Systemic Racism in Education Robs Our Children of Opportunities

Walter Rhein

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Every state in the union claims to have a shortage of educators qualified to teach foreign language. Local schools announce that they have had positions go unfulfilled for years, and they use the lack of available personnel as an excuse to cut language programs.

Parents take these announcements at face value and the cuts go uncontested. But what if the excuses aren’t true? What if there are plenty of individuals within our country with the knowledge and ability to effectively instruct our children? What if it’s not a lack of qualified personnel that prevents our children from having access to language education but another facet of institutionalized racism?

There are many skilled and knowledgeable educators available

My wife originally hails from Lima, Peru. We moved to the United States in 2009, but prior to our relocation she had worked for twelve years as an educator in a variety of public and private schools. She has a very strong professional reputation, and multiple teaching certifications which she earned in her home country.

Recently, we began the process of acquiring her teaching certification here in the US. After sending her degree in for accreditation, we were informed that she was qualified to teach English as a second language, but not Spanish. The logic behind this decision was that even though all of the coursework that contributed to her degree was conducted in Spanish, she didn’t have any basic introduction to grammar type credits on her transcript.

Language proficiency is easy to evaluate

It makes sense that a candidate should not be awarded a teaching certificate in something like Mathematics unless they can demonstrate they have earned the requisite number of credits. However, language mastery is a fundamentally different discipline which should be held to a different standard of evaluation.

The ability to pass a university course on any subject should be interpreted as the equivalent of demonstrating advanced mastery of the language of the course. If you are taking a history class and you turn in a paper that is rife with grammatical errors, you will not pass the course no matter how well you know the course material.

Sufficient language mastery should be assumed by default when a degree taught in that language is awarded in any field. The fact that there is no mechanism for awarding professionals educated abroad with sufficient credits to teach their native language based on the language of their degree, is patently absurd. A simple test should suffice to demonstrate sufficient course knowledge to teach an introductory language class.

The hypocrisy of universities

As my wife went through the process of enrolling in her licensure program, the university informed her that she would have to take a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to assess her English competence. They informed us that it was irrelevant that my wife was a US citizen who had been working as a professional in the United States for 10 years. She was required to take the test because her degree was in Spanish.

Their argument was that demonstrating a sufficient level of English was a requirement just to enroll in their university. However, even after admitting that she must show an advanced level of English to get into their program, they still wouldn’t admit that having completed a program in Spanish should serve as a professional qualification for her mastery of the language.

Their position of requiring a proof of language proficiency as part of admissions, but failing to recognize it as inherent to an earned degree, was entirely hypocritical. One can only assume that some universities must receive some kind of percentage of the registration fees for these evaluation tests.

The influence of unions

On other forums where I’ve expressed this unfortunate situation, many individuals have replied that various teachers’ unions intentionally place obstacles which prevent certain qualified candidates from landing teaching jobs. This would include preventing native speakers from being awarded teaching positions that might otherwise have gone to Caucasian candidates.

In principle, I agree with the need for unions. Unions protect teachers and ensure proper working conditions. Additionally, it’s important that unions ensure that qualified teachers are not overlooked in favor of under-qualified candidates. However, it becomes problematic when the influence of the union results in the cancellation or omission of educational opportunities for our children.

There is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and unions serve a vital purpose that is fundamental to ensuring our children receive a quality education. However, systemic racism is insidious, and it manages to work its way in to corrupt otherwise beneficial institutions. It’s important to take action and eliminate the misguided efforts of unions, universities, accreditation programs, governing bodies, and any other forces that are effectively sabotaging language programs throughout the country by preventing qualified individuals from filling empty positions.

We have plenty of competent language teachers

The United States remains a melting pot that features a grand diversity of cultures and languages. There is a healthy population of professional, highly educated individuals who are native speakers of shortage area foreign languages.

It’s foolish to obstruct these high quality educators from taking positions which would allow them to provide tremendous benefit to our children. A candidate with a four year degree in a foreign language simply cannot approach the level of proficiency demonstrated by a native speaker. We need to address that our system for awarding foreign language teaching licenses is broken, and is essentially manufacturing a non-existent teacher shortage crisis.

It makes no sense to adhere to a system which leaves positions unfulfilled when quality individuals are available to teach. In the end, the only ones who suffer by permitting systemic racism to override common sense, are the students that are denied yet another valuable opportunity to learn.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI
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