By Joseline Salmeron and Fernando Mendez
EDUCATION: The Illinois State Board of Education is offering $4 million in response to bilingual teacher vacancies. It’s a temporary solution, and teachers say there’s more that can be done.
On March 4, the Illinois State Board of Education announced a $4 million grant to support the bilingual educator pipeline. The grant would help cover the tuition cost for instructors that teach English Learners.
The grant was created in response to a vacancy for bilingual teachers. The announcement listed 98 vacancies for bilingual education classrooms in October 2021.
Dr. P. Zitlali Morales, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a need for more bilingual teachers.
“There’s absolutely a need, and part of it is, again, unfortunately, part of the repercussions of the pandemic,” Morales said. “A lot of teachers left the profession because either they were near retirement, or they just didn’t want to deal with all of these changes, and all of the new stresses involved, because teaching is a very difficult profession to begin with.”
Pandemic Strains Existing Challenges in Bilingual Education
Bilingual teaching has grown increasingly difficult, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily moving classes remotely. Guadalupe Sandoval, a bilingual teacher at Wilma Rudolph Learning Center, was one of many teachers that had to adjust to a new teaching environment.
“Many schools were not equipped with the proper electronic devices, because they weren’t in the classrooms,” Sandoval said. “And many of the kids, and teachers didn’t know how to use them.”
The changes from COVID–related adjustments made it difficult for teachers to communicate with English learners and students’ parents during the quarantine. With schools returning to in-person instruction, Sandoval said it’s been easier, but that more can still be done, especially with the vacancy in bilingual education.
“It has been a struggle, and it’s still a struggle, which is why I think many people are happy that we’re more in person,” Sandoval said. “But it has been very, very difficult. With them, we’re still not where we should be, I think technology-wise, even helping out parents in their homes with that.”
One of the major aspects of gaining new bilingual teachers starts with teachers earning an English as Second Language endorsement or Transitional Bilingual endorsement. These certificates allow for the educator to temporarily teach for six years before it needs to be renewed.
During this time, the teacher must complete a set of requirements and classes to be properly trained to teach in a bilingual setting. The number of Transitional Bilingual Certificates earned has steadily gone down over the past few years with a slight increase in 2020-2021 with 352 certificates given out.
The $4 million grant provides incentives and opportunities for people to earn their ESL endorsement. Morales added that while providing the grant is headed in the right direction there’s more that can be done for people that are already bilingual teachers.
“I think it’s a great step. I think that it’s an opportunity for people that maybe we’re thinking about it, but that they know that they have to take more courses or that they have to take, you know, certain tests,” Morales said. “So I think that this is definitely an incentive. And I think that at the district levels, there needs to be sort of more envisioning of what we can provide for current teachers who again, are sort of stressed and overwhelmed sometimes, especially because of the circumstances of the pandemic.”
Addressing the Bilingual Teacher Shortage
Monica Rojas, a bilingual education teacher at ACERO Marquez Charter School and 2021-2022 Teach Plus Policy fellow, said that for new student bilingual teachers, an incentive is to offer paid internships and paid student teaching
Morales cited scholarships and grant support are great for teachers gaining their licenses, as it encourages them to finish the license. However, she added that there should be more financial support for current bilingual teachers who often have to do extra work that sometimes isn’t compensated.
Extra work includes seeking out opportunities to refine bilingual language skills to more effectively communicate with parents with limited English-speaking skills and receive professional development.
Sophie Alarcon, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Westdale School in suburban Northlake, said her experience with parent-teacher communication did not come easy on academic matters.
College and professional development coursework did not prepare bilingual student teachers like her to communicate with parents on an academic level but solely on a social level.
Districts are also doing little to support English Learners in receiving high-quality instruction through provisional licenses and basic bilingual tests assessing Spanish language proficiency, teachers and experts say.
Teachers like Alarcon say they have gone the extra mile to better communicate with parents by seeking out translating opportunities.
“The problem with that is a lot of them, they’ll say like, ‘Oh, I know how to speak Spanish but I’ve never had to write it like official level.’ So it really is just learning a new way of thinking about language,” Alarcon said of teachers and aides offering translation services to refine Spanish language skills.
In Illinois school districts such as Mannheim 83, educators like Alarcon may not receive tuition reimbursement until two or three years later. Mannheim School District 83’s present model is on a first-come, first-serve basis until the allotted $50,000 budget has been exhausted for the school year and there are no special provisions for bilingual endorsement coursework. Any reimbursement request that has not been fulfilled gets rolled over into the following year.
