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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

The Importance of Preparing Teachers to Educate Vulnerable Populations


In the midst of federal budget discussions, the field of education has been targeted with large cuts that affect the stability of the teaching profession. Today, teachers are penalized for neither closing the achievement gap nor preparing students to be able to compete globally. Although teacher requirements and preparation varies across the nation, most states continually fail to adequately prepare teachers to educate Americans, in particular vulnerable populations like English Language Learner (ELL) students. As the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) moves forward, we need to ensure that the needs of ELLs and their teachers take priority. Legislators must add provisions requiring general education teachers to earn specific credentials and participate in professional development to advance both linguistic and academic proficiency for ELL students. The academic success of ELL students is in the best interest of the United States, both economically and in terms of equity in education. If we continue to overlook 25 percent of our student population, neglect their need for a quality education and well-trained teachers, the outcome can only be one of an uneducated and unprepared workforce.

The Civil Rights Movement and War on Poverty of the 1960s provided the political context for passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. This was a period when educational inequity became a national concern. The primary purpose of ESEA was to help schools better serve the “special educational needs of educationally deprived children” (Crawford 2011). Over time and with the reauthorization of this legislation in 2002 (also referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act), the law’s focus expanded to include numerous other objectives, such as ensuring that educators are highly qualified and increasing accountability approach to reward and sanction educators. Under the administration of President George W. Bush (2001), this law was reauthorized. This new version of the legislation expanded the federal role in education and took particular aim at improving the educational realities of disadvantaged students. At the core of the ESEA reauthorization legislation were a number of measures and mandates designed to drive broad gains in student achievement and to hold states and their schools accountable for student progress (Kirst and Wirt 2009, 294-297).

Since last reauthorized, this law revealed significant educational disparities among students of color, low-income students, migrant students, students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs). However, the mandates of this law have not improved the conditions of these students attending public schools. Many components of ESEA present unrealistic expectations. For instance, the expectation that ELL students are to achieve content knowledge before they master the English language is problematic not only for the student but also for the teacher.

High quality and effective education through prepared teachers should be afforded to all students. In October 2011, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) agreed to improvements in the way it teaches English Language Learners after a 19-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The investigation found that 30 percent of students were denied equal educational opportunities by denying ELLs access to core academic classes required to graduate and enroll in college or job training programs. One factor that contributed to this inequity is the large number of unprepared teachers designated to teach ELL students (Department of Education 2011). One of the ways in which the LAUSD case was resolved was to provide professional development to improve the quality of teachers of English Language Learners. However, the nation should not wait until school districts violate the rights of these students in order to provide them with well-qualified instructors and equal education (U.S Department of Education 2011). As the reauthorization of ESEA moves forward, we need to ensure that the needs of ELLs and their teachers take priority and effectively addressed. The academic achievement of this group of students will contribute to the success of the United States economy by providing a fast growing and well-educated labor force.

Moreover it is necessary to highlight the importance of funding within ESEA. Titles II and III of ESEA specifically authorize programs that provide funding and management support for professional development of general education teachers and those who teach ELLs. This article will address the complexities of funding and developing programs for teachers of ELLs as well as address alternatives to improve the training of teachers in this field while simultaneously improving ELLs’ academic achievements.

English Language Learners

English Language Learners, as defined by Title IX of ESEA, are students between the ages of three and twenty-one years old who have difficulty listening, writing, reading or speaking English to the extent that it may be detrimental to their success in society (U.S Department of Education 2008). In spite of common assumptions, most ELLs are not immigrants. Actually, 84 percent of this population is born within the United States; 76 percent of ELLs in elementary school and 54 percent of ELLs in secondary school are native born (Capps et al. 2005). This student population is not only the fastest growing in the U.S. but also one with the highest high school dropout rates at 25 percent and lower academic achievement in comparison to their peers whose dropout rate is 15 percent (Roekal 2008; Maxwell 2011). This jeopardizes a well-educated workforce that must compete globally.

