Research indicates that expert teachers are the most important—and the most inequitably distributed—school resource. In the United States, however, schools serving more than 1 million of our highest-need students are staffed by a parade of underprepared and inexperienced teachers who know little about effective instruction, and even less about teaching English-language learners and students with disabilities. Many of these teachers enter the classroom with little training and leave soon after, creating greater instability in their wake. Meanwhile, affluent students receive teachers who are typically better prepared than their predecessors, further widening the achievement gap.
Promoting literacy involves teachers using an effective methodology to accomplish and support student ownership, teachers acting as a facilitator, and teachers stimulating student problem solving skills. The cognitive conditions necessary for accomplishing literacy include 1) retrieving information such as prior learning; 2) presenting the project material; 3) providing learning guidance throughout the material and through student/teacher interactions; 4) engaging students in reading, writing, and discussing; 5) providing feedback through peer/class/teacher discussions; 6) assessing performance; and 7) enhancing retention and transfer through peer/class discussions to apply the project material to life outside the classroom.
The population of ELL students is on the rise and that trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Students from non-English speaking backgrounds represent the fastest growing segment of the student population by a wide margin. From 1991 – 2002, the number of identified ELLs in public schools (K–12) grew 95%, while total enrollment increased by only 12%. In 2002 – 2003, more than 5 million school-age children were identified as ELLs, 10.2% of them being K–12 public school student population. These students speak more than 400 languages combined, but nearly 80% are native Spanish speakers. From various reporting sources, there is constant news about the achievement gap between ELL students and native English speaking students. According to a compilation of reports from 41 state education agencies, only 18.7% of students classified as being limited in English proficiency met state norms for reading in English.
The notion that we can remain a world-class economy while undereducating large portions of our population—in particular, students of color and new immigrants, who are fast becoming a majority in our public schools—is untenable. Mostly because of these underinvestments, the United States continues to rank far behind other industrialized nations in educational achievement: 28th out of 40 nations in mathematics in 2003, for example, right behind Latvia. Meanwhile, leaders of countries like Finland that experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the international rankings have attributed their success to their massive investments in teacher education.
We need to invest in our teachers from whom we expect so much. This will greatly enhance the ability to make the promise of education available to all students.