How to get more English learners prepared to enter kindergarten? Illinois wrestles with answer.

With data showing particularly low rates of kindergarten readiness among Illinois’ English language learners, some advocates are zeroing in on a particular problem: They say that too many schools lack the linguistic capacity to measure their incoming students and thus may miss signs of children’s capabilities.

Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, manager of education policy and research at the Latino Policy Forum, highlighted a potential explanation: a lack of bilingual teachers. 

“You might have kids that are expressing something in their home language or in both the home language and English, and it might be difficult for a lot of teachers who don’t speak that language to capture that information,” she said. “I really think [the data] speaks more to our bilingual teacher shortage.”

The state found that only 26% of students statewide met requirements to be considered “on track” to enter kindergarten. For English learners, that proportion dropped to 17%.

In response, the state school board has said it will prioritize improving the assessment of English learners and will work more closely with teachers on training in the next school year. The state uses a tool called the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS), which is an observational assessment where teachers record developmental behaviors in the first 40 days of kindergarten. 

Spokeswoman Jackie Matthews of the Illinois State Board of Education, which administers the tool, said the KIDS assessment offers educators the option to administer an alternative language portion for English learners. Teachers receive training that includes video and audio examples of children demonstrating developmental behaviors in languages other than English.

From sharing with others to recognizing words and numbers, KIDS looks at behaviors in three categories: social and emotional development, language and literacy development, and math. In order to be considered kindergarten ready, students must meet expectations across all three.

Though the assessment focuses on behaviors teachers can observe in languages other than English, Luisiana Melendez, a professor at the Erikson Institute who also sits on the new Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, suggested that the concept of kindergarten readiness in an assessment like KIDS simply cannot address diverse students in early childhood programs. 

“I have an issue with the idea of kindergarten readiness as something that is held within the child,” she said. “I think schools should be ready for kindergarten children…and be more thoughtful in how they try to use the experiences that these children bring from home.” 

Melendez said without the ability to understand  the many languages represented in early childhood classrooms, teachers may miss how students are developing. 

The statewide Preschool for All Initiative, which started in 2006, requires each early childhood program to provide instruction in a child’s home language if it enrolls more than 20 students with the same home language. 

However, bilingual educators are scarce, especially amid the teacher shortage in Illinois. According to a survey from the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, only 57% of bilingual educator positions were filled for the 2017-18 school year in K-12. 

Vonderlack-Navarro said bilingual teachers are essential to addressing the needs of Hispanic children in a kindergarten setting. She also suggested that all early childhood educators receive training to assist English learners.  

Only 15% of Hispanic students met the benchmarks for kindergarten readiness for KIDS — lower than the 17% of English learners, including students from all linguistic backgrounds, considered ready for school. 

Vonderlack-Navarro emphasized that Latino parents need more programs designed for their communities. 

Melendez also said the misconception that Hispanic families aren’t interested in early education comes from a real fear that their children might lose their culture and language. 

To address this concern, Melendez envisions more culturally responsive early childhood education: “Be more aware of why there may be differences, acknowledge the cultural values that Latinx families bring to the game, and work with them to find ways in which the children can learn what is important in school for their school success without necessarily devaluing the cultural values that the family has.”

Advocates said the abysmal rates also reflect a spate of issues, from a shortage of preschool seats statewide, to cultural differences, to communication gaps between instructors and their bilingual students.

Updated: This article was updated to reflect that teachers have the option to administer alternative measures for the language portion of the assessment for English learners.