Knowing a second language isn’t enough to be a bilingual teacher.
Bilingual teachers need an extra certificate beyond the standard teaching credential. They need to know how children learn a second language. They need to understand cultural differences. And, of course, they need to teach children math, reading and science just like all the other teachers do.
Given all that, it’s no wonder the state has a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers. And until that changes, don’t bother trying to determine if bilingual education works, experts say.
“Without a sufficient number of teachers, there’s no way you can gauge effectively the success of bilingual education,” said Raymund Paredes, vice chancellor for academic development at the University of California, Los Angeles.
California is short 27,000 bilingual teachers, according to a 1997 report from the state Department of Education. That’s almost a fivefold increase since 1985.
Countless studies say teacher training has a big effect on student achievement. Studies done in Georgia, Michigan and Virginia found that students do better in reading and math and are more likely to stay in school when taught by highly trained teachers.
A 1991 study of Texas schools found that a teacher’s experience level has about the same impact on student achievement as social factors such as income level, race and parent education.
“Of the things that are in control of the school, the greatest influence on student achievement is the caliber of the teacher,” said Jon Snyder, a senior research associate at the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future.
The state has an overall teacher shortage, but even more so for bilingual teachers. In the Oxnard School District, for instance, 96 percent of regular classroom teachers have a credential. By contrast, just 36 percent of bilingual teachers are fully certified.
Several factors help explain the shortage.
For starters, the number of students not fluent in English keeps growing — from just over a half-million in 1985 to nearly 1.4 million today.
Class-size reduction has made the problem worse. Under the popular state program launched in 1996, schools get money to put fewer kids in each class — but that means finding more teachers. Of those 27,000 bilingual teachers needed, 6,000 are for smaller classes.
On top of that, bilingual teachers face more challenges, and need more training, than the average classroom teacher.
Bilingual teachers need to help children make the transition from their native language into English. They should be sensitive toward differences in culture — in some Central American cultures, for example, children don’t look adults in the eye when being spoken to because it’s a sign of disrespect.
Bilingual teachers get that extra training by earning a bilingual certificate on top of their standard credential.
The bilingual certificate “is worth its weight in gold,” said Denis O’Leary, a bilingual teacher at Isbell Middle School in Santa Paula.
A new state teacher recruitment center should help tackle the shortage, said Carol Bartell, dean of the school of education at California Lutheran University. Teacher candidates will be able to call a clearinghouse center and find out about university credential programs.
The San Diego Unified School District has attracted more qualified bilingual teachers through an in-house training program, now in its seventh year. Teachers earn their credentials and bilingual certificates in two years while working in the classroom, taking classes through the school district, and learning from other teachers.
The program turns out up to 45 teachers a year, many who stay several years with the district. By contrast, San Diego State University graduates 50 bilingual teachers a year for the entire county.
The Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Office has one of 11 state grants to train bilingual teachers. Through the county, teachers can take classes to help them earn bilingual certificates.
Meanwhile, school districts advertise heavily and attend job fairs up and down the state.
“They’re always out there looking and ready to grab (teachers) whenever they can,” said Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the county education office.