Linguistic diversity has long been growing in U.S. schools. In 2000, roughly 3.8 million (8.1 percent) of U.S. students were classified as English learners (ELs); by 2020, just shy of 5 million (10.3 percent) were. These students represent a remarkable myriad of languages, cultures, and ethnicities, and their success in school and society is essential for the United States’ future. Research suggests that the best way to advance ELs’ linguistic and academic development is by supporting their development through bilingual instruction.
Expanding access to bilingual classrooms—particularly in linguistically integrated dual-language schools—requires more bilingual teachers. But U.S. Census data show that U.S. teachers remain disproportionately monolingual. Just 13 percent of U.S. teachers speak a non-English language at home, compared with around 22 percent of people in the United States, and at least 21 percent of U.S. children. Notably, the U.S. child care workforce is much more linguistically diverse, with 25 percent of caregivers speaking a non-English language at home.
Without closing this gap between students’ and teachers’ diversity, policymakers will be unable to expand ELs’ access to bilingual and/or dual-language immersion classrooms. New proposed priorities for the Department of Education’s National Professional Development grants program would be a step in the right direction. With a few tweaks, the priorities would do even more to grow U.S. bilingual teacher pathways.
Why Are Bilingual Teachers Scarce in U.S. Public Education?
As my colleague Jonathan Zabala and I noted in our recent Century Foundation report, “How to Grow Bilingual Teacher Pathways,” young bilingual adults face unique financial, logistical, and linguistic pressures as they consider teaching careers. In many states and communities, teacher training programs are expensive to pursue, monolingual in their focus, and inflexible for young bilingual adults. This is particularly challenging because young bilingual adults are more likely to be in low-income households than their monolingual, English-only peers.
One way to explore the impacts of teacher training and credential requirements on teacher diversity is to compare the demographics of K–12 teachers with the demographics of early educators. The early education workforce generally has fewer, and more flexible, credential requirements than K–12 teaching, so if it’s significantly more linguistically diverse than the K–12 workforce, that would be a signal that the nature of K–12 teacher training systems could be contributing to the monolingualism of the U.S. K–12 teaching force.
Consider, for instance, California’s early education and K–12 workforces. The University of California–Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) has undertaken several studies of the demographics of early care workers that facilitate finer grained workforce comparisons. As we noted in our recent report on dual-language immersion policies in California, the CSCCE’s data are clear: California’s early educators are much more racially and linguistically diverse than its K–12 teachers.
|TEACHER DIVERSITY IN CALIFORNIA’S EARLY EDUCATION AND K–12 SYSTEMS
||CA Early Educators in Center-Based Programs (2020)
||CA Early Educators in Home-Based Family Child Care Providers (2020)
||CA K–12 Teachers
|CA K–12 Students
|Two or More Races
|Note: Data on CA K–12 teachers’ multilingualism is from 2021 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
Source: Ed-Data: Education Data Partnership, California Department of Education, EdSource, Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team/California School Information Services, “Teachers by Ethnicity: California Public Schools,” accessed August 23, 2023, https://www.ed-data.org/state/CA; Anna Powell, Elena Montoya, and Yoonjeon Kim, “Demographics of the California ECE Workforce,” Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California-Berkeley, January 13, 2022, https://cscce.berkeley.edu/publications/data-snapshot/demographics-of-the-california-ece-workforce/; U.S. Census, “ACS 5-Year Estimates Public Use Microdata Sample” (2021), U.S. Census, author’s analysis, https://data.census.gov/mdat/#/search?ds=ACSPUMS5Y2021&cv=LANX&rv=ucgid,OCCP&wt=PWGTP&g=0400000US06; “Facts about English Learners,” California Department of Education, accessed October 17, 2023, https://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/ad/cefelfacts.asp; Ed-Data: Education Data Partnership, California Department of Education, EdSource, Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team/California School Information Services, accessed August 14, 2023, https://www.ed-data.org/state/CA.
This indicates perhaps the central tension for teacher training policy: policymakers require training and credentials as proxy measures to ensure that teachers are prepared to succeed in classrooms, but some of these credentials are systematically placed out of reach for racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and/or linguistically diverse teacher candidates. In other words, the goals of teacher quality and teacher diversity can appear to be at odds.
