When the state enacted its English-only education law in 2002, the city of Framingham and a few other school districts got special permission to keep teaching students math, science and other core subjects in their native languages.
But finding qualified, bilingual teachers has not been easy.
A job posting for a regular classroom teacher position will attract about 100 applicants, said Genoveffa Grieci, the director of Framingham’s bilingual programs.
But a posting for a regular classroom teacher who can instruct students in Spanish or Portuguese will attract only about five applicants.
“Of these five, they might not all be qualified,” Grieci said. “And they might not have had experience.”
A couple of years ago, it got so hard, Framingham started looking to Spain to find teachers. Currently, six teachers from Spain teach in the district through an arrangement with the Spanish Embassy.
“That also presents a challenge, because it’s a commitment on our part,” Grieci said.
The district has to help these teachers adapt since they often don’t speak Spanish or know anyone in the area. Still, Grieci said it’s worth it since the teachers are well-qualified and fill a big gap in the teaching workforce.
English language learners are the fastest-growing group of students in the state. As the state changes its policy to allow bilingual instruction, schools will likely also struggle to find teachers.
The state doesn’t keep track of how many teachers in the system speak other languages fluently. Looking at the people who take the state’s teacher qualifying test, it’s clear there aren’t many bilingual educators coming into the state's schools. During the 2014-2015 school year, nearly 9,000 people took the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure. Only 160 of those who took the exam were native Spanish speakers; a little over half of them passed.
“The lack of qualified bilingual teachers is a huge problem statewide,” Lesley University education professor Meg Burns said. Burns is also on the board of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education.
“It’s a little bit of a domino effect,” Burns said. When the state essentially banned bilingual education, colleges and universities stopped training people to teach that way.
Boston College tried to rectify this problem three years ago by creating a certificate program to prepare teachers for dual language schools. They use a method where students starting in kindergarten learn half the time in English and half the time in another language. There are about a dozen of these programs around the state.
“They simply had no pipeline to staff their programs,” said Boston College education professor Patrick Proctor. He runs the dual language teaching program at Boston College. In three years, they’ve trained eight students.
"It’s not a large number. And that is in part because a large number of students are coming to us not bilingual. And we need them to be bilingual,” Proctor explained.
Schools should groom bilingual students to become teachers, Proctor and Burns said.
But because most schools in Massachusetts immersed immigrants in English, many immigrant students haven’t had the chance to develop their native language skills.
“You have almost a whole generation of kids who grew up without any access to their native language in schools who could have someday wanted to become teachers,” Burns said. “That’s the loss that I mourn at this moment. They could have been the next generation of bilingual teachers in this state.”
In California, the state overturned a law similar to the one in Massachusetts a year ago.
Schools there have also struggled to find enough bilingual teachers. But the California Association of Bilingual Educators, along with the state, has found 6,000 former bilingual teachers who are now teaching in English-only classrooms. Massachusetts school districts might want to do the same.
Our coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.