Connecticut policy discourages potential bilingual teachers

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On June 6, 2017, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed House Bill 7159 making Connecticut the 27th state with a Seal of Biliteracy. Granted by local school districts and included as an actual stamp on students’ high school diplomas, the seal recognizes students’ bilingualism – their capacity to speak, read, and write in English and another language – based on a proficiency criteria.

Since the introduction of this initiative, interest in Dual Language programs (DL) increased across the U.S., as reveled by U.S. News article on Rising Popularity of Dual-Langue Education. These are schools (or strands within schools) where teachers provide “regular” instruction half of the time in English and the other half in another language, typically Spanish.

Decades of research demonstrate the superiority of DL programs for both, native English speakers and English Learners, since both groups of students usually meet or surpass all subject benchmarks and graduate as bilinguals. In addition, DL programs happen to be the most economical second-language acquisition programs, since teachers who provide the content provide the language instruction as well.

While I was West Hartford’s World Languages Supervisor, in the fall of 2016, the Charter Oak International Academy (COIA) – a magnet school in the district – moved to a larger facility, hence, had the opportunity to start a DL program. However, it did not happen mostly for the same reason it does not happen in other districts: A shortage of qualified bilingual teachers.

In fact, dozens of bilingual teaching positions go unfilled every year in Connecticut, and the number of bilingual adults choosing the teaching profession has decreased dramatically despite the rise in the number of students who are English Learners. Therefore, even if our new Connecticut outlook is shifting towards embracing globalization and multilingualism, DL will not exist until we understand why we have a bilingual teacher shortage.

In August of 2017, CT Mirror journalist Jacqueline Rabe Thomas wrote about some suggestions made to the State Board of Education on Facing Teacher Shortages. In her piece, she quotes State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, addressing the need to change certification requirements. Simplified solutions (such as only offering accelerated “alternative routes” for bilingual certification) should be considered with caution since they presume school or district-based support system for ongoing training, which does not substitute higher education preparation.

While certification processes are convoluted and teaching preparation programs and school districts need to improve bilingual talent recruitment, I argue that these are not the main reasons why there is a bilingual teacher shortage. The main turn-off for potential bilingual teachers is a vision of teaching as a “technical” career, and of bilingualism as something that is a problem that needs to be fixed rather than a talent that needs to be nurtured.

As Ethan Siegel wrote in Forbes’ How America is Breaking Public Education, we – as nation – have “disobeyed the cardinal rule of success in any industry: treating your workers like professionals.”

When the Connecticut’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan focuses on standardized assessment scores as teachers’ main goal, it assumes that teachers’ role is mainly to be technicians as understood in the scientific management movement. Concretely, it lowers teachers’ goal to “reaching a production benchmark” instead of accomplishing ESSA’s original purpose, which – according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)– is that of fostering “innovation and ingenuity” (as cited in Education Week).

In fact, the term “assessment” appears 104 times in 87 sentences in the plan, and is among the top three most used academic terms in the document, alongside with the words “indicator” and “target.” Innovation, on the other hand, appears twice. While assessments are necessary and important, to see them as goals simply because they are the obvious measurable tools, is wrong, and it further de-professionalizes the teaching profession.

As if the de-professionalization of teaching were not enough to disenchant bilingual teaching candidates, the USA has a history of seeing bilingualism as a threat and monolingualism as patriotism. While this makes no sense to our new generation, it still prevails in society. The predominance of “Transitional Bilingual Programs” as the most common bilingual program in Connecticut schools is an example of this.

These are programs where students are supposed to “transition” out of bilingualism and into English monolingualism as soon as possible. The message is: bilingualism is something that “needs to be fixed.” To make matters worse, these programs segregate minority groups for three years – often into low performing and crowded classrooms, with no English-language model students.

Who would want to join a system that doesn’t value bilingualism as a talent in our increasingly global world? Who would join a profession that sets both the bilingual teacher – and her kin – up for failure? Why not join other work-sectors that want me and show it to me with actions?

Sadly, as long as there isn’t a more effective top-to-bottom and grassroots movement towards the promotion of teaching as a profession, and of bilingualism as a value added, qualified bi-literate individuals will not choose the teaching profession, and Dual Language programs will continue to be what it is today: the privilege of a few, and dream for the rest.

Elena Sada is a dual language, ESOL, and world languages supervisor and Research Assistant at the University of Connecticut.


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