In the past 15 years, ELL students have doubled to 5 million and it is predicted that by 2015 this population will increase to 10 million. More importantly, by 2025, it is projected that one out of every four students in public schools will be an English Language Learner (NCELA 2007). Today, about 12 percent of students in public schools across the nation are ELLs; they are part of federal legislation and therefore great attention should be paid to them when creating comprehensive education policies.

The Education of English Language Learners
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 defines the goal of education for English Language Learners and immigrant students to prepare students to enter and participate in school with knowledge and skills necessary to achieve at the same high academic level as their peers are expected to achieve. Still, there are some circumstances that prevent this from happening. For example, ESEA prohibits ELLs from being removed from core academic classes; as a consequence, general education teachers are responsible for both content and language learning for the students. This prohibition has been in place since 2001 and designates more responsibilities to general education teachers; however, development and training for educators continues to lag behind and thus creating a serious problem for both the educator and the student (Leos et al. 2010).
As the number of ELL students increase, educators will continue to encounter the challenge of providing effective second language instruction and academic content. In the past, the responsibility of ELLs’ learning fell on the shoulders of bilingual teachers. Nevertheless, as ELLs today spend the largest percentage of their schooling in regular classrooms, the responsibility of general education teachers is to be prepared and ready to educate ELLs (Roekel 2008). And the obligation of ESEA is to ensure that professional development and other tools are available to teachers for them to fulfill our expectations.

Federal Funding

Title II
Title II of the ESEA, provides approximately $3 billion annually to support local and state level activities to improve teacher quality and consequently improve student achievement. For the most part, these funds are spent at the district level on professional development and class size reduction. Since 2002, federal funding for professional development has increased; however, research on the effectiveness of these development programs is limited.
A recent review of nine rigorous studies found that adequate professional development for teachers could boost student achievement by 21 percentile points (Chait and Miller 2009). This review also concluded that training lasting fourteen hours or less would not yield positive effects on either the teacher’s development or the achievement of the students. This finding may suggest a different approach in the allocation of Title II funds for professional development programs and monitoring of development courses for content areas as well as English as a second language.

Title III
The creation of Title III in the ESEA reauthorization of 2001 marked a new federal approach to provide high quality instruction that meets the needs of English Language Learners. States are awarded Federal formula grants that take into account the number of immigrant and ELL students in each state. School and division level programs supported with Title III funds must provide research-based instruction designed to help ELL students develop fluency in English and achieve state standards in core academic content areas. Title III also supports high quality professional development for classroom teachers, principals, administrators, and other school or community-based organizational personnel to improve the instruction and assessment of ELLs (U.S. Department of Education 2008).

Preparing Teachers to educate English Language Learners
Although teacher requirements and preparation vary across the nation, most states fail to adequately prepare teachers to educate Americans, in particular vulnerable populations like English Language Learners (ELLs). Current demographic shifts in the U.S. show that it is likely that all teachers, at some point in their careers, will encounter a student who is not fully proficient in English. Many teachers do not have the adequate preparation to provide highly effective instruction to this population of students (Ballantyne et al. 2008).
Rosalinda B. Barrera, former assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the Department of Education, has emphasized the fact that there is a shortage of prepared teachers who can effectively address the needs of ELL students in the classroom (Barrera 2011). Moreover, the data presented in Appendix A shows many states are not focused on teachers of ELLs or their participation in professional development. The chart at Appendix A also supports Ms. Barrera’s statement presenting that only thirty-three states have English language standards and out of these states only three (Arizona, Florida, and New York) require all teachers to show competence in English Language instruction (NCES 2009). Failing to meet the most efficient requirements within standards, will not only affect individual students, but also the competency of our country.

ELLs constitute a significant portion of the school-age population and encounter additional educational challenges from their counterparts. For example, controlling for other factors, these students’ academic performance is far below that of their peers reflecting extremely high dropout rates. Looking at the academic career of this population, teachers prove to be an important factor in improving their academic performance. An increasingly large body of research has established the importance of professional development for student learning as it allows teachers to share their concerns and support one another in finding ways to work effectively with ELL students (Roekel 2010).

