Despite a surging number of K-12 students who are English language learners (ELLs), most K-12 educators — including those in areas with large ELL populations — are underprepared to teach students whose primary language is not English, according to research by the U.S. Department of Education. A group of Senate Democrats, however, is working to remedy this widespread problem through a new bill known as the Reaching English Learners Act.
This legislation would create a grant program under Title II of the Higher Education Act — the section that oversees teacher-training initiatives — to help colleges and K-12 schools develop updated curricula for educators who specialize in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL). Such training would focus on helping teachers recognize and meet the social-emotional needs of ELLs, identify those with disabilities, and more actively engage with families and communities in ELL programs.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-NV, and the bill’s co-sponsors — California democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris — introduced the Reaching English Learners Act in September after a similar bill stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year. The Senate version of the bill comes on the heels of an August report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) revealing that only 4 percent of those who completed teacher preparation programs in 2016 majored in TESOL instruction. Conversely, approximately 10 percent of students in the K-12 system are ELLs.
The AACTE suggests that coordinating TESOL certification at the national level, which would allow these instructors to teach in areas where they are most needed without having to apply for state-level certifications, could help alleviate the shortage of TESOL instructors.
A March 2017 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) argues for improving ELL teacher training, rather than simply increasing the number of educators with TESOL certifications. According to NASEM, few instructors are prepared to handle specific issues affecting the ELL student population, including identifying students who have learning disabilities. Authors of the report argue that TESOL teachers also need training on how to address the unique challenges of upper-level ELL students who continue to struggle with language proficiency after several years in U.S. schools. In addition, these instructors must be prepared to meet the social and emotional needs of ELLs, many of whom are refugees, migrants, unaccompanied minors, or undocumented children, says the report.
Once the Reaching English Learners Act is reviewed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, it will be eligible for a Senate-wide vote — though it is unclear how long this process may take. If it passes the Senate, the legislation must be approved by the House before it can be signed into law by the president.
Many in K-12 education regard the passage of the bill as a first step toward educational equity for ELLs. Christopher Powers, executive director of the TESOL International Association, praised the bill in a letter to Masto, stating “The demand for qualified English-language educators is … higher than ever before.”