Teaching Assistants Key to K-12 Linguistic Diversity, Report Says

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

New America, a think tank and civic enterprise working to renew American prosperity in the Digital Age, has released a policy paper titled “Multilingual Paraprofessionals: An Untapped Resource for Supporting American Pluralism,” that offers insight into diversifying the language skills of American teachers.

Nearly one in four U.S. children speak a non-English language at home, and around one in eight U.S. teachers speak a non-English language at home. These two facts underscore the linguistic diversity not only of the United States itself, but also of the American education sector. At least 75% of these dual-language learners are native-born U.S. citizens. Assuring that they receive a quality-education is critical for the future viability of the United States.

The report highlights research that shows multilingual educational programs perform just as well or even better than their English-only equivalents in academic achievement and English-language acquisition. The best versions of these programs help native-English speakers learn another language while their non-native-English speakers improve their English. The researchers urge greater resources and research into “two-way” dual immersion education.

However, the report makes clear that it is not sufficient simply to switch classrooms over from monolingual education to multilingual education. Teachers and administrators must be trained with the appropriate language pedagogy with which to instruct native and non-native speakers of different languages. Over half of states (and half of major urban districts) report shortages of bilingual and Second Language teachers. Programs need to be implemented to equip educators with the linguistic faculties to meet the demands of a rapidly diversifying education sector.

Many schools already have multilingual educators, but they are not the ones leading instruction. Census data indicates that one in five U.S. “paraprofessionals,” a term for teacher assistants, is multilingual. These paraprofessionals have the linguistic and cultural competencies needed to educate many students, but they are not given the opportunities or resources to lead the classroom. The researchers cite the difficulty paraprofessional face in acquiring teacher licenses. These assistants work with groups of students, but they often do not occupy the leadership role within the classroom.

Furthermore, many paraprofessionals are paid low wages and they have a difficult time obtaining the higher credentials needed for full teacher certification. Others lack the literacy skills for passing state licensure exams and the training in English to handle a full classroom. Ironically, schools bemoan their lack of multilingual educators while overlooking a huge source of untapped potential: teaching assistants. The report argues that these are individuals in whom schools should invest and harness their skills.

The report notes that over the next two years, New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group will undertake research projects dedicated to identifying the policies that are most effective in getting more multilingual paraprofessionals full teacher certification. Currently, data and research in this area are limited but this report is the first step in increasing awareness and pushing for change within the classroom to empower multilingual educators.

For interested readers, the full report is available online.