Monday, April 21, 2014

Florida and the lack of opportunities for ESOL teachers and students

I recently wrote my last ever paper as a Master’s student on a topic that is very important to me professionally: the state of Florida’s policies towards English language learners in the public K-12 system. I could copy and paste my paper here, but I suspect that most of the people who bother to read my blog don’t come here for academic writing and education jargon. However, since this is a topic that I think is pretty important, I’ve decided to convert my academic paper into a more accessible blog post.

Something like 220 languages are spoken in the state of Florida. There are roughly 270,000 students in Florida’s public K-12 system that are considered English Language Learners (ELLs). That’s roughly 10% of the K-12 population. You would think that this would translate into a lot of available jobs for people like me: experienced, qualified ESL teachers. Sadly, that’s not the case. What is typically seen are ads for content-area teachers holding ‘appropriate ESOL certification.’ There’s little to no demand for ESL teachers in the K-12 system at all, just regular teachers with this ‘appropriate ESOL certification.’ Why is that? What does having ‘appropriate ESOL certification’ actually entail? And is this what is best for Florida’s students?

Prior to 1990, the way ELLs were treated in the public K-12 system varied substantially by district, as there was no state level legislation pertaining to how they should be treated. Some districts had really great programs, including bilingual education, sheltered content instruction (in which subject matter such as Math or Social Studies was taught to ELLs specifically by an ESOL professional), and pull-out programs (in which students were pulled out of mainstream classes during the day for one-on-one tutoring or tutoring among a group of their ELL peers). Other districts had nothing; students were simply tossed into mainstream classes with teachers who had no training in dealing with ELLs. A group of advocates filed a lawsuit against the State of Florida in the late 1980s, arguing that as legal residents of the state, ELLs were entitled to equal access to education, understandable instruction, and intensive English language instruction. They won their suit, and in 1990, the Florida Consent Decree was enacted. The Consent Decree mandated equal access, comprehensible instruction, and language instruction for ELLs, and required that the state’s K-12 teachers actually have some sort of training for working with ELLs. Elementary school teachers, as well as middle school and high school language arts teachers were required to have 300 hours of training for working with ELLs. Middle and high school math, science, and social studies teachers were required to have 60 hours of training, and all other instructors were required to have 18 hours. Sounds great, right? In theory, perhaps, but not so much in actual fact.

One of results of the Consent Decree was that the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) began pushing for mainstreaming of ELLs across the state. While it was left up to each district as to the specifics of how they would comply with the Consent Decree, there was a lot of pressure for districts to work towards mainstreaming of ELLs. (Mainstreaming – sometimes referred to as inclusion – is the practice of putting ELLs in regular classes with native speakers.) The pressure to increase mainstreaming actually led to many quality bilingual, sheltered, and pull-out programs being dismantled and replaced with mainstreaming. After all, if all teachers are now “qualified” to teach ELLs, this should be fine, right?

Well, just how “qualified” are they? Is receiving 300/60/18 hours of instruction in working with ELLs enough? And what kind of instruction is that, anyway? Since 1999, all university teacher training and certification programs in the state of Florida are required to provide their pre-service teachers with their needed hours of ESOL training. However, pretty much all of the universities did this not by adding 300 hours’ worth of required coursework for their students, but instead by creating an ‘ESOL Infused’ program. This means that topics pertaining to education of ELLs would be included in general Education courses; very few of those 300/60/18 hours would be earned in a class that actually focused in its entirety on teaching ELLs.

The university where I’ve just earned my MA in TESOL requires its undergraduate Education majors to take only two courses that are ESOL-specific. I just spent the past two semesters teaching one of those two courses, and let me tell you, my students – junior and senior Education majors – had no clue about teaching ELLs when the semester began. Even at the end of the semester, there are very few of my students whom I would recommend to work with ELLs, and yet most of them are now “qualified” to do so according to state regulations.

While writing my paper, I read a lot of articles, including a lot of published research on the views that teachers and program administrators had of both mainstreaming and of the required ESOL training. The majority of teachers and administrators did not approve of mainstreaming – with the biggest complaint being that mainstream teachers lacked the time and/or the skill to properly modify their lessons for their ELLs. The majority of teachers themselves also complained that they did not feel adequately prepared to work with their ELLs. One article I read referred to the results of the Consent Decree as the “the deprofessionalization of ESL teachers, rather than the specialization of mainstream teachers” – and sadly, that seems to be the case.

Oh, and the FCAT? That standardized test that one must pass in order to graduate from high school in the state of Florida? ELLs are given one year – ONE YEAR – to get their language skills up to par to pass the FCAT. Research in the field of second language acquisition shows that it typically takes 5-7 years to master a second language, yet ELLs are given just one to take a test that is often challenging to native speakers. Seriously?

As a professional teacher of English as a second or foreign language, I found my research into this subject disturbing to say the least. Certainly, at the moment, finding a job is a pressing issue for me. My goal is to teach ESL to adults, although there aren’t that many jobs available. I had (rather naïvely) assumed that if I could not find work with adults, the public school system would remain an option. As it is, while I have applied for several K-12 ESOL positions, none were in Florida. Straight-up ESOL teachers are pretty rare down here. Then I think about the fact that so many people sacrifice so much to come to the United States in order to give their children better opportunities. But are they really getting better opportunities? If they come to Florida, it doesn’t seem that they do.

Cross-posted at International Cat Lady of Mystery.

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