Teachers of ELLs are in need of practical, research-based information, teaching strategies and development to evaluate and educate ELLs. In 2005, a survey of California teachers showed teachers’ frustration with the absence or minimal professional development or in-service workshops regarding ELL students (Gándara et al. 2005).

English Language Learners require teachers that are skilled in a variety of instructional, pedagogical and cultural strategies. Recent research on teacher preparation suggest that general education teachers who do not hold a license or certification for bilingual education or English as a Second Language (ESL), are not prepared to meet the needs of these students. This is a challenge, which must be overcome, given that most general education teachers have at least one ELL student in their classroom, but only 29.5 percent of those teachers have been exposed to any kind of training in the field. In addition, as the ELL student population continues to increase across the nation, only twenty states require incoming teachers to receive training for working with ELLs (Ballantyne et al. 2008). It is vital to address the need of professional development for ELLs, as many more educators will encounter the challenge of providing effective second language instruction in their classroom.

According to OELA, teachers and principals are not being trained, and more teachers without an ESL background are now responsible for teaching ELLs. In addition, only one out of five professional development programs offer a full course on English Language Learners and 30 percent or less of all teachers have had any relevant training pertaining to the education of ELLs (Barrera 2011). Clearly, there is a great urgency for development programs.

The Need for Additional Teacher Training for ELLs
Despite ongoing debates about whether teachers make a difference in student learning, many studies show that the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher. The article, Effective Instruction for English Learners in The Future of Children Journal, highlights the quality of instruction as the most significant factor when educating English Language Learners. The obvious conclusion of this finding is that more can be done to improve education by improving the effectiveness of teachers than by any other single factor. Effective teachers appear to be successful with students of all achievement levels. If the teacher is ineffective, students under that teacher’s guidance achieve inadequate progress academically (Calderon et al. 2011).
In addition, the America Education Research Association published a research, which showed that the most important influence on student success is what teachers learn (Holland 2005). Professional development should aim to improve teachers’ knowledge, and it should enhance their understanding of student thinking in the subject matter as well as English acquisition. Aligning substantive training with the classroom curriculum and teachers’ actual work experiences is vital to the success of teachers and their students.

Teachers themselves have expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of resources and the feeling of unpreparedness to teach ELLs. These teachers often find themselves struggling with a lack of pedagogical skills and the absence of professional development to gain linguistic, cultural and instructional knowledge of this group (Gándara et al. 2005). Appendix B illustrates the lack of support for teacher development across states. This chart shows that only thirty-one states require school districts to align professional development with local priorities and goals and only sixteen states require school to actually set time aside for development (NCES 2010). Professional development is essential for the success of teachers working with vulnerable populations as well as all students’ learning. General education teachers must become aware of the areas in which ELLs may encounter challenges and also become exposed to training programs that will give them guidance and support in working with these students.

Effective techniques of Professional Development
Experts in the field of English Language Learners have discovered different approaches that can improve the instruction of teachers when educating ELLs. One successful program includes a cultural component that maximizes the opportunities of ELLs by understanding different cultural backgrounds. The Journal for Teacher Education emphasizes teaching all students to learn about their own culture and appreciate the cultures of others (Geneva 2002). This approach helps develop a good relationship with the teacher and provide the support ELLs need to overcome challenges in the classroom (Geneva 2002).

There exist effective techniques recommended for educating these students. For example, teachers should strive to help their ELLs be comfortable in their classroom to help them learn. Geneva suggests differentiating instruction for English language learners in the classroom. Teachers should make sure the lessons provide comprehensible input for students and link new learning to ELLs’ prior knowledge. Literature in the classroom should reflect multiple ethnic, language and cultural perspectives. Culturally responsive teachers contribute to the success of students in an academic and social environment (Geneva 2002).

