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OPINION: Our workforce must be ready to help growing numbers of students who come to school learning English

OPINION: Our workforce must be ready to help growing numbers of students who come to school learning English


Our nation’s public school population is changing, fueled by growth in the number of multilingual learners. These students made up 10.3 percent of U.S. public school enrollment in 2020, up from 8.1 percent in 2000. Spanish was the most-reported home language among English learners in 2020, followed by Arabic.

Today, there are some 5 million multilingual learners. Across the country, the need for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) educators is hard to miss.

Yet, some ESOL educators say that they are the only ones in their district, working across multiple schools and struggling to juggle the demands of the position and the needs of their students.

Related: English language teachers are scarce. One Alabama town is trying to change that

We can help address this problem by creating a highly trained, skilled and culturally competent educator workforce. We must overcome barriers to creating this bigger talent pool of educators because what we are doing now is not working.

Many multilingual students face ongoing challenges and discrimination in public school. And the schools are facing their own challenges in serving this population: Some have been sued for failing to properly educate these students.

For example, Boston Public Schools has been under a court order since 1994 to direct a more equitable share of federal funding to multilingual learners. Yet despite some efforts to document the experiences and outcomes of multilingual learners in the district, a legal monitor noted last year that Boston’s school leaders had defied requests for records showing how it spent its funds. Poor data collection practices also led to severely underserving the city’s multilingual learners — often putting them in classes that didn’t match their skill levels.

Similarly, in Newark, a recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the district was failing to properly educate multilingual learners — by not providing students with access to the services or supports they need to thrive.

Unfortunately, these failings are all too common. One core underlying issue is the shortage of ESOL educators. Yet, traditional ESOL teacher certification processes are often burdensome, inflexible and financially onerous.

This is especially true in rural communities with few options to support professional learning experiences.

Traditional ESOL training and certification courses are typically based on credit accumulation, focusing on academic knowledge over real time application of learning.

As a result, educators may struggle to put their knowledge into practice in ways that benefit multilingual learners.

Related: OPINION: To solve teacher shortages, let’s open pathways for immigrants so they can become educators and role models

That’s why we should turn to self-paced and practical programs to build our talent pool of ESOL educators. Already, 26 states have some formal policy in place around microcredentials to support either licensure or professional development.

One example: A microcredential program developed by UCLA’s ExcEL Leadership Academy was recently approved for use in Rhode Island. Through a series of 12 microcredentials, educators can submit evidence of their work in and outside of their classrooms. At the close of 2023, 75 Rhode Island educators were enrolled in the new and cutting-edge program. Upon completion, they will receive digital badges that reflect the mastery of the skills they’ve demonstrated; the set of 12 badges is recognized by the state as a form of certification.

This has been a great solution for the city of Central Falls, Rhode Island. The population in Central Falls is constantly changing, as the city continues to welcome newcomers and families seeking asylum from various countries, including Guatemala, Columbia and Cape Verde.

Nearly half of the district’s 3,000 students are officially multilingual, and many more are English proficient but speak another home language. To address this diversity, the current teacher contract requires all teachers to obtain an ESOL certification.

David Upegui, a science teacher at Central Falls High School, noted that the ExcEL program allowed him flexibility to get credit for work he was already doing. By reflecting on and documenting his current practice and spending time with his students — rather than in a seat in a traditional certification program — he was able to obtain the microcredentials he needed.

Additionally, administrative staff have praised their experiences with the ExcEL program because it works for school leaders, not just classroom educators. Though not required to do so, many Central Falls administrators took it upon themselves to participate in the program, modeling the commitment to learning how to better meet the needs of multilingual learners.

Even though administrators have just started the program, they say that it has already resulted in improving their intake process for newcomers and is sparking new insights for better supporting multilingual learners.

Other districts and states should follow suit and consider alternative certification pathways for ESOL educators and expand possibilities for other specialized credentials.

There are several ways to make this happen: Our recent report outlines recommendations for states and districts to get started, and spells out how.

The future of our country depends upon fully supporting and realizing the potential that multilingual learners bring to our communities. They need educators who are properly trained to support them.

Let’s take a lesson from Rhode Island in tapping innovative approaches to grow the population of ESOL educators. Teachers may be the most important factor for in-school success and have the potential to truly change the trajectory of a student’s life.

Laurie Gagnon is a program director of the CompetencyWorks initiative at the Aurora Institute, a national nonprofit focused on education innovation.

This story about educating multilingual learners was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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