Northwest Herald

Guest view: Why Illinois should invest in more bilingual teachers

For years, enrollment in Illinois’ public schools has been on the decline, but the number of English Learners – students in PreK through 12th grade who require additional programming to develop academic English enabling their full participation in school – is on the rise. From 2010 to 2011 to school year 2020-21, the EL population in Illinois has more than doubled, from 156,888 to 245,592 students. These students require qualified bilingual educators to succeed. Without such teachers, vital lessons in math, science and reading fall by the wayside.

Erika Mendez

According to the recent report by Advance Illinois, “The State of Our Educator Pipeline 2023,” the demand for qualified bilingual educators has reached a critical juncture. This report underscores the challenges in Illinois’ educator pipeline and serves as a rallying call for a diverse and highly skilled workforce of educators. Critically, the report points out that in school year 21-22, 12.3% of bilingual educators were not fully licensed to teach compared to 1.0% of all teachers.

In other words, the fastest-growing group of students in the state often do not have equal access to the education afforded to English-proficient students because there simply aren’t enough teachers with the specialized knowledge and skills to effectively teach these students in both their home language and English.

Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro

Research unequivocally shows that when English Learners receive high-quality language instruction in both English and their home language, they are significantly more likely to excel academically. While the bilingual teacher shortage disproportionately affects Spanish-speaking Latino students, it has far-reaching consequences, impacting young students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

While Illinois has made steps to address the bilingual teacher shortage, changing student demographics means Illinois has more work to do. According to the Advance Illinois report, the number of English learners rose to more than 260,000 for the 2022-23 school year. This number is already higher with the growing number of newcomer students in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. The success of these students rests on having a sufficient supply of bilingual educators to meet their needs.

Access to qualified bilingual educators is the most significant in-school factor for English Learner achievement. They believe that students’ home language is an advantage rather than an obstacle to their learning. These educators use theoretical knowledge and specific strategies to support this unique group of students, ensuring they receive quality education.

But where can Illinois districts find quality bilingual teachers? Fortunately, we are not in the dark here; we have evidence-based solutions within our reach. The Latino Policy Forum recently collaborated with the State Board of Education to offer guidance:

  • High School Seal of Biliteracy recipients: By engaging with high school students who have earned recognition for exhibiting college readiness in both English and a foreign language, we can lay the foundation for a bright future. In Illinois, Educators Rising offers a compelling model and curriculum for recruiting high school students into the teaching profession. Those on the path towards the Seal of Biliteracy represent a prime source of potential candidates for this program.
  • Paraprofessionals: School-based classroom staff, with their multifaceted roles, including direct translation, are an invaluable resource. They often mirror the linguistic diversity among students, with one in five paraprofessionals speaking a language other than English at home.
  • Career-Changers: Community members who share the same language as students and possess bachelor’s degrees in non-teaching fields hold the key. This group can be recruited to earn a provisional license, enabling them to start teaching while working toward full teacher licensure.

Illinois has made progress in investing more than $100 million in educator growth, but with the loss of sustained COVID funding and competing budget priorities in Springfield, more resources are required to maintain this momentum. Addressing the bilingual teacher shortage is an investment in our state’s future, preparing English Learners to excel academically and contribute fully to our diverse society. Evidence supports the critical role of well-prepared bilingual educators. Leaving these students behind is not an option.

• Erika Mendez is director of P-12 education policy, and Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, PhD, is vice president of education policy & research for the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago.