One of my professors in graduate school remarked that “if you want to understand the future, understand three words: demographics is destiny.” If this statement is true, then New Jersey’s educational future has a storm cloud hanging over it as Hispanic students represent the fastest growing minority population in the state, constitute the majority in some large urban districts, but at the same time their language needs are woefully underserved.
English language learners (ELLs) are students whose native language is not English and who come from an environment where English is not the dominant language spoken. It is difficult to find a school in New Jersey that does not have an ELL population. However, teacher education programs are not preparing future teachers to respond to this rapidly changing demographic, and the great majority of current teachers lack even a basic understanding of how to work with ELLs. In fact, there are some small rural and suburban schools where not a single staff member speaks Spanish and if a Spanish-only speaking parent appears in the office, a Spanish-speaking student is called down and asked to translate.
In addition, assessment questions pertaining to best practices for teaching English language learners — or effective strategies in working with this population — are not a part of the standard Praxis tests for teacher certification; nor do many districts provide professional development in this area. Elementary grade teachers instruct the lion’s share of ELLs, who arrive in the United States with varying levels of language acquisition. Though the overall New Jersey dropout rate has been declining, this finding masks the harsh reality that while Hispanics make up 21.1% of the school-aged population, they account for almost half of all high school dropouts.
When I was a vice principal in a middle school, a teacher proudly told me how she separated the Spanish-speaking students because she didn’t understand Spanish and couldn’t be sure they were staying on task with appropriate conversations. Little did she understand that one of the best strategies that can be used in a classroom of English language learners is peer-to-peer pairing. This teacher’s remark didn’t surprise me. More than 80% of elementary teachers are white females from middle-class families who have very limited experience with culturally diverse learners.
Teaching the teachers
How can teacher develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to foster high achievement among their ELL learners? In working on my dissertation at Stockton University I conducted research with general education teachers in a New Jersey school district where the majority of students are Spanish-speaking. Not a single teacher had taken coursework for teaching ELL students. The teachers who had some level of exposure — exposure, not training — were those who had taught students in high-ELL districts. These teachers reported that they were tossed into classrooms with English language learners and had to figure it out on their own through trial and error how to teach this population, usually with minimal success.
How can current and future teachers develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to foster high achievement among their ELL learners?
All stakeholders — faculty and students in teacher preparation programs, the state Department of Education, the NJEA, current teachers, administrators, and boards of education must commit to address this problem before it turns into a crisis. Unless future teachers select the urban education track in their coursework (and few do), they won’t have had a single class that touches this topic. All teacher candidates should be required to take coursework to prepare them to work with English language learners. Teacher certification exams should contain questions that require candidates to demonstrate knowledge of language acquisition and best teaching practices for ELLs.
But what about current teachers? First, new teacher orientation programs should explicitly address best practices in working with ELLs. Second, teachers currently in the field should be required to attend professional development sessions during the school year that present research-based strategies to meet the unique needs of Hispanic students. Third, professional learning communities consisting of general education teachers, ELL teachers, and bilingual and/or sheltered instruction teachers should be formed and meet monthly. Fourth, specially trained teachers of ELLs should serve as a resource for general education teachers. Finally, school districts need to develop programs that address issues such as cultural understanding, community outreach, parental involvement, summer learning programs, and access to social services, including health care. If this situation is not addressed by the schools, changing demographics will rapidly escalate a problem to a crisis.