Bilingual educators weren’t immune to the COVID-19 burnout that hit teachers this year. For example, last October, Illinois school districts reported 98 vacancies for bilingual educators. In the early childhood setting, that dearth of bilingual teachers could hurt students in the long run.
A 2021 report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Latino Policy Forum argues that policymakers should consider prioritizing English Learners (ELs) for access to pre-K programs, especially those arriving with lower English skills and students with identified disabilities. Any plan to increase access to those services should include recruiting and retaining a bilingual workforce for the early childhood settings, the report adds.
Researchers examined attendance, grades, test scores and English proficiency among 14,058 ELs in pre-K, and 16,651 ELs in kindergarten through third grade in Chicago Public Schools, to determine which factors were associated with stronger outcomes for ELs and how schools can identify ELs who would benefit from additional support. In the 2021-2022 academic year, 330,411 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools with 15,430 in preschool and 21,405 in kindergarten, according to CPS statistics. At least 46.6% of CPS students are Hispanic and 21% are ELs.
“English Learners (ELs) are students from whom much is expected: they are tasked with mastering grade-level content while also learning English, a language in which they are not fully proficient. Mastering academic English— the set of language skills necessary for success in school—is a developmental process that takes at least five to seven years.” — From the research study, “English Learners in Chicago Public Schools: An Exploration of the Influence of Pre-K and Early Grade Years”
The report emphasized the positive effect of attending full-day preschool for ELs, which was associated with stronger attendance, English language development and early literacy. Between 2016 and 2018, 19% of ELs enrolled in CPS pre-K attended a full-day classroom compared to the district average of 34 percent, according to the report. ELs who enrolled in full-day pre-K attended 2.5 more days of school than their peers who enrolled in half-day classes.
Enrolling students in pre-K before age four also supported EL’s English language development and early reading skills. At least 90% of the students who had enrolled before age four scored almost one level higher on an English proficiency test. The study also found that those students were more likely to demonstrate reading proficiency in the beginning of kindergarten.
“We’re trying to open more and more classrooms and more and more seats that are full-day seats,” said Marisa de la Torre, managing director and senior research associate at the UChicago Consortium. “So we really think that this population of students will benefit from a full day pre-K classes.”
The students who attended Chicago Public School pre-K before age four still led their peers in reading proficiency even as far as third grade, according to the report. They also had better attendance, reading and math grades, test scores, and were more likely to demonstrate English proficiency, the report stated.
The 2021 report builds on a 2019 report from the University of Chicago and the Latino Policy Forum, a nonprofit promoting educational outcomes, affordable housing and immigration reform for the Latino community in Chicago and across Illinois. The earlier study examined 18,000 Chicago Public School students who began kindergarten as ELs and tracked their academic development through eighth grade. The study found that students who began kindergarten as ELs progressed to eighth grade on an academic achievement level that was similar or better than their peers who began kindergarten with English proficiency. Almost 80% of Chicago Public School ELs achieved English proficiency by eighth grade, with 76% earning proficiency by fifth grade. The research helped change the narrative about ELs, said Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, director of education at the Latino Policy Forum.
“For so long, English learners have been looked at through a real deficit lens,” she said. “It was always this comparison. But they’re always doing a snapshot of looking at a child at one point in time and how they were doing on a test.”
Those studies didn’t account for students who were still in the process of learning English and exiting EL services, she added.
“So it was a really great kind of shift of narrative, that if we look at the data differently, we actually find these kids can and will do well when they’re given appropriate services and support.”
“No matter where that kid is in the system, they deserve to have these services,” said Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, director of education at the Latino Policy Forum. “They deserve to be identified for support with a common home language screener, and then they deserve this teacher who will know how to serve them.”
Earlier this spring, the Illinois State Board of Education announced a $4 million grant to boost the bilingual teacher pipeline. Using federal covid relief funding, the grant covers the cost of tuition so current teachers can earn a full license to teach ELs.
Today there are 2,220 bilingual educators throughout Illinois who hold a non-renewable five-year provisional license: the Educator License with Stipulations with a Transitional Bilingual Education endorsement (ELS-TBE). But to continue teaching beyond that five-year term, teachers must earn a Professional Educator License (PEL). Teachers with a PEL can also earn a supplementary English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement. The two-year grant allows school districts to pay tuition for both teachers with the five-year license and those who hold the PEL but want to earn the bilingual endorsement as well.
Illinois requires a home language survey, a questionnaire given to parents and guardians that helps schools identify which students will need an English language proficiency assessment to determine their eligibility for EL services. The pre-K assessment can begin as young as age three.
“What’s so important is that the teacher is explicitly prepared on how to build language in both the home language and in English,” said Vonderlack-Navarro.
In Illinois, teachers must be licensed by the State Board of Education and take 18 hours of courses to specialize in building both home language and English language acquisition. As policymakers look at expanding preschool opportunities not just in Illinois, but across the country, they should examine how the workforce is equipped to teach specialized priority populations like ELs, said Erika Méndez, associate director of education for the Latino Policy Forum.
“That has been the nuance that has been unpacked through some of the research as we’ve been disseminating,” Méndez said. “Just having someone with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood who might speak different languages doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to teach building that language.”