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Bruno: Teaching English Learners Is Hard For *Everybody* (Not Just TfA)

6249474726_a3e35028dbOver at his blog Anthony Cody highlights the battle brewing in California over whether "intern" teachers - including most Teach for America teachers - can be certified to teach English learners.

Almost one quarter of California's students are English learners, so losing that certification would seriously impact TfA's ability to staff schools in the state.

The crux of the issue for Cody is that it's doubtful that "Teach for America's five week summer training adequately prepare[s] its interns for the challenges" they will face in the classroom in general and as teachers of English learners in particular.

I agree with him that TfA's preparation regimen is probably inadequate. I've known and worked with some extremely impressive TfA corps members, but they all struggled significantly and had major complaints about their training.

 As is so often the case, however, it's worth asking, "Compared to what?"

Cody makes much of the relative brevity of TfA training, but the existing evidence does not suggest that in general Teach for America teachers are significantly less effective than other teachers. Some studies suggest they may be more effective.

If there is research about the effectiveness of TfA teachers on English learners in particular I'm not aware of it, but I think it's also possible to make too much of additional certification requirements imposed on traditional training programs by the state.

It's true, as Cody points out, that California has for years "required attending a special course" on teaching English learners, but it's an open question whether that coursework is valuable in the field.

Indeed, I earned my EL certification through the aforementioned coursework requirement, but found it to be mostly useless as a new teacher. While ostensibly about teaching English learners effectively, the class was in fact mostly about issues of "social justice"; teaching was discussed only occasionally and English learners as such almost never.

There is undoubtedly variation between credentialing programs, and some may adequately prepare their teachers for the challenges of teaching English learners.

I'm agnostic, however, on whether requiring intern teachers to jump through these particular regulatory hoops will do much to improve their EL instruction. After all, when it comes to teaching English learners traditional certification is often pretty inadequate, too. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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"If there is research about the effectiveness of TfA teachers on English learners in particular I'm not aware of it"

A commenter on Ravitch's blog supplied references, but they're citations, rather than links, so you'd have to track them down. Here they are.

“In a nutshell, when TFA teachers as a group are compared to other teachers in their same schools (who are also less likely to be fully prepared and certified than most teachers), they typically do about the same in reading and sometimes better in math, especially in middle / high school.

“However, when entering TFA teachers are compared to fully certified teachers, they tend to be less effective, especially in their first year (and also often in their second year) and especially in elementary reading. Some studies also find them significantly less effective in elementary math. TFA recruits become equally effective after they are certified but then they are ready to leave.

“Of relevance to the California situation are two studies finding that TFA teachers are less effective than certified novice teachers when teaching Hispanic or Spanish-speaking students.

“Anne Ware, R. Jason LaTurner, Jim Parsons, Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, Marshall Garland, Kristin Klopfenstein, Teacher Preparation Programs and Teach For America Research Study, The University of Texas at Dallas, Education Research Center, January 2011: Study of TFA teachers in Texas: Data on p. 16-17: Although in general, TFA teachers showed relatively strong outcomes for their students in comparison to novice beginning teachers, Hispanic students of TFA teachers had significantly lower gains than students of novice non-TFA teachers in reading / English language arts at the elementary and high school levels, and in math at the elementary level in 2009-10.

· “Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D. J., Gatlin, S. J., & Vasquez-Heilig, J. (2005). Does teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and teacher effectiveness. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(42), 1-51.Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits In Houston were found to be less effective than certified teachers on 6 tests over 7 years, and the negative effects were largest for limited English proficient students who were tested in Spanish.

“Also of relevance to the CA situation are another two studies finding that they are less effective than certified novice teachers when results are looked at on the SAT-10 test (which measures more conceptual understanding). TFA recruits tend to do relatively better on the Texas TAKS (basic skills, high-stakes). Their training is increasingly focused on how to teach for the current high-stakes tests. This is relevant because of the state’s move to the Common Core, which aims at higher level skills, which require greater skill to teach to.”

I took good courses here in Massachusetts through Cambridge College, that meet the states suggestions (nor requirements yet). They used materials from the Center for Applied Linguistics, whose stuff I had also been getting on my own. We met weekends at my own school, with colleagues from various disciplines, watched videos, shared the lessons we developed and piloted, and examined student work.

I'm sorry if you had a weak experience, but we shouldn't throw up our hands at the possibility of good teacher training.

I suspect readers of this blog will belittle this observation, but I have a lot to offer younger teachers from my years of experience. The TFA recruits in my building are eager for help, and should have had the opportunity of a real practicum training period. I have sixteen years experience in this community, committed to using science instruction to advance language skills, and other teachers also have accumulated experience. We would welcome and treasure any student teachers, and they could enjoy an introduction to our ELL students, sheltered from behavior issues, somewhat, by the regard the community has for its teachers.


@Mary - Thanks for the links. I'm not sure the Ware et al methodology is really teasing out the effects of certification on ELs. This study from Mathematica makes a similar (I think crude) effort to isolate effects on ELs and finds TfA's (positive) effects are insensitive to those adjustments:


I'd forgotten about Hammond's 2005 paper. It does try to tease those things out, but notably finds that some forms of alternative certification seem to have a positive effect in some cases on the scores of Spanish-speaking students. (Reasonably but somewhat confusingly they used lots of different categories of certification.)

Regardless I think the evidence is thin enough at this point that it's not clear how much we're accomplishing with traditional EL training.

I'm not sure who you think would "belittle" your observation about experience. One of my main beefs with my own certification class was that (if I recall correctly) the two(!) instructors combined(!) had sufficiently few years of K-12 teaching experience that I could count them on my hands.

As a sort-of side note: Cody says traditional certification in CA currently requires a test to get EL certification. I think that's not the case and that an ed school can get its coursework certified by the state to meet the requirements without students having to take a formal test. (So, for example, I never had to take a test.)

I think it's possible that had their students had to pass such a test, my school would have beefed up its EL instruction coursework considerably.

We just need passionate teachers in our country. It doesn't matter their ethnic background or their native language, we just need teachers that love to teach and help others succeed in life. Some are teachers just for a paycheck and those types of teachers are very easy to point out in schools by students because they are very lazy and not engaging. People focus on too much nonsense.

Beyond the institutional or state-oversight standards for training in ELS (or in any other curriculum feature, for that matter) is this: the standards typically simply require a course or two in the area and in terms of content those courses are held to no standards at all. We can hope that this will change, but there are still plenty of Ed School grads coming into our K-8 schools with very deficient knowledge (or practice) in how to teach reading.

@EB - That has very much been my experience. I appreciate that we want to give ed schools flexibility, but at the same time we need a way to hand variation in quality.

More training should be offered, so should more money with more experience/education. I also feel that these classes should be partially tuition reimbursed by the state. This would encourage better skill set for teachers. Inspire teachers to teach. Encourage them to want to inspire the best from their students no matter the ethnic background.

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