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Maine Grapples With ‘Crisis Level’ Foreign Language Teacher Shortage

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Sachiko Clough teaches Japanese to a classroom of elementary students at Marcia Buker High School in Richmond.

Across Maine, public schools can’t find enough qualified foreign language teachers. Already, schools are cutting programs and pondering lower standards because of the shortage.

In the first of a three-part series, Robbie Feinberg looks at the cause of the problem, and how it’s already affecting education in Maine.

Poland Regional High School has long been looked at as a national model. It was one of the first schools in the country to embrace a proficiency-based approach, requiring every student to reach set standards in order to graduate. A vital part of that education, says RSU 16 Superintendent Tina Meserve, is learning a foreign language.

“We know now we have a global economy, and being able to prepare our students for that global experience is really important,” she says.

But simply wanting a strong foreign language program hasn’t been enough in RSU 16. The issue, Meserve says, is that she can’t find any foreign language teachers. Job openings have gone unanswered, some for more than a year.

This year, after a high school Spanish teacher left during the summer, the district couldn’t find a replacement and was forced to call the families of about 15 students and ask them not to take a foreign language. Meserve says she expects the problem to be temporary, but it leaves her concerned.

“What do we do at that point if we can’t hire teachers? That’s the question out there,” she says. “Do you go with an online program to fill the gap? That’s certainly not the direction we want to go.”

“It really has reached a crisis level at this point,” says Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Abbott says RSU 16 isn’t alone. Forty-four states report not being able to find enough foreign language teachers. Experts say that in Maine, the problem has been exacerbated by the economy, budget cuts and a university system that isn’t producing qualified graduates.

“If there were a glut, or even a decent amount of foreign language teachers coming out of the colleges, then these schools might be able to find qualified teachers,” says Linda Britt, a professor of Spanish at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Britt traces part of the shortage back to 2014, when the University of Southern Maine slashed its foreign language program as part of wider budget cuts. That left the University of Maine in Orono as the only public college in the state offering a teacher certification program for foreign languages.

“And they’re graduating maybe 3-4 students a year, who can go into the classroom and teach, usually either French or Spanish,” she says. “And that’s just not enough to go around.”

In response, Britt says her university is now fast-tracking a proposal to develop more language teachers. And USM Provost Jeannine Uzzi says she hopes to slowly rebuild her university’s program.

However, budget cuts haven’t just affected colleges.

Lisa Dalrymple, chairwoman of the world languages department for RSU 9 in Farmington, says her district used to be a model for foreign language learning, with teachers from elementary to high school. A few weeks ago, she says she found a document from about 7 years ago that listed the number of foreign language teachers in the district.

“We had 12,” she says. “And I now hang it on my wall her to remind myself that this was how robust our program was.”

Today, repeated budget cuts have eroded those 12 teachers down to fewer than five.

Dalrymple says the recession in 2008 hurt Farmington badly. When the district had to decide where to cut, she says, there were job openings in foreign languages because of the shortage of teachers. So it cut there.

“I believe, for example, in this community, if we had the money and the resources, they’d be behind me,” she says. “The question is, would they be behind that program enough that if the money dries up, that they will continue to fund it? We’ve seen it disappear. So I don’t know.”

And schools that do cut foriegn language programs face another looming challenge: the 2012 law mandating that by the class of 2025, every student must meet proficiency in eight content areas, including foreign language, to graduate.

On its website, the Department of Education defines foreign language proficiency at the “intermediate mid” level, as outlined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. To reach intermediate mid, students should be able to converse in a foreign language and ask questions — basically, be able to get dropped into a different country and survive.

Kit Harrison, the world language teacher at the St. George Municipal School in Tenants Harbor, says getting there requires at least 3 or 4 years of daily instruction, if not more. That’s something only a few districts, such as Scarborough and Falmouth, can provide.

“But the other districts in Maine, they have a couple language teachers. They can’t possibly teach every kid in school how to be proficient in a language,” she says. “Part of this is money. We don’t have the money. I mean, it’s mandated. But it’s an unfunded mandate.”

That unfunded mandate has left districts choosing from a number of unsavory options.

In Poland, Meserve says her district is planning to meet the standard by starting foreign language in middle school. But she says the addition of a middle school teacher means that the school can’t afford to offer any other language besides Spanish.

Meanwhile, in Lewiston, Principal Shawn Chabot says he doesn’t really see how his school could really make a student “proficient” with just a few years of a foreign language. He defines proficiency as being achieved after a few years of exposure.

“The word proficient, I look at as more exposure, and passing or meeting what the expectations are of the school and the teacher of that language,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t call it proficient in Chinese, or French, or Latin, for that matter, after two years.”

At RSU 25 in Bucksport, superintendent Jim Boothby says the district faces one question as it determines its standards under the new law: should it force a student to take 3 or 4 years of a foreign language in high school, or lower the standard, require fewer language classes, and allow them to explore other interests?

“My concern is, with the mandate of all eight content areas, is you’re really going to get to a point with just the opposite effect. They’re going to have limited amount of choice,” he says. “Which is really counter to what we’re looking at.”

The Maine Department of Education declined to be interviewed on this issue, but spokesperson Jamie Logan wrote in a statement that the state took the shortage of foreign language teachers “into account,” with the proficiency law. That’s why the requirement doesn’t take effect until the class of 2025.

But ultimately, many teachers worry that the law — which was designed to create educational equity — could actually perpetuate the divide between rural districts and those closer to Portland.

Presque Isle High School French teacher Jonna Boure says that’s disappointing, because her students may need that cultural education the most.

“They need to know that there’s more out there than just Presque Isle,” she says. “They don’t have that exposure. They don’t see people of different backgrounds. If we’re to become a global nation, it’s really unfortunate for those kids in those places.”

Boure says that’s what makes fixing the shortage so important — so that every student in the state can receive the same educational opportunities.