Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Teacher Preparation: Becoming a Bilingual Special Education Teacher

If it seems like bilingual special education is a rare specialty area, the numbers say otherwise. English language learners comprise 9.5% of public school students, according to data from late 2015; the percentage had increased from 8.1% in the 15 years since 2000 ( At the elementary level, the number is significantly higher. In one state, California, the ELL population topped 20%. When one considers the percentage of the general student population that needs some level of additional support, this sub-group is serving a large student population -- or should be. Bilingual education and special education are shortage areas in many places. Having even one of the two credentials is a boon; having both can make a teacher gold.

Unfortunately, delivering an appropriate education to students who fall into both categories is difficult. So is determining who these students are. A student’s language background can cause academic issues that may be hard to distinguish from true learning disability. Cultural issues can also compound the issue. A single teacher won't be responsible for making the determination. Other professionals such as psychologists will be involved. However, misclassification is common. ELLs may, depending on the state, be either over-represented or under-represented in special education.

The foundation for bilingual and special education endorsements is proficiency in a non-English language like Spanish. The individual will need an education that develops specialized teaching competencies.

There are other options for professionals who don’t have non-English fluency. True bilingual education isn’t feasible for all language groups or geographic areas. Just having a foundation in English as a Second Language can be an asset. A special education teacher might choose to seek concurrent ESL endorsement.

The ELL Population

English language learners are found at the highest rates in the elementary school population, in part because many children enter school with limited English proficiency but develop proficiency at a high level over the course of their schooling. In 2015, more than 16% of the kindergarten and first grade population were classified as ELL. By middle school (6th grade), the population fell below 10%. Students may of course immigrate at older ages. The 12th grade population was less than 4%, but that’s still a lot of kids!

The majority of the ELL population – more than 3 in 4 – are Spanish speakers. This group comprises more than 7% of the total public school population. Other individual language groups, by contrast, represent very small portions of the total concentrations. There are, however, pockets of geographic concentration.

Overall, the percentage of ELLs identified as having special needs in 2015 was 14.7%.

Some districts are particularly challenged. Faced with a much-higher-than-average ELL population and a higher-than-average percentage with identified special needs, New York City is recruiting hard. Om a positive note, a New York teacher will find multiple program options.

Serving English Language Learners with Special Needs

A student identified as having special needs may be in a self-contained special education classroom or in a general education classroom with concurrent special education support. Students are educated with their mainstream peers to the extent that their needs can be met in general education settings. High incidence disabilities tend to be ones that are less severe. A special education teacher may have a caseload of students. He or she may “pull out” students or “push in” to the class to provide support.

Schools have different ways of meeting needs of English language learners with special needs. A student may be in a bilingual general education classroom and receive support from an English-speaking special education teacher. Conversely, a student may receive Native language support from an instructional assistant.

Preparation Program Options

Typical coursework will include language acquisition, cultural issues, curricular methods, curricular modification, assessment, foundations of special education and ESL, and fieldwork experience.

A student may pursue an integrated program that is specifically designed to develop competencies in meeting needs of English language learners with special needs or may pursue a program that includes separate courses in each strand. The teacher may pursue the two programs at different stages of his or her career. There are various programs in place to help practicing teachers earn credentials in new teaching areas.

Bilingual special education is considered an emerging discipline ( Integrated preparation is generally the ideal. However, there are a limited number of integrated bilingual special education programs. Realistically, teachers will not all make the decision to pursue this sub-specialty at the onset of their career or even the onset of their graduate education. They may still receive a targeted education. A certified special education teacher might, for example, have the opportunity to pursue an advanced certificate in bilingual special education.

A bilingual special education program may include professional education courses that are taught in Spanish or another target language such as Mandarin.

Pursuing State Certification

There is a state-specific element to the certification process, and a program that qualifies a teacher for an endorsement in a particular state will not necessarily qualify them everywhere. However, reciprocal agreements make the process easier, especially for those who have met all requirements for a full teaching credential in one state.

Teachers will generally pursue the bilingual and special education endorsements separately. All states have special education endorsements; many have bilingual endorsements.

Education for bilingual special education will generally take place at the graduate level. However, it is possible to meet requirements for both endorsements without actually earning a master’s.

A prospective bilingual special education teacher will generally need to meet testing requirements for multiple disciplines. There will likely be a language proficiency assessment. A subject area test will typically be required (for example, elementary education). A state may use any of multiple special education assessments. Many require a pedagogy assessment as well.