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Language gaps plague schools; more teacher training needed

September 26, 2011

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Too many Massachusetts teachers are unprepared to teach students whose native language is other than English. The US Justice Department accurately sees this as a civil rights concern and is demanding that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education do something about it. It should, but the ultimate solution will lie with school systems and teachers making a commitment to training.

State law requires teachers to teach academic content in English at levels students can comprehend. Yet federal investigators estimate that 45,000 teachers in 275 school districts lack the skills to accomplish the task. Meanwhile, the number of so-called English-language learners has jumped to about 67,000, a 50 percent increase over a decade ago. State education commissioner Mitchell Chester said the department hopes to find a solution by the end of the school year, and not just a “compliance exercise’’ to keep federal investigators at bay.

This is an enormous challenge. Classroom teachers require a minimum of 70 hours of specialized training to develop the basic competency needed to serve English-language learners in mainstream classrooms, according to Eileen de los Reyes, who heads the efforts for the Boston schools. And it requires an additional 24 to 30 hours of training, she said, to really get the hang of it. To their credit, many Boston teachers have given up their Saturdays to attend training sessions without pay. But there is no guarantee that other unions will be so far-sighted. And unions reserve the right to bargain over training regimens.

Chester said that any long-term solution would likely require mandating training in English-language learner instruction for those who want a earn or renew a teacher’s license. But that still leaves unanswered the question of how long training will last and who pays for it. The most realistic strategy would be to absorb the training into teachers’ current professional development schedule in cities and towns with the greatest numbers of English-language learners. But there is too little time now - about 30 hours annually - for professional development in teacher contracts.

This problem isn’t going away. Non-native speakers are among the fastest growing student populations in the state. Educators need to become conversant - and quickly - in the best techniques to teach them.