New research continues to identify additional techniques for professional development. For example, Professor Hakuta at Stanford University, a long-time expert on ELLs, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are collaborating to create a team that will work with national ELL experts and educators to identify the academic language required in different content areas and develop an open-source platform of resources to help teachers of English-language learners implement the new standards. The team will test samples of curricula with frameworks, lesson plans, teacher professional development and other resources based on federal standards. Subsequently, the team will work with the Council of Great City Schools in [LOCATION] to test them in classrooms (Zehr 2011). Initiatives like this should be supported and studied to identify effective techniques in the classroom and incorporate them into the professional development of teachers.
In addition, senior research scientist and professor at John Hopkins University, Margarita Calderón, made a clear distinction by expressing that effective professional development for teachers who work with language-minority students must be very different from standard professional development. In particular, she noted, professional development needs to be ongoing throughout the school year and for many years. Teachers need preparation that integrates language, literacy, and subject matter knowledge for teaching diverse populations, and staff development that is outcomes based, comprehensive and provides enough time and tools for improvement (McBride 2008).

Some comprehensive models that overhaul how schools address the needs of ELLs have shown to be effective. One model that motivates this change is the Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL), which emphasizes professional development for secondary school general teachers, as well as ELL specialists, to learn how to engage English Language Learners. An evaluation of the first two years of the program in a high school in the Austin Independent School District in Texas concluded it was “moderately effective.” Since then, districts in San Diego and New York City have also implemented it (Zehr 2011).

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has made efforts to change the devastating statistics on ELL students’ achievement by increasing teacher development. OELA initiated the Delta program and allocated grants for 8,000 teachers, totaling about $40 million since 2002. The Delta training program studies the relationship between teacher preparation and the achievement of ELLs in K-12. Recent teacher graduates from Delta determine the effectiveness the professional development program and make improvements in the curriculum and instruction of the program. Interestingly, one observation was that teachers who are bilingual felt more prepared to teach ELLs, and the clinical experience or direct experience with ELLs was looked at as the most helpful and beneficial aspect in being prepared to educate ELLs (Barrera 2011).

The time teachers spend in professional development makes a difference as well, but only when the activities focus on high-quality instruction. High-quality instruction should be culturally appropriate for the students being served and must prepare all students to be part of a competitive workforce. Fourteen hours or less of training will not have any effect on student achievement; therefore, teachers must be exposed to significant training varying from thirty to fifty hours. Extended opportunities to better understand student learning, curriculum and instruction, and subject matter content can boost the performance of both teachers and students (Holland 2005).
After presenting different initiatives and forms of development it can be seen that one of the most important factors in creating highly qualified educators for English Language Learners is research. Research that examines how to better measure the impact of professional development programs, compares models, and offers large scale replication of effective models, are needed (McBride 2008).

Program Recommendations for Practitioners

Schools seeking to provide high quality development for teachers in the field of English Language learners must be aware of what works and what does not work. These professional development programs should include the following:
• Establish high standards for academic content within lesson planning and ELLs’ language acquisition, instruction and testing. This would require general education teachers to be held to the same standards as any bilingual teacher operating in the school.
• Use of effective pedagogy skills and knowledge on ELLs.
• Demonstrate how to implement strategies that simultaneously integrate language and content learning as well as exposure to successful instructional approaches that increases ELLs’ academic achievement.
• Align teachers’ learning opportunities with their real work experiences, using actual curriculum materials and assessments.
• Provide adequate time for professional development and ensure that the extended opportunities to learn to emphasize observing and analyzing students’ understanding of the instruction. The hours of development should be forty to fifty hours of training. Anything less will not yield any positive effects.

A strict evaluation of the professional development system must be put in place. Most states and school districts do not know how much money is spent on professional development for teachers or what the benefit is because they do not systematically evaluate how well the additional training works. An effective evaluation includes an examination of actual classroom practices, the impact of the training on teacher behavior, and its effect on student learning. “Evaluation should be an ongoing process that starts in the earliest stages of program planning and continues beyond the end of the program.” (Holland 2005)

Policy Recommendations for Policy Makers
The federal government has very limited power in setting education policies across the nation. But under ESEA and its guidelines, this power has increased and is currently influencing policy at the state and local levels. Amid all the issues targeting the education of our country, the teaching profession should not be overlooked. Policy makers need to ensure that a reauthorized ESEA does the following:

1) Introduces teacher training requirements that address the unequal distribution of highly qualified teachers across districts. These provisions are necessary so students can be guaranteed an effective education and could be further strengthened for English Language Learners by requiring general education teachers to be properly trained as demonstrated by specific credentials and professional development to advance both language and academic proficiency in ELLs, thus becoming highly qualified (August et al. 2011).

