July/August 2019

Illinois Teacher Shortage and the Effect on English Learners

By Karen Garibay-Mulattieri and Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro

Issues regarding the Illinois teacher shortage are receiving increasing public attention. A long-standing concern within the teacher shortage focuses on bilingual endorsed educators — those that can demonstrate fluency in a language other than English. Longitudinal research contends that support of a child’s home language development over time not only builds English proficiency, but also provides enduring positive effects on their academic achievement. By valuing the skills and content knowledge students possess in their home language, the educational focus moves away from remediating students’ English language skills.

English Learners (ELs) who are placed with bilingual educators and receive supports in their home language are more likely to demonstrate long-term cognitive flexibility, higher high school graduation rates, and increased likelihood of enrolling in post-secondary institutions, according to Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Dual-language immersion programs more specifically, where both the home language and English are nurtured over the long-term, are gaining significant popularity across the country due to their strong academic outcomes and the marketable benefit of being bilingual and biliterate in a diversifying global economy.

As the number of ELs grows throughout the state and multilingualism is increasingly viewed as an asset for Illinois students, addressing the bilingual teacher shortage becomes an imperative. This article provides an overview of the state’s bilingual teacher shortage, changing student demographics, and lessons learned from a district concerning ways to grow a future educator pipeline that is responsive to language and cultural diversity.

Illinois teacher shortage
In 2018, the Illinois State Board of Education published a report, “Teach Illinois, Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms,” which confirmed what school leaders around the state are confronting. The report contends, “While experience, research and intuition tell us that teachers are the cornerstone of successful education, and in turn a thriving economy and healthy civic community,” the number of young people entering the teaching profession is dwindling. Therefore, urban, downstate and rural districts are all struggling to fill openings with qualified licensed teachers. 

A compounding factor is that the teacher workforce does not represent the student population, despite many studies and strategies implemented by Illinois legislators. The Illinois student population is growing increasingly diverse, while the teacher workforce remains largely white and female. The situation becomes critical when we consider the subgroup of ELs, whose success depends on specialized instruction in English and the home language. 

In a response to the bilingual teacher shortage, some school districts have implemented innovative strategies to grow their own bilingual teachers. Some have career training programs in high school, which incentivize young people to enter education. Others have collaborations with universities to allow students to enroll immediately after high school obtain incentives to pursue educational licensure. Many school districts collaborate with universities to offer coursework so their teachers can obtain the ESL/bilingual endorsement. 
In addition, given the vast growth of young ELs in new areas of the state, there are instances when these students spend some time with general education teachers.  Given this situation, it is imperative that all educators build their knowledge and skills regarding how to best support this population. Districts have brought in specialized training in sheltered instruction, otherwise known as Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol (SIOP). This training provides best practices in how to make instruction in English comprehensible through the use of images, role-play, interactive groupings, etc.

Illinois is in great need of
  • Increasing the number of general educators and leaders to get ESL endorsements. These teachers will then have the knowledge and skills to support second language acquisition, although they are not bilingual; and
  • Fostering multiple pathways to boost the number of educators with the bilingual endorsement. These educators can pass a target language test to demonstrate their bilingual skill set. 

Changing demographics and how schools are affected
Within Illinois, one in four children has at least one foreign-born parent and 88 percent of children born to immigrants in the state are U.S. citizens, according to the Census American Community Survey of 2018. According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, between 2005 and 2016 both the African-American and white student populations declined, by 19 and 14 percent respectively. The Latino student population, in turn, grew by 44 percent.

A trend within this shift is the number of linguistic and culturally diverse students who reside throughout the state. One in four Illinois children speaks a language other than English in their home, according to KIDS Count data. Many of these students identify as ELs, now representing close to one in ten students statewide, 12 percent according to the Illinois Report Card.

According to a Teach Illinois Report, 12 percent of all teacher vacancies across the state were in the area of bilingual education. Licensed bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL)-endorsed teachers are needed to serve students speaking 136 different languages. The majority of these ELs are young students in preschool through third grade, and they are increasingly moving to districts outside of Chicago. In 2018, the Latino Policy Forum conducted a survey of EL program directors during a statewide bilingual education conference. Respondents indicated that the grand majority (93 percent) had experienced a bilingual/ESL teacher shortage within the past three years. The shortage was mostly concentrated within bilingual preschool (54 percent) and kindergarten through fifth grade (80 percent). While there is a need for ESL across grade spans, it is much less pronounced than the bilingual shortage. Recruiting bilingual teachers is challenging due to the need for an advanced command of a second language whereby the teacher can actually deliver advanced academic content in a language other than English.

