• by Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2017 •

Kristin Grayson, M.Ed.As the numbers of English learners continue to rise in U.S. schools, the need also rises for schools and districts to increase the number of qualified (content and pedagogically proficient), culturally competent, and credentialed teachers prepared to teach them. Schools often face difficulty in recruiting, hiring and retaining quality teachers for English learners (ELs). However, with an intentional approach, schools and districts can have the best teachers in place to provide them an equitable education.

Nationwide, English learners account for roughly one out of every 10 students, ranging from 22 percent of the student population in California to 1 percent in West Virginia (McFarland, et al., 2017). Yet, large achievement and opportunity gaps between ELs and non-ELs continue to exist (Quintero, & Hansen, 2017).

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), integrates for the first time, English language proficiency and academic achievement fully into school and district accountability systems, with the potential of ensuring that their needs are fully considered by educational systems. Nevertheless, there are concerns about how this can happen with the current shortage of teachers who are experienced, knowledgeable and/or certified in teaching and implementing effective programs for English learners.

Research consistently indicates that English learners perform better when they have teachers who are trained and certified to teach in specialized language programs integrated throughout grade level and content area classrooms.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees that all students, regardless of national origin, have an equal and equitable opportunity to learn in U.S. schools. And the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision further defines this as the right of students to be given the support necessary to learn and achieve even if their home language is not English.

Schools cannot simply force ELs to sink-or-swim in a mainstream classroom. They must implement appropriately designed language programs that consider the variation of educational needs due to different backgrounds, such as age, refugee status, country and language of origin and/or previous amount of formal schooling. In addition, schools must provide English learners with teachers prepared to meet their needs in a personalized environment (Lhamon, & Gupta, 2015).

Research consistently indicates that ELs perform better when they have teachers who are trained and certified to teach in specialized language programs integrated throughout grade level and content area classrooms (López, et al., 2013; Robledo Montecel, & Cortez). Yet, at least six southern states still do not require such certification, and other states lack strong, relevant certification standards with a wide variation in requirements (ECS, 2014).

With the projection of a teacher shortage for all students expected to increase in the coming years across the country, the shortage of qualified teachers for ELs remains an even bigger concern. States need to pursue and implement specific policies with the necessary resources to sustain an effective quality EL teacher workforce. Importantly, states must resist efforts to water-down teacher certification requirements that undermine having well-prepared teachers for ELs.

Darling Hammond (2016) suggests three specific ways to improve the pool of qualified teachers for English learners:

  • Develop career ladder programs in partnership with local universities to empower paraprofessionals to become certified teachers with specializations or certifications in bilingual education or ESL;
  • Renew or continue the normalista programs that, through university partnership, certify teachers from other counties in bilingual or ESL instruction (see also Cortez, & Robledo Montecel, 2002); and
  • Continue partnerships with local universities to enhance their teacher education programs with the pedagogy for EL education.

Harris & Sandoval-Gonzalez (2017) also promote the enrichment of university education programs to prepare teachers to fill the increasing demand for teachers of dual language programs as more families – English-speaking and non-English-speaking – acknowledge the benefits of bilingualism and biliteracy for their children.

Current teachers should be allotted sufficient professional development time to learn how to better serve their EL students, explicitly recruiting, training and retaining bilingual/bicultural teachers (Lavadenz, & Colon-Muiz, 2017). Another approach is exemplified through IDRA’s Transitions to Teaching alternative certification programs that prepared science and math content area experts to be teachers with specializations in ESL or bilingual education (IDRA, 2017).

Once qualified teachers are in schools and districts, it is important to retain them. It is critical that schools have an asset-based atmosphere of cultural competency that celebrates diversity of students and staff and acknowledges the benefits of a diverse teaching force (Darling Hammond, 2016).

Teachers require authentic support from their districts. Teachers need the best resources to use with their students. They also need opportunities to continually enhance their professional capacity by learning best practices from the latest research within a network of support. Financial incentives for education, recruitment and retention are other ways that districts can recruit and retain qualified teachers.

While there are no easy or quick fixes to the shortage of qualified teachers for English learner education, it is imperative for states, districts, schools and teachers to promote and demand that equitable education for ELs is not only a wish but is a moral obligation to protect the rights of students.

The IDRA EAC-South provides technical assistance and training to build capacity of local educators in the U.S. South to serve their diverse student populations, including ELs. Please see our website for additional information and ways to request assistance from an equity center in our or your area. Working together we can build and maintain the number of qualified and certified teachers that English learners deserve.


Cortez, J.D., & Robledo Montecel, M. (2002). Alianza: Our Legacy and Our Future (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Darling Hammond, L. (2016). California’s Emerging Teacher Shortage: New Evidence and Policy Responses (Palo Alto, Calif.: Learning Policy Institute).

Education Commission of the States. (2014). “Are ELL-only instructors required to hold a specialist certification or endorsement?” 50-State Comparison (Denver, Co.: Education Commission of the States).

Harris, V.R., & Sandoval-Gonzalez, A. (2017). Unveiling California’s Growing Bilingual Teacher Shortage (Long Beach, Calif: Californians Together).

IDRA. (2017). Transition to Teaching – Empowering Teachers to Serve Today’s Classrooms, website (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Lavadenz, M., & Colón-Muñiz, A. (2017). The Latina Teacher Shortage: Learning from the Past to Inform the Future (LMU-LA Center for English Learners).

Lhamon, C.E., & Gupta, V. (January 2015). English Learners Dear Colleague Letter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education).

López, F., Scanlan, M., & Gundrum, B. (2013). “Preparing Teachers of English Language Learners: Empirical Evidence and Policy Implications,” Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 21 No. 20 (Arizona State University).

McFarland, J., Hussar, B., de Brey, C., Snyder, T., Wang, X., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Gebrekristos, S., Zhang, J., Rathbun, A., Barmer, A., Bullock Mann, F., & Hinz, S. (2017). The Condition of Education 2017 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics).

Quintero, D., & Hansen, M. (2017). “English Learners and the Growing Need for Quality Teachers,” Chalkboard (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution).

Robledo Montecel, M., & Cortez, J.D. (2002). “Successful Bilingual Education Programs: Development and Dissemination of Criteria to Identify Promising and Exemplary Practices in Bilingual Education at the National Level,” Bilingual Research Journal. Vol. 26, No. 1.

Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at kristin.grayson@idra.org.

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]