2) Promotes and supports teacher preparation and training by allocating $1 million award per state through competitive grants. We need to fund programs that build the capacity of general education teachers and ESL educators to differentiate instruction and assessment of ELLs as well as teach ELLs the academic language required to successfully access academic content. ELL experts need to be involved at every level of design and implementation to close the achievement gap this specific group currently faces. Their expertise and knowledge of the ELL community and their teachers could serve as a guide and outline of what legislation should focus on in order to have educators teaching vulnerable students like ELLs in an effective and substantive manner.

3) Advises research to determine a baseline for adequate funding of ELL programs and require states to dedicate at least that amount to ELL programs as a condition of receiving ESEA and Title III funds (Crawford, 2011). Educating ELLs it is more costly than educating a non-English Language learner. Therefore we need to make sure that we allocate the right amount of funding to support professional development programs that will yield well-trained teachers to educate these students.

4) Allocates funds of Title II to specific activities at the district-level that will improve the quality of professional development for general education teachers educating ELLs. Since 2002, the funding for professional development has increased. However, monitoring of development programs and their effectiveness have not been measured (Chait and Miller 2009). The reauthorization of ESEA needs to design a system of oversight to observe where the funds are going and how effective these funds are per development program.

5) Ensures that school districts have reliable systems for evaluating the impact of professional development on teachers’ practices and student learning. More attention needs to be paid to the kind of development program that is implemented, and its success should be shown by data driven measures. Database decision-making should promote systematic collection of data to build evidence of effectiveness of the programs. Districts also have to do a better job advancing the requirement of showing teacher competency to ELLs after completing any professional development training.

6) Guarantees resources to selected states to work toward the development of a broad national framework that captures the many dimensions of the academic English, hence, training for teachers. As a consequence, ESEA should also strive to incentivize professional development for teachers with the goal of having at least 70 percent of teachers’ highly qualified–meaning having skills to teach both content and language to ELLs by the year 2020. There must be an ongoing federal support toward programs like the National Professional Development (NPD) program, which is the only federal program that targets training for personnel that serves ELLs. With a funding of $40 million since 2002, the NPD has been able to allocate grants for 8,000 teachers and train 1,700 teachers through in-service and were able to complete the certification for ESL; however, this number should be larger given the growing ELL student population (Barrera 2011).

7) Raises the current appropiations cap under Title III by fifteen percent for teacher preparation. ELL enrollments are expanding throughout the country, especially in several states where school personnel have limited experience and expertise in serving these students. Therefore, under Title III, Congress should lift the cap on appropriations for pre- and in-service preparation of bilingual and ESL teachers and also set aside fifteen percent of Title III funds for the National Professional Development program mentioned before (Crawford 2011).

The federal government has to be committed to improving the education of ELL students by providing assistance in the development of training programs for general education teachers. Funding and spending have been taken into account with these recommendations, which is why policy makers must be aware that professional development needs to be looked at as a long term process instead of just focusing on short term needs of certain education agendas. In addition, there should be less expansion of resources without research-based evidence of quality of training programs.

Investment in professional development is essential for closing the achievement gap among students. Policymakers cannot focus only on the pipeline for new teachers but must also promote development among existing teachers that have been in the field for years. There has to be more emphasis for teachers to attend workshops that will sharpen their skills to better educate ELLs. Funds that are currently allocated in Title II of ESEA could be redistributed in a way that will lead to improvements in ELLs by ensuring that funds are used in efficient ways. Funding for teacher development should align with strategic goals and perhaps channel these funds towards competitive grants that present greater results.

