In this 2012 Catalyst photo, 1st-grade students at Lloyd Elementary School practice English by taking turns speaking to each other in small groups and in pairs. Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando


Chicago Public Schools has a long history of failing to comply with state laws governing bilingual education services. A root cause is the equally long shortage of credentialed bilingual teachers. In 1992, more than 100 bilingual teaching slots went unfilled across the city. This left about one-quarter of schools understaffed by at least one teaching position. Although a district official estimated that an additional 1500 CPS teachers spoke languages other than English, most were not certified as bilingual educators and thus didn’t meet state requirements.

At the time, principals were also feeling their way into increased control over their budgets and staffing brought on by the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act. In some cases this helped schools retain good teachers, but in others it brought on a bidding war.

It also opened the way for principals to flout state law, most notably at Trumbull Elementary, where the state suspended the school’s bilingual funds for two years due to misuse of funds, including hiring general education teachers with bilingual funds and gutting its programs in Spanish, Assyrian, Vietnamese and Khmer.

Historically, CPS had recruited from other countries to find teachers who could work with English-language learners in their native languages. Many of those teachers, plus other speakers of targeted languages and teachers who had certification but not bilingual endorsements, were allowed to teach on provisional certificates for up to eight years.

In 1997, when the district tightened up its bilingual education policy, it cut the time frame to reach full credentials down to five years and shifted its priorities toward hiring fully credentialed bilingual teachers. To help provisional teachers earn full credentials, CPS used federal grants to pay for tuition reimbursements and test-prep for the state’s basic skills test.

CPS shortened the amount of time students spent in bilingual classes — from as many as eight or  nine years to three or four. That also eased the teacher shortage somewhat, but not completely. By November 2001, central office said only 60 bilingual positions were vacant across the district.

See “Some schools excel at others’ expense,” Catalyst October 1992 and “CPS proposes crackdown on uncertified teachers,” Catalyst November 2001


In recent years, the bilingual teacher shortage has been most noticeable in preschool. In 2010, Illinois became the first state to require bilingual education for preschoolers in state-funded, district-governed programs. The state set a July 2014 deadline for lead preschool teachers working with English learners to hold an endorsement in English as a second language instruction or in bilingual education.

Although universities stepped up quickly to provide programs, the sheer number of teachers needing to boost credentials proved overwhelming. A year ago, the Illinois State Board of Education agreed to give teachers until July 2016 to meet the requirements. While teachers seeking English as a Second Language endorsement will need to complete their programs by the deadline, teachers working on bilingual endorsements will have six years to finish coursework, due to pre-existing rules. However, bilingual teachers must also pass a language proficiency exam.

See “Bilingual pre-k not yet a reality in all classrooms,” Catalyst April 2011 and “State delays requirement for teachers of preschool English learners,” Catalyst August 2014


For the upcoming school year, the district is trying to make it easier for its schools to qualify for funds for bilingual teachers. Previously, schools needed 45 English-language learners to qualify for a half-time bilingual teacher position; but a new formula taking effect in the new school year will drop that number to 20.

As a part of the bilingual audits recently launched by former interim CEO Jesse Ruiz, compliance officers will make sure principals are aware of all available options for teacher training to get staff the proper credentials to meet state law.

But what’s the long-term solution? Support fully bilingual students to grow up and become teachers. “When we’re talking about a pipeline strengthening the bilingual, bicultural workforce, we need to start in high school, even elementary,” says Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director for the Latino Policy Forum.

Last June, nearly 800 Illinois high school students, including 174 from CPS, graduated with a new credential—the Seal of Biliteracy—certifying their proficiency in both English and another language. “We have a great opportunity there, if we foster children’s home language,” says Pacione-Zayas. “We will have more than enough folks who can step into those roles.”

See “Bilingual services audit tackles long-standing problem,” Catalyst August 2015

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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