When vacancies occur, respondents indicated the amount of time it typically takes to fill a position. The range of time can be anywhere between 0-3 months (37 percent); 4-6 months (28 percent), one year (13 percent) and more than one year (17 percent). Of those program directors who reported needing more than one year to fill a position, the reason stated was largely due to requirements for fluency in low-incident languages (i.e. other than Spanish). After Spanish (76 percent), the other most commonly spoken languages are Arabic (4 percent), Polish (3 percent), Urdu (2 percent), and Pilipino (1 percent), according to information provided by ISBE. Imagine having open teaching positions for a priority group of students that cannot be filled for over a year. 

Legislative and programmatic solutions
The EL program directors surveyed listed several barriers they felt were impacting potential teacher candidates. These challenges included prerequisites to teacher preparation programs, such as tests of basic skills. A look at various research sources, however, finds that the link between teacher performance on standardized exams with teacher effectiveness in the classroom is not sufficiently substantiated. The directors felt strongly that ISBE should broaden the menu of criterion for admittance into teacher preparation programs to include:
  • ACT and/or SAT scores demonstrating college readiness for those who have not received a bachelor’s degree, 
  • Bachelor’s degree in lieu of testing requirements, or 
  • Portfolio assessment for basic skills.
They also felt the General Assembly should incentivize institutes of higher education to recruit and support linguistically and culturally diverse teacher candidates. In order to enhance the diversity of the teacher workforce and to ensure an adequate pipeline, students must complete degrees in a timely manner. Often the desired candidates face personal challenges that might be overcome by providing the following supports:
  • Offer improved student advisement so that candidates graduate on time.
  • Improve financial aid and scholarships to these teacher candidates.
  • As institutes of higher education struggle with finding faculty with the bilingual/ESL skill set, consider partnering with school districts to find qualified adjunct faculty.
These substantive changes would increase opportunities for more minority candidates to complete four-year college degrees and to diversify the teacher workforce. 

Innovative solutions
Illinois State University (ISU) has partnered with Elgin-based School District U-46 since 2001 as a means to grow more bilingual/ESL endorsed teachers. The district was rapidly expanding its dual-language programs and the demand for licensed bilingual teachers was increasing. With an overarching goal of preparing 100 qualified educators to serve ELs, they began a specialized program in 2012 comprised of five unique strands (see table next page).
Overall, many staff became better prepared to support bilingual students in the dual-language program, which guaranteed continuous specialized language instruction throughout the schools. What can we learn from these efforts?
  • Create district/university partnerships: At the beginning of the relationship it is important for the districts to state their specific needs. In this way the Institute of Higher Education (IHE) can look for ways to structure the programs so that they are mutually beneficial. 
  • Form a steering committee comprised of faculty from the IHE, the director of programs for English Learners, an elementary school principal, and teacher leaders from the school district. This committee should work to foster meaningful engagement as a professional learning community during the project. 
  • Each partner must make a long-term commitment to collaboration that prepares individuals (administrators, teachers, etc.) to serve the EL population. 
  • Identify, recruit, and enroll bilingual paraprofessionals, community leaders, and school volunteers in learning opportunities as a joint effort between the district and the IHE. Partnerships, such as the one shared by ISU and Elgin U-46, provide ways in which to experience success in supporting EL students, the teaching profession, and the programs offered by each partner. 
Often in the challenges schools face there are hidden opportunities to improve the quality of life for many groups of people. By focusing on the recruitment of a diversified teacher workforce, schools increase college completion and career earnings for their people residing in their communities. They also build stronger school environments, which are more flexible and adaptable to meeting students’ needs, thereby ensuring students’ academic success. The original challenge, while somewhat daunting at first, contains within it the promise of a brighter future for all concerned.

Editor's Note
This article is adapted from the upcoming Illinois English Learner Handbook for School Leaders, a comprehensive handbook designed to assist local communities in understanding the unique needs of ELs and how research-based best practice can inform the creation of a local vision that is equitable and supports all students. The handbook is a collaborative effort between the Latino Policy Forum, Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Principals Association, and Illinois Association of School Administrators. The handbook is comprehensive and tailored for two audiences. First, school board members and lawmakers charged with drafting policy and appropriate allocation of resources. At the same time, the handbook offers to administrators and EL directors a detailed overview of how a vision might be implemented, funded, and monitored. The Illinois English Learner Handbook for School Leaders is expected to be published in Fall 2019. 

Karen Garibay-Mulattieri and Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Ph.D., are managers of Education Policy and Research at the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. Resources and references for this article can be accessed at