ESEA must support the development of effective teachers in schools and classrooms. This must include expanding the capacity to culturally and academically prepare teachers. Through Title II, the federal government should provide support to states and districts that have a curriculum of professional development (including characteristics previously mentioned) for teachers in order to prepare them to work with ELLs. Educators must be empowered and stimulated to establish positive responses to any challenges that educating an English Language Learner may present to them. Lastly, we need to have the clear understanding that investing in an educational model that will address the needs of ELL students and create professional development programs for teachers requires collaboration, discipline, and coordination throughout the education field and Congress.


1. August, Diane. et al. 2011. Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Letter to Chairman Harkin. The Working Group On ELL Policy. Web. Accessed on December 2, 2011.

2. Ballantyne, Keira G. et al. 2008. Educating English Language Learners: Building Teacher Capacity. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

3. Barrera, Rosalinda. 2011. “Creating a Diverse and High Quality Teaching Workforce for the 21st Century Panel.” Presented at the CHCI Hispanic Heritage Month Public Policy Conference. September 11-13, in Washington DC.

4. Calderon, Margarita. et al. 2011. Effective Instruction for English Learners. The Future of Children 21(1): 103-127.

5. Chait, Robin, and Reagan Miller. 2009. Ineffective Uses of ESEA Title II Funds: Funding doesn’t Improve Student Achievement. Center for American Progress.

6. Capps, Randy. et al. 2005. The New Demography of America’s Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act. Urban Institute: New York.

7. Crawford, James. 2011. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Policy Issues at Stake. DiversitylearningK12.

8. Gándara, Patricia. et al. Listening to Teachers of English Language Learners. A Survey of California Teachers’ Challenges, Experiences, and Professional Development Needs. Santa Cruz, Ca. The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning/UC Linguistic Minority Research Center, 2005.

9. Geneva, Gay. 2000. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

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12. Kirst, Michael W. and Frederick M. Wirt. 2009. The Political Dynamics of American Education. McCutchan Publishing Corporation.

13. Leos, Kathleen, and Lisa Saavedra. 2010. A New Vision to Increase the Academic Achievement for English Language Learners and Immigrant Students. The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development.

14. McBride, Amanda. 2008. Addressing Achievement Gaps: The Language Acquisition and Educational Achievement of English-Language Learners. Educational Testing Services.

15. Roekel, Dennis V. 2008. English Language Learners Face Unique Challenges. National Education Association.

16. ———. 2010. “Professional Development for General Education Teachers of English Language Learners.” National Education Association.

17. U.S. Department of Education. Biennial Report to Congress on the Implementation of Title III State Formula Grant Program, School Years 2004-06, Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students. Washington, DC; 2008.

18. ———. National Center for Education Statistics. Teacher Preparation and Professional Development 2000. By Parsad, Basmat. et al. NCES 2001–088.Washington, D.C: United States Government Printing Office, 2001.

19. ———. “Education Department Announces Resolution of Civil Rights Investigation of Los Angeles Unified School District.” Office of Civil Rights. Accessed November 20, 2011. .

20. Zher, Mary Ann. 2011. “English-language Learners.” Education Week Magazine. Accessed November 22, 2011.

21. ———. 2011. “Gates Joins Stanford ELL Project as Details Emerge.” Education Week Magazine. Accessed November 28, 2011.

22. Maxwell, Lesli A. 2011. “Long-Term ELLs More Likely to Drop Out, Study Finds.” Education Week Magazine. Accessed January 2, 2013.


1. National Center for Education Statistics. 2009. State Education Reforms: State Policies regarding teaching of English Language Learner (ELL) students, by state: 2008-09. Retrieved from

2. National Center for Education Statistics. 2010. State Education Reforms: State Encouragement and support for teacher professional development and incentives for earning National Board Certification, by state: 2009-10. Retrieved from

*The charts main source is listed right below the charts, which is Quality Count Report 2009 for the first one and Quality Count Report 2010 for the second one. These reports are available for subscribers only, which is why I decided to get the charts from the National Center for Education Statistics. Both charts are found here: