This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mary Jones (not her real name) has a master’s degree from the University of Maryland in bilingual education and teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), along with K-12 ESOL certification from that state.
She spent a year teaching in Mexico, speaks fluent Spanish, and is certified to teach both ESOL and English in California.
None of that, however, qualifies her to teach ESOL, or any subject, in Philadelphia.
The reason? Pennsylvania does not offer an ESOL certification of its own and does not recognize ESOL certifications from other states.
Instead, it requires teachers with a Pennsylvania certification in another subject to take 12 credits to earn a “program specialist endorsement” in ESOL.
The problem here is twofold: the 12- credit endorsement, one of the nation’s most lax standards for ESOL teachers, doesn’t adequately prepare them, while at the same time the rules reject highly educated, ESOL-certified out-of-staters like Jones.
Before 2004, when the “endorsement” was put into effect, Pennsylvania had no ESOL standards at all. Philadelphia and other districts with English language learners found instructors wherever they could, usually seeking out foreign language teachers or those who spoke more than one language.
In the wake of No Child Left Behind and legal pressure from the Education Law Center, the state tightened some requirements for ESOL teachers who are also responsible for subject matter.
But it’s still not clear whether they are getting the right kind of training.
“Philadelphia has a lot of good ESOL teachers, but I also think that people agree the teacher preparation requirements are inadequate,” said Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center.
Sheila Ballen, communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said that the department is looking into creating a full ESOL certification, but the process could take years.
However, starting in 2011, the state is requiring that all new teachers have at least 90 hours of coursework, equivalent to six credits, in teaching English language learners.
That is a step forward, said School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez.
“Most ESOL students spend 90 percent of their time in regular classrooms with regular teachers,” she said. “We have to make sure that if I’m a math, science, or reading teacher, I know how to teach English language learners.”
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, meanwhile, said she hoped to talk to the state about Pennsylvania’s failure to recognize out-of-state certificates in any subject without mountains of red tape. “It limits our recruitment,” she said.
Ballen said that teachers like Jones with ESOL certification from other states are given “stand-alone certificates” that allow them to teach several ESOL students at a time by pulling them out of regular class. That is what Jones – afraid to use her real name because she is still unsure of her status or job security – does now. After a year of trying, she finally found a job in a Southwest Philadelphia elementary school, hired by a principal impressed by her background.
“It got to the point that I really didn’t think I could teach at all,” recalled Jones, 31, who relocated to Philadelphia to be near a sister. “I was feeling I either had to change fields or move.”