus on.
Between 75 and 86 percent of all teachers surveyed in Los Angeles said they wanted more ELL-focused professional development; the teachers with the least experience expressed the most need, which tends to confirm that preservice teachers are still not receiving enough training relevant to teaching ELLs. When we asked teachers what would be most useful in addressing their challenges, their areas of greatest need were things they did not have time to do: observe other highly effective teachers, work with a mentor or coach, and participate in a professional learning community.

Any effort to improve the education of English learners should include the recruitment of certified bilingual teachers.

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What Can Schools Do?

Of course, any efforts to improve the education of English language learners should include the recruitment of certified bilingual teachers. Some school districts with large populations of bilingual students are “growing their own” by encouraging these students beginning in high school to pursue a career in teaching. However, it’s clear that most districts won’t have enough bilingual teachers to serve all ELLs in the foreseeable future. And in some districts—such as Fairfax County, Virginia, which serves students from more than 200 countries representing 140 languages (Smith & Varlas, 2008)— bilingual education programs led by bilingual teachers cannot provide the complete answer. Schools must work with the teachers they have and within their own set of conditions. Nonetheless, even in districts with many languages, most have large concentrations of one or two ­languages.
It’s worth listening to what teachers are saying and responding with the time-intensive professional develop­ment they’re asking for. Of course, time is a precious resource in schools. Teachers in our surveys have consistently noted they don’t have enough classroom time to meet their ELLs’ needs, let alone time to engage in the kinds of professional development that they believe would help them increase their effectiveness. Finding ways to provide that time may be the most important intervention school leaders can undertake. It may require re­organizing time in creative ways, such as combining classes for part of a day every couple of weeks or providing extracurricular opportunities for students during the school day. But if we take teachers at their word, the most effective ways to improve instruction for English ­language learners may be to provide the time for teachers to observe exemplary lessons, discuss what they have seen, and practice under the watchful eye of a coach or mentor.
Finally, schools need to address the elephant in the room. Although monolingual teachers routinely mention a lack of communication with families of English language learners as a major problem, they do not seem to see any ready solution to this problem—nor do they mention it as something they want in professional development. Yet there are strategies for increasing communication between monolingual English-speaking teachers and parents whose language and culture is different from those of the teacher, and these can be addressed in professional development.
Bilingual parent liaisons are one alternative; well-trained liaisons who have strong ties to the community have been shown to be effective in bringing parents to school. Home visits, with an interpreter or parent liaison, are also an effective strategy. Using a local clergy person as an intermediary can be very effective in many culturally diverse communities. In sum, it’s crucial to include parent-teacher communication strategies in professional ­development. After all, parents of English language learners have an important role to play in the academic success of their children, as do all parents.

Looking for Leadership

One surprising finding of the 2015 survey of teachers in Los Angeles was the almost nonexistent role that school principals played in providing support for new teachers of English language learners. When asked to think back to the first time they taught ELLs and to choose what had most helped them deal with the challenges they encountered, teachers chose the support of their principals last. The literature is clear that concerted, schoolwide efforts are needed to create settings where ELLs can thrive (Goldenberg, 2013). To do this, schools need inspired school leaders who can engage parents and support teachers in meeting the challenges of teaching English language learners.
References

Callahan, R. (2013). The English learner dropout dilemma: Multiple risks and multiple resources. Santa Barbara: California Dropout Research Project.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Berry, B. (2006). Highly qualified teachers for all. Educational Leadership, 64(3), 14–20.

De Jong, E. J., & Harper, C. A. (2005). Preparing mainstream teachers for English-language learners: Is being a good teacher good enough? Teacher Education Quarterly, 32(2), 101–124.

Gándara, P., Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Driscoll, A. (2005). Listening to teachers of English language learners: A survey of California teachers’ challenges, experiences, and professional development needs. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Garcia, E. (1992). Teachers for language minority students: Evaluating professional standards. Focus on evaluation and measurement, Vols. I and II. Proceedings of the National Research Symposium on Limited English Proficient Student Issues. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Garcia, E. (1996). Preparing instructional professionals for linguistically and culturally diverse students. In J. Sikula (Ed.), Handbook of research on teacher education (2nd ed., pp. 802–813). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2005). English language learners in U.S. schools: An overview of research findings. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(4), 363–385.

Goldenberg, C. (2013). Unlocking the research on English learners: What we know—and don’t yet know—about effective instruction. American Educator, 27(2), 4–13.

González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hopkins, M. (2013). Building on our teaching assets: The unique pedagogical contributions of bilingual educators, Bilingual Research Journal, 36, 350–370.

Loeb, S., Soland, J., & Fox, L. (2014). Is a good teacher a good teacher for all? Comparing value-added of teachers with their English learners and non-English learners. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 46, 457–475.

López, F., Scanlan, M., & Gundrum, B. (2013). Preparing teachers of English language learners: Empirical evidence and policy implications. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21(20).

Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Gándara, P. (2012) Teaching all our students well: Teaching and teachers to close the achievement gap. In T. Timar & J. Maxwell-Jolly (Eds.), Narrowing the achievement gap: Perspectives and strategies for challenging times (pp. 163–186). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Meltzer, J., & Hamann, E. (2004). Meeting the literacy development needs of adolescent English language learners through content area learning. Part I: Focus on motivation and engagement. Providence, RI: Education Alliance at Brown ­University.

Migration Policy Institute. (2015). ELL fact sheet no. 5: States and districts with the highest number of English learners. Washington, DC: Author.

Milk, R., Mercado, C., & Sapiens, A. (1992, Summer). Rethinking the education of teachers of language minority children: Developing reflective teachers for changing schools. NCBE Focus: Occasional Papers in Bilingual Education. Number 6.

Moll, L. C. (1988). Turning to the world: Bilingual school, literacy, and the cultural mediation of thinking. In T. Shanahan & F. V.

Rodriguez-Brown (Eds.), National Reading Conference Yearbook (pp. 59–75). Chicago: National Reading ­Conference.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2013). The nation’s report card. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces​.ed.gov/nations​report​card.

Samson, J., & Collins, B. (2012). Preparing all teachers to meet the needs of English language learners: Applying research to policy and practice for teacher effective­ness. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Santibañez, V., & Gándara, P. (2015). Teachers of English language learners in LAUSD: Issues around preparation and support (working paper). Los Angeles: UCLA/The Civil Rights Project.

Smith, J., & Varlas, L. (2008). Working with ESL specialists. ASCD Express (online newsletter), 3(13). Retrieved from www​.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol3/​­313-smith​.aspx

Stecher, B. M., & Bornstedt G. W. (Eds.). (2000). Class size reduction in California: The 1998–99 evaluation findings. Sacramento: California Department of ­Education.

Umansky, I., & Reardon, S. (2014). Reclassification patterns among Latino English Learner students in bilingual, dual immersion, and English immersion classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 871–912.

Valentino, R., & Reardon, S. (in press). Effective­ness of four instructional programs designed to serve English language learners: Variation by ethnicity and initial English proficiency. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Wong Fillmore, L., & Snow, C. (2002). What teachers need to know about language. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Zehler, A., Fleischman, L., Hopstock, P., Pendzick, M., & Stephenson. T. (2003). Descriptive study of services to LEP students and LEP students with disabilities. Arlington, VA: U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition.

Patricia Gándara is professor of education, University of California Los Angeles, and codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. She is the coedtior, with Rebecca M. Callahan, of The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy and the U.S. Labor Market (Multilingual Matters, 2014).

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