Regulating Teacher Credentialing to Benefit English Learners

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Scholars argue that the decentralization of teacher credentialing negatively affects English learners.

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One education challenge that is often overlooked is that some students do not speak the same language as their teachers and peers. This problem is especially salient for non-English speaking students studying in the United States.

The number of English learners (ELs) in K-12 schools has grown by more than 1 million since the year 2000, bringing the total number in the United States to an estimated 4.9 million students.

The growth of the EL population in U.S. schools has coincided with a persistent achievement gap between ELs and their non-EL peers. According to some policy experts, one reason for this achievement gap is that U.S. teacher preparation programs have failed to equip many teachers to meet the needs of ELs.

In a recent article, three scholars argue that wide variation exists in teacher credentialing programs across the United States. Christine Montecillo Leider of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Michaela W. Colombo of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Erin Nerlino of Boston University suggest that federal standards are needed to guarantee ELs the right to access public education.

Currently, federal regulations governing ELs’ access to an equitable education derive from standards set forth by federal civil rights law and policy. For example, lawmakers have interpreted Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit schools from offering ELs fewer educational opportunities based on their national origin. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has clarified school districts’ responsibilities in upholding the requirements of the law and protecting the rights of ELs.

A decade after the passage of Title VI, the Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols that public school districts receiving federal funds must provide supplemental language instruction to non-English-speaking students. The Court’s subsequent ruling in Castaneda v. Pickard in 1981 bolstered the Lau decision by establishing a three-part test for determining the adequacy of school districts’ bilingual education programs.

Most recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reaffirmed that states need to ensure equal access for ELs in educational programs. Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino note that the regulations implementing the ESSA and other federal civil rights mandates do not, however, give states specific instructions on how to meet such demands. Although regulations require state education agencies to ensure public school teachers’ training complies with federal law, they have broad autonomy in determining what compliance will look like.

Because states are responsible for developing their own policies for educating ELs, there has been wide variation in state credentialing requirements for teachers of ELs, Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino observe. Furthermore, they argue that the widespread decentralization of teacher-credentialing policies has led to inconsistent interpretations of federal mandates, often meaning that EL teachers are underprepared.

Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino view state education agencies’ requirements as one of many proxies for teacher preparedness and effectiveness. To assess whether state regulations ensure that teachers are adequately prepared to educate ELs, they surveyed teacher-credentialing requirements across all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Their findings suggest that, due to states’ differing policies, EL teachers “likely have vastly different levels of pedagogical content knowledge and expertise for working with ELs.”

A related problem, they argue, is that federal policy fails to specify minimal requirements for the credentialing and preparation of teachers working with ELs. To overcome the political stagnation resulting from changing federal and state administrations, Leider, Columbo, and Nerlino recommend several policy changes the federal government could make to influence states’ teacher-credentialing regulatory schemes.

Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino contend that the federal government should increase funding for bilingual teacher-credentialing programs. Although bilingual education has a positive impact on ELs’ educational outcomes, only 24 states offer bilingual teacher credentialing to prospective educators seeking to teach ELs. Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino argue that an increase in federal funding would encourage greater teacher participation and spur other states to offer similar credentialing opportunities.

Even more, they argue that participating states should go beyond merely requiring bilingual or other specialized teacher credentials for educators seeking to teach ELs. Instead, Leider, Columbo, and Nerlino claim that states should require prospective teachers, before they can become certified, to engage in field experiences specific to working with ELs. They also suggest that states include methodologies specific to teaching ELs in their teaching standards so that all teachers are minimally prepared to work with ELs.

Aside from the lack of standardized EL teacher-credentialing opportunities across states, Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino also find that many state education agencies do not publish teacher-credentialing requirements. Thus, they recommend that state agencies more actively publicize such information. The lack of publicly available credentialing information creates a potential civil rights issue, they argue, because educators may not fully understand their legal responsibilities to ELs.

Ultimately, Leider, Colombo, and Nerlino recommend that the federal government issue a minimal set of guidelines and expectations for EL teacher credentialing across states. Such expectations, they suggest, could reduce nationwide variations in EL teacher credentialing standards and improve teachers’ preparedness to educate ELs.