However, this tension is less intractable than it appears. There is no consistent evidence base linking particular teacher training credentials to reliable improvements in students’ academic outcomes. By contrast, there is a growing research consensus on the benefits that diverse students—particularly students of color—gain from enrolling in classrooms with diverse teachers.
There is no consistent evidence base linking particular teacher training credentials to reliable improvements in students’ academic outcomes.
This does not mean that there is no benefit to teacher training, or that all teacher training and credentialing requirements are entirely meritless. It is simply an opening to consider whether diverse teacher candidates’ linguistic and/or cultural expertise may be just as valuable as some of these proxy measures.
Furthermore, the choice implied by this tension is not between a mostly monolingual pool of highly-credentialed teachers and a more multilingual pool of wholly-untrained teachers. There are many trained and linguistically diverse teachers who fall somewhere in between. Data suggest there may be significant numbers of diverse educators who have most—but not quite all—of the credentials their state requires for K–12 teachers.
For instance, California is growing its K–12 system to include a universally accessible “transitional kindergarten” year for 4-year-olds. Early educators in those “TK” classrooms face different credentialing requirements than California early educators working in other settings. This makes it relatively straightforward to analyze similar—but not identical—early educator labor pools. Indeed, a CSCCE report found that there are likely a large number of partially credentialed adults in California who could teach in the state’s transitional kindergarten program—if only policymakers would build them pathways into the profession. Specifically, the CSCCE found that California has:
40,000 early educators who already teach young children and hold a bachelor’s degree. Within that group, there are 17,000 current early educators who possess a bachelor’s degree, a child development permit at the teacher level or higher, and six or more years of teaching experience in early childhood settings.
In other words, California boasts a large number of early educators who have undergraduate degrees, an early education credential from the state, and significant field experience, but they cannot teach in the state’s transitional kindergarten classrooms because they lack one of the state’s other K–12 teaching licenses. And given what data show about the early education workforce in California (and beyond), it is likely that this group of nearly credentialed teachers includes large numbers of bilingual early educators.
Federal Investments in Bilingual Teacher Training
Notwithstanding California’s unique interest in growing its bilingual teacher pathways—it boasts more ELs than any other state—the dynamics there are common across the country. Bilingual teacher shortages are longstanding and national in scope.
Appropriately, then, the Department of Education recently proposed three new priorities to guide upcoming competitions through the Office of English Language Acquisition’s National Professional Development grants programs. Roughly speaking, the proposed priorities would encourage applications that support:
- Pre-service training pathways to help bilingual teacher candidates prepare to join the profession;
- pre-service training pathways to help large shares of low-income teacher candidates prepare to join the profession; and
- in-service professional development to help more bilingual adults—especially bilingual paraprofessionals and educators who do not yet have full certification—become bilingual teachers with the skills they need to meet ELs’ needs.
These largely track the research outlined above, targeting young bilingual teacher candidates and current school staff who are bilingual, with a stated preference for grantees that would use funds to help low-income teacher candidates become credentialed.
But there is still some room for improvement! The Century Foundation’s English Learners Team submitted a short public comment in response to the Department’s proposal. The comment closes with a summary of our recommendations:
[I]f the Department aims to provide a maximally efficient boost to the country’s bilingual teacher supply—with a special focus on low-income bilingual and bicultural teacher-candidates, it should make proposed Priority #1 an absolute (or at least a heavily weighted) priority in future grant competitions, and should define ‘pre-service’ programs capaciously so as to devote the greatest number of resources to flexible, affordable programs that best meet the needs of socioeconomically diverse bilingual and bicultural teacher candidates.
In other words, the most effective way to grow the country’s bilingual teacher corps is to invest public resources in programs focused on bilingual teacher candidates, and particularly those that are flexible and adaptive to these candidates’ needs. Some of these will be traditional teacher training programs housed within institutions of higher education, but many will also involve in-classrooms apprenticeship training and/or other “grow-your-own” strategies run by school districts.
A more diverse United States is a better, stronger, wealthier, and more interesting country. It is also a country that will need to update its schools—and its approach to teacher training—to take full advantage of that new diversity.