May 20, 2005

Teachers Not Prepared for English Learners

Most teachers are ill-prepared to meet the needs of the children struggling to learn English in California’s public schools, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis. And as the number of English learners increases, they say, instruction and professional development policies further hinder the effectiveness of teachers.

The researchers found that teachers of English learners face unique challenges and yet receive few tools and little professional development geared to the task.

“We’ve reached a crisis in the preparation for teachers of English learners,” said Patricia Gándara, a professor of education and the study’s principal investigator. “It’s urgent that we do something to change that trend.”

Almost 1.6 million, or 25 percent, of children in California’s public schools are classified as English learners and require special assistance to meet the state’s academic content standards while also learning English. They have not passed an English language proficiency test or met academic standards that fulfill the state’s criteria for English language proficiency.

“Addressing the education needs of this population of students is critical to California’s future not only because of their increasing numbers, but because the majority of these students are not thriving in California schools,” the researchers write.

Through a survey and focus group sessions conducted as part of the research, teachers said they are struggling to communicate with these students and their parents, do not have enough time to teach academic content and language skills, and are frustrated with the wide variety of academic skills and language proficiency among students. In addition, they said they lack appropriate teaching materials —from textbooks accessible for English learners to tests for assessing their academic achievement— and quality professional development programs.

Gándara said policy-makers should take heed. “California has a huge stake in how these students do,” she said. “Most learn to speak English, but the majority of English learners won’t reach a level of achievement that will provide them — or the state — with much of a future.

“Teachers of English learners need quality professional development to help them meet the challenge,” she added.

A leading expert in minority language instruction and Latino education issues, Gándara teamed up with senior researchers Julie Maxwell-Jolly and Anne Driscoll of the UC Davis School of Education to do the study.

Their report, “Listening to Teachers of English Language Learners,” is the result of a collaboration between Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, and the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

The study is based on a 2004 survey with responses from about 4,500 classroom teachers in 22 school districts and information from four focus group sessions in different areas of the state.

Professional development lacking

Teachers with credentials for bilingual education or culture and language instruction rated their abilities more highly than did those without special certification. But teachers with any professional development that focused on teaching English learners rated themselves more able to teach these students than peers with no such training.

Unfortunately, Maxwell-Jolly said, the majority of teachers who have English learners receive very little professional development on how to teach them. “Teachers feel at sea about that,” she said.

About 43 percent of teachers with 50 percent or more English learners had received no more than one in-service training session on the instruction of English learners over the last five years. Teachers with 25 percent to 50 percent English learners had only one such session or none at all. And only half of new teachers, required, as part of their induction, to participate in some in-service training focused on English learners, had done so.

About the minimal professional development that is offered, teachers cited four problems most frequently: presenters with only limited knowledge and experience with English learners, a lack of new information, content that is not applicable or appropriate for teaching English learners, and sessions either not practical for the classroom or lacking guidance for implementation.


Among its recommendations, the report calls for policy-makers to place a higher priority on professional development for teaching English learners.

The researchers say that mandatory inductions for new teachers and professional development should have a more explicit focus on English learner education, especially in schools with large numbers of English learners.

“We need to develop policies to strengthen training and professional development for teachers of English learners that take into account differing levels of expertise and experience,” Maxwell-Jolly said.

The report is available on the center’s Web site at

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