The idea of teaching abroad is tempting. For people with both a passion for education and travel, combining the two through an ESL job abroad seems like the ideal solution. But below is an argument for why American teachers may be best utilized in our own country more than anywhere else:
1. If you’re passionate about working with children in poverty, there’s no need to travel outside of the States.
A new report by the Southern Education Foundation found that the majority of American public school students — 51% — qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Overall, one in five US children live in poverty. In 2012, this ranked the United States second to last out of 35 economically developed countries in child poverty rate. Only Romania had a higher child poverty rate than the US.
The United States also has one the highest achievement gaps between high and low income students, as measured by the OECD. The Department of Education has also found that generally, schools with the highest concentration of students in poverty ultimately have lower levels of funding and less qualified teachers.
2. A quarter of American adults read below a fifth grade reading level.
Though our general illiteracy rate (determined by how many people can read a single sentence) is significantly lower than developing countries around the world, when it comes to functional illiteracy — meaning the ability to read basic documents needed for daily tasks — the United States fares terribly.
A study conducted in late April by the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found that a quarter of adults read below a fifth grade reading level. One in seven people (aka over 40 million) scored at “below basic” level in prose literacy, meaning they could hardly get through reading a job offer or a utility bill. Even worse, these numbers haven’t improved in ten years.
Literacy rates matter in terms of economic prosperity and upward mobility, but several studies also show that literacy rates correlates with a tendency towards crime. For example, in the United States, 85% percent of all juveniles who become a part of the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.
3. The United States needs ESL teachers too.
Even disregarding the literacy struggles of average English-speaking Americans, there’s also an influx of non-native English speakers in the U.S. who lack the ESL services they need. Children of immigrants represent a fourth of the country’s total child population, almost double the percentage in 1990. In 2012, an estimated 4.4 million students identified as English language learners, 9% of the total student body. In certain states like California, ELL students constituted over a quarter of the total public student population. The average percentage for all large American cities is 17%.
And yet, there’s a shortage of teachers certified to teach students from these backgrounds. A 2002 NPR report found that in North Carolina there were only 900 ESL for the state’s estimate 53,000 children with limited English proficiency, rounding out to about one teacher for every 58 students. A 2009 report by the Florida Department of Education found that 17% of ESL teachers did not have the necessary ESL certification to teach.
4. The United States lacks teachers who share the same backgrounds with their students.
American teachers in foreign countries bring content knowledge and valuable skillsets, yet they won’t necessarily personally relate to their student’s background. By teaching in the United States, American teachers have a personal connection to their students’ educational experience.
This is particularly needed for students of colors: students of color now make up more than half of the public school student population, yet only 18% of public school teachers identify the same way. In some states, the disparities are greater: In California for example, 73% of students are nonwhite, but only about 29% of teachers are. With certain racial groups the disparities are also greater: for example, in Nevada, the student population is 39% Latino yet only 9% of its teachers identify the same way.
Many educators have argued that teachers of color not only serve as significant role models, but also help marginalized students feel more welcome, safe, and “at home” at school. Teach for America acknowledged this in its diversity statement and also argued, “Teacher alumni who share the racial and/or economic backgrounds of our students can be particularly influential in the long-term push for societal change, because of their rich perspective and credibility.”
Teaching in the United States as it looks today is more than a job; it’s a commitment to social justice. American teachers seeking to use their skills not only for education but also social change have plenty of room in the United States to start.