Connecticut has recently experienced rapid growth in the number of English language learners (ELLs). In fact, between 2002 and 2006 the number of ELLs jumped from 20,000 to 30,000 — a staggering 50 percent increase — and numbers haven’t gone back down. Connecticut’s difficulty adjusting to the change shows up in the performance of its ELLs: the state has very low ELL graduation rates and only 1 percent of the state’s ELL 8th graders performed at or above proficient on the 2013 NAEP mathematics assessment. (Note: since this post discusses language learners from 0–18 years old, it uses ELL. For an explanation of our usage of these terms, click here).

One of Connecticut’s central challenges has been recruiting and retaining qualified teachers for its ELL programs. Its bilingual education statute requires school districts to provide ELLs with 30 months of bilingual education instruction — and yet since 2004 Connecticut has reported yearly bilingual education teacher shortages.

Why is there such a shortage of certified bilingual educators? Part of the problem lies in the incredible amount of variation in states’ licensing policies, which creates unnecessary misalignment between many ELL programs and available pools of qualified teachers to fill the programs’ positions. In other words, different state-by-state certification processes and requirements limit teachers’ mobility, and stop the flow of bilingual and other ESL-certified teachers from areas with little demand for them to areas with great need for them.

Fortunately, Connecticut recently set in motion a series of steps to improve the way it serves ELLs. First, in February, speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey created the English Language Acquisition and Educational Equity Work Group — a panel responsible for making recommendations to improve the state’s bilingual education programs. In March, the panel produced a report with several recommendations for improving the outcomes of ELLs, including extending the mandatory length of bilingual instruction from three to five years, allowing bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher certification reciprocity with other states, designing alternative paths for bilingual and ESL teacher certification, and developing partnerships with teacher credentialing organizations to create a bilingual/ESL teacher pipeline. As a consequence of this group’s work, Connecticut passed legislation to address bilingual teacher shortages. The bill does not incorporate all of the Work Group’s recommendations, but does take heed of the report’s main finding: that Connecticut’s system for serving ELLs is “woefully underfunded and understaffed.”

The bill does the following:

  1. Reduces the number of years of experience (from three to two) that an out-of-state teacher needs to qualify for a teacher certificate in Connecticut.
  2. Allows any applicant to a teacher shortage area position to apply for a 90-day temporary teacher certificate. Any person meeting basic teaching requirements — such as obtaining a bachelor’s degree related to the subject area, completing state teaching and subject matter exams, and completing an alternate route to certification program — can apply. Although applicants are required to have experience working with children, this requirement can be waived in special circumstances.
  3. Requires the state to create or join interstate agreements to make it easier for out-of-state bilingual/ESL teachers to get licensed in Connecticut and work in Connecticut schools. Note the prescriptive use of required rather than allows.
  4. Creates a minority teacher recruitment task force charged with researching and developing strategies to improve the recruitment, preparation, and retention of minority teachers. The task force is required to submit a report to the Education Committee with with its findings by February 2016.
  5. Requires teacher preparation and professional development programs to include training in cultural competency.

The law introduces welcome flexibility to out-of-state teacher recruitment policies and to the process of bilingual certification, which should help address Connecticut’s bilingual teacher shortages. The changes, coupled with increases in the state’s budget for bilingual education (from 1.9 million in FY 2015 to 3.2 and 3.9 million in FY 2016 and 2017, respectively), are steps in the right direction toward shaping Connecticut’s bilingual education programs to adequately meet the needs of its ELLs.

However, the law is limited in scope. One limitation is that it does not require or create teacher certification reciprocity, which would allow any certificated teacher in a partner state to also be certified in Connecticut, without having to meet any additional requirements. And some provisions mirror existing initiatives, for example, the requirement that Connecticut create or join interstate agreements — the state is already part of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) Interstate Agreement (NIA). This agreement allows Connecticut to waive certain coursework requirements for teachers already certified in one of the member states.

The bill also failed to incorporate many of the Work Group’s recommendations including key issues around the certification of bilingual educators. Currently, bilingual education is only available as a secondary certification. In other words, teachers in Connecticut must first obtain a teacher certificate and then take additional coursework in order to earn a bilingual certificate. That adds up to additional time and money for teachers who wish to become certified in bilingual education or as TESOL. While the new law does allow teachers to obtain temporary certificates in teacher shortage areas, this is hardly a permanent solution. Connecticut should either streamline its bilingual certification process so that teachers can concurrently become certified teachers and bilingual education instructors; or provide monetary incentives to reduce the cost of meeting the additional certification requirements.

Despite the law’s shortcomings, Dr. William Glass, Deputy Superintendent of Danbury Public Schools in Connecticut, believes it will benefit ELLs. In an email, he acknowledged, “We [Danbury] have been out of state compliance for many years given the shortage of certified ELL teachers,” and that the new legislation will help. However, Glass had hoped for more far-reaching legislation, including changes that would extend the length of bilingual programs from 30 to 50 months, allowing students more time to develop English language proficiency rather than “simply conversational English.”

The Danbury district has already implemented several of its own initiatives to improve its ELL programs. In 2014, the district launched the Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) and Danbury High School Teaching Fellows program — a minority/bilingual teacher pipeline initiative that aims to attract first-generation students to become bilingual education teachers. The partnership works by recruiting minority high school students to teach and tutor ELL students, under the guidance of WCSU education majors.

The program has shown early signs of success, with about 20 bilingual and Hispanic students expressing interest in attending WCSU’s education program and in coming back to Danbury schools as bilingual/ESL teachers. Glass hopes that the program, along with the the new state bill, will help Danbury better serve its ELLs and come into state compliance with its bilingual education requirements. Although in its early stages, Danbury’s partnership with WCSU provides a promising model that addresses one aspect of teacher recruitment — a model that could potentially be replicated across the state.

In sum, there’s much more for Connecticut to do beyond that local effort. The few changes the bill makes are only one step in what should be Connecticut’s path toward reforming its bilingual education programs. Without more comprehensive legislation, Connecticut may falter in its efforts to truly improve the educational outcomes of ELL students.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Isabella Sanchez is an intern with New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. She recently graduated from Stanford University, where she completed a B.A. in Political Science. Isabella is interested in barriers to educational equity for minorities.