According to ISBE Employment Information salary data, the median salary for bilingual education teachers is $71,915.62. School district tuition reimbursement models like this discourage educators from taking more robust postgraduate level work and are often driven to online colleges, like the University of Phoenix, that do not provide holistic instruction necessary for educators to apply in real-time classroom settings.
Importance of Bilingual Teachers
According to U.S. Census data published in August 2021, an upward of 1.6 million Spanish speakers were recorded in the 2020 Census with about 618,000 stating that they spoke English less than well.
The vacancies in bilingual teachers have become more of an issue with the increase in English learner students enrolling.
ISBE’s 2021 annual report shows that 243,308 English language learners enrolled in Illinois. The number reflects a consistent increase in English language learner enrollment and the need for teachers to compensate. According to the Illinois Report Card, 12.9% of Illinois students are English learners.
The need for bilingual teachers has been a pressing issue for Illinois schools. The number of English language learners goes up and, according to Sandoval, this has always been an issue, especially with the Russian invasion of Ukraine introducing new students that require bilingual education.
“Since I’ve been, at least in Chicago Public Schools, there has always been a high need [for bilingual teachers],” Sandoval said. “And I think more recently, even more, because there are so many refugees coming through. Whether you know, it’s Haitian refugees, now the Ukrainian refugees, so they’re coming. The need is tremendous … unfortunately, there are not enough bilingual teachers to fulfill the need of education”
English learners have been most affected by the vacancies as the number of English language learners. According to an ISBE report, English language students meeting grade-level standards in English and math fell by half in 2021 compared to 2019. According to the Illinois Report Card, English learner students also had an increase in chronic absenteeism with 21.1% missing 10 or more days of class without a valid excuse.
Mastery Over Compliance
Promoting effective bilingual education services over meeting minimum federally mandated bilingual education standards is the present challenge in Illinois.
Rojas recognized deficiencies in professional development, teacher licensing, and the dangers of provisional certificates for bilingual educators employed as meeting the bare minimum requirements for compliance during her Chicago Teachers Union Policy Fellowship.
Educator License with Stipulations (ELS) for Transitional Bilingual Educator endorsements only require a bachelor’s degree within any field and a passing score on the Target Language Proficiency Test to provide an ELS-TBE provisional license which is good for five years.
Within the past five years, ISBE has issued an average of 376.8 ELS-Transitional Bilingual licenses. 627 Language Proficiency tests were administered in the 2016-2017 school year and that number has since increased to 958 tests administered for the 2020-2021 school year.
“We just want to make sure that bilingual education teachers are in positions, regardless of whether or not they’re able to deliver the services. So they’re receiving provisional licenses,” Rojas said about the state and district efforts to meet bilingual education requirements.
This practice is symptomatic of a focus on compliance and not an effort to ensure that English Learners are receiving a comparable education to their monolingual peers.
“The focus right now is on compliance, it’s not on services,” Rojas said. The $4 million grant announced by ISBE is funded using federal pandemic relief dollars, otherwise known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
Being only a two-year grant, it is not a sustainable solution. Rojas, also on the Evidence-Based Funding Professional Review Panel, indicated that state funding is exhaustive but to better promote high-quality bilingual services, funding can be re-allocated.
“It is a harsh reality but it’s a reality nonetheless that I definitely think that money can be allocated differently. That’s something that a lot of people won’t talk about,” said Rojas, speaking on the reallocation of state education funding.
Presently, ISBE’s assessments budget is in the millions and is seeking to institute a year-round testing model, with an estimated cost of $228 million over the course of ten years. Funding from costly and inefficient non-mandated standardized testing can be diverted into other indispensable educational services, such as bilingual education.
Despite these challenges and shortcomings on the district and state levels, Illinois’s bilingual educators prioritize their students.
“Bilingual education is not for teachers and it’s not for schools or for districts,” said Rojas, emphasizing once more the need for high-quality bilingual services. “It’s for students. The services that they’re supposed to be receiving are supposed to support them and help them to be successful and to be on par with their grade-level peers.”
Sandoval said one of the joys she has with being a bilingual teacher is helping students discover what makes their language special.
“As a bilingual teacher, you value the students for who they are, what they bring, their culture, their language,” she said. “You honor that, you respect that, you add a language to them, which is English, especially. And I think that especially when they’re that little you respect who they are, they become better students, they become better human beings in the environment and they learn to respect different languages and people.”
Joseline Salmeron discusses how the story was reported.