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California is Investing in Bilingual Educators in Asian Languages. What Does This Mean for AAPI Educators and Students?

Increased funding for bilingual training in Asian languages in California could help bolster the pipeline of AAPI teachers entering the profession and ensure AAPI students’ needs are being met.

February 10, 2023
Jess Fregni

Jessica Fregni

Writer-Editor, One Day

Jess Fregni

Jessica Fregni

Writer-Editor, One Day

California typically certifies more than 1,000 bilingual educators each year. But only a tiny fraction of those accreditations are for instruction in Asian languages, even though the state is about 16 percent Asian—the second-largest Asian population in the U.S., after Hawai’i.

In the 2020-21 school year, just 93 bilingual educator accreditations were issued for California instructors of Asian languages like Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Tagalog—some of the most common home languages spoken among K-12 English language learners in the state.  

But this disparity in accreditations could soon change. In July 2022, California allocated $5 million in the 2022-23 state budget to invest in recruiting and training teachers seeking accreditation to teach dual-language immersion programs in an Asian language. Research demonstrates that these programs—which help students to become bilingual through equal amounts of academic instruction in two different languages—can have a positive impact on student outcomes.

Over the next four years, this funding will be dispersed to the California State University Asian Bilingual Teacher Education Program Consortium, which offers bilingual teacher accreditation in Asian languages at 10 CSU campuses. Part of the $5 million provides direct aid to students in the teacher program to help eliminate costly barriers to credentialing that can discourage new teachers from entering the field.

The investment came about after numerous requests for dual-language immersion programs in K-12 schools went unmet due to a lack of qualified educators according to Benjamin Tran, a policy strategist at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, a group that advocated for the $5 million investment. 

“The Los Angeles Unified School District told us that there was a high demand for bilingual dual-language immersion programs,” Tran said. “They actually wanted to start a Tagalog program. They had parents on board, they had students who wanted to join, and they had the funding secured. But they did not have enough teachers to actually get the programs going.”

While this funding specifically focuses on remedying gaps in access to dual-language immersion programs in California, it spotlights another shortage in the education system: the severe lack of AAPI educators, not just in California, but across the nation. 

Although Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the nation—with over 6 percent of the U.S. population identifying as AAPI according to the 2020 Census—only about 2 percent of teachers identify as AAPI. Fewer still are bilingual instructors accredited to instruct dual-language immersion programs in Asian languages.

A number of organizations are working to address the shortage of AAPI educators, including Teach For America. As a result of deliberate recruitment and training efforts, 7 percent of TFA’s teacher corps identifies as AAPI, a number that more closely aligns with the percentage of AAPI students enrolled in K-12 schools (approximately 5 percent). Teach For America’s AAPI Alliances offers events that support AAPI educators, including their presence at SXSW Edu 2023 to speak on imagining Asian education and student advocacy. In addition, through collaborative community partnerships with several AAPI advocacy organizations, TFA’s AAPI Alliances provides other resources and opportunities to build civic engagement among teachers and provide professional development and leadership training for AAPI educators and school leaders.

What will California’s investment in building a pipeline for bilingual teacher accreditation in Asian languages mean for AAPI educators and students there? And could this type of investment gain traction in other parts of the country?

The Benefits of Training More Teachers in Asian Languages

California’s $5 million investment is an attempt to repair a bilingual educator pipeline that had been long-neglected as a result of policy decisions made decades ago.

In 1998, the state passed Proposition 227, which effectively banned dual-language immersion programs in California by requiring English-only methodology for teaching English learner students, according to Tran from Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California.  But in 2016, California overwhelmingly voted to pass a new proposition that reversed the 1998 decision. This paved the way for dual-language immersion programs to return to the state. These programs are highly popular because parents and students alike see the benefits of being a bilingual professional in an increasingly globalized economy. Research also shows that dual-language immersion programs of all types can positively impact students’ academic achievement in both reading and math.

Dual-language immersion programs in Asian languages also bring other benefits to schools and communities, Tran said. These programs can play an essential role in expanding language access in communities by increasing the number of students who graduate from school and enter the workforce fluent in both English and one or more Asian languages. 

“A lot of immigrant children will tell you that we are our parents’ translators. We have to be the ones to help navigate our parents to getting social services and government services,” Tran said. “There are not enough bilingual professionals to really cover these services for the government to hire, because we're not training our population to be bilingual.”

The programs can also combat the dangerous rise in anti-Asian hate and bullying through cultural exposure and exchange, Tran said. “The ultimate vision is not that only Asian students are taking Asian language classes, but that people of other ethnicities and groups are coming to learn as well. The same can be said for dual immersion programs of all languages to help bridge cultural and linguistic barriers."

“I think that what multilingual educators bring beyond just the actual language is that understanding of cultural perspective.”

Alanya Huang

7th Grade Lead Math Teacher, Dallas Independent School District

Greater Tulsa '17

What Multilingual AAPI Educators Bring to the Classroom 

While not all educators who pursue bilingual accreditation in Asian languages identify as Asian Americans, AAPI multilingual educators bring special assets to the classroom that help AAPI and immigrant students and families. 

Jia Lin-Bothe (Charlotte-Piedmont Triad ’18), a director of family empowerment in North Carolina, uses her experience as a multilingual educator to advocate for students and their families and connect them to important community resources. Lin-Bothe says AAPI families may place more faith in an AAPI teacher, someone with common identities or experiences, to provide guidance about how to self-advocate at parent-teacher conferences, Individualized Education Program meetings, and other important educational spaces. “It’s always going to be about that trust,” she added. 

Lin-Bothe grew up in China and immigrated to the United States when she was nine years old. This experience allows her to build connections not just with AAPI families, but families of other identities who share in the immigrant experience. 

During her time as a multilingual educator, Lin-Bothe taught many Latinx students who had recently emigrated from Central America. “For those families and students, knowing my story was just so much more powerful for them,” Lin-Bothe said. “It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, like, that's so cool that my teacher is an immigrant.’ They felt empowered and that was just something great.”

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Alanya Huang (Greater Tulsa ’17), a seventh-grade lead math educator who teaches in the Dallas Independent School District, also draws upon her childhood experiences to build trust and community with her English learner students in a culturally-competent manner. Huang, who grew up in both the U.S. and Thailand, entered the school system in Chicago as an English learner. 

“I think that what multilingual educators bring beyond just the actual language is that understanding of cultural perspective,” Huang said. This awareness allows her to navigate her interactions with her students with heightened sensitivity and respect for the different cultural norms that students—AAPI and non-AAPI alike—bring into the classroom and how those may differ from dominant cultural norms within the U.S.

Alanya Huang draws upon her own prior experiences as an English learner student to build connections with her students and create a culturally-competent classroom. "I hold very high expectations of all my students," Huang said. "I make sure every single student participates."

“For example, in some cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of respect,” Huang explained. “But in other cultures, direct eye contact is seen as antagonizing and a sign of disrespect.” This type of cultural competence and awareness can help combat implicit bias within the classroom. These unconscious biases can contribute to disparities in education including the over-referral of English learners to special education services and the disproportionate discipline of students of color, especially Black boys. 

These educators can also help inspire students to enter the teaching profession. Huang recalls having multiple educators who looked like her during her K-12 education—a rare experience for many AAPI students, but something that Huang values to this day.

“It's great that there are incentives to try to get more multilingual AAPI educators in the classrooms because I think it's so good for students to see themselves in their teachers,” Huang said. “I think that's why I eventually became an educator, because growing up, I was fortunate enough to have so many Asian teachers and even an Asian principal.”

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How Bilingual Training Programs Can Grow the AAPI