Bilingual-teacher shortage widens language gap in US schools

Houston—When Texas public schools open later this month, teachers and students may find that, increasingly, they speak different languages.

Teacher-pupil communication may also be strained at schools in California, New York, Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and some states in the US Midwest.

The reason: As the Hispanic population grows in the United States, the shortage of Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers in the nation is growing more acute.

In announcing on Aug. 5 new proposed bilingual education regulations for school districts receiving federal funds, Secretary of Education Shirley M. Hufstedler estimated there are more than 3.5 million school-age students in the United States with a primary language other than English. she noted that over 70 percent were of Hispanic origin.

The proposed regulations set forth how schools with federal funding must assess the language needs of their students and ensure that those with deficiencies are taught English and provided language help in keeping up in other academic subjects. The regulations, which are an attempt to codify federal guidelines on bilingual education in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and most recently outlined in a 1974 Supreme Court ruling (Lau v. Nichols), basically require bilingual programs when the number of students needing language help reaches 25 or more in any two combined grade levels at a public school.

But bilingual programs throughout the US are suffering from a shortage of qualified teachers.

“There is tremendous opportunity for employment in this field. While there is a surplus of teachers in the United States, there is a shortage of bilingual instructor,” says Paquita Holland of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, in the US Department of Education.

The shortage may be particularly severe this school year in Texas. Here a recent court ruling forces the public schools to admit children of illegal (“undocumented”) aliens. Other states with large Hispanic populations have long practiced this policy, but it is new for Texas. the state is appealing the court decision, but if that effort fails, the expected rise in Spanish-speaking enrollment will make an already serious shortage of bilingual teachers worse, according to texas education officials.

Regardless of the outcome of the Texas court ruling, public schools in this state are already falling behind in efforts to educate spanish-speaking students. Robert Tipton, a consultant in bilingual education for the Texas Education Agency, says the current need is for 900 to 1,500 more bilingual teachers in the state.

The shortage generally is based on the relatively low number of Hispanics with college teaching degrees. Passt discrimination may be one cause for such a shortage, experts say. But it’s also true that those bilingual teaching credentials often find higher paying jobs in the private sector International business and banks, for example, are aggressively hiring people with bilingual skills.

“Basically, it is a product of the fact that bilingualism has never been encouraged in the United States,” asserts Dr. Victoria Bergin, assistant superintendent for basic curriculum developments at the Houston Independent School District.

Dr. Bergin says that the Houston public schools now employ about 400 bilingual teachers, but have 15 vacancies in bilingual teaching posts it cannot fill.

Houston schools have attempted to encourage more students to enter bilingual education training programs at colleges, by offering tailormade counseling to high school students on how to get scholarships for these programs.

Also, Dr. Bergin says school administrators are now considering offering financial help for teachers and teacher aides to go back to school to gain bilingual skills.

In California, the Legislature established two years ago an interagency task force that has made recommendations on increasing the number of bilingual schoolteachers in the state.

Dr. Gustavo Getner, director of bilingual teacher preparation for the California commission for Teacher Preparation and Licensing, said a major effort is under way to encourage more Spanish-speaking students at the community college level to transfer to four-year bilingual college programs.

“The shortage is just a question of manpower. We have not been training and recruiting enough minorities” into college bilingual programs, Dr. Getner said. He estimates California has only half as many bilingual teachers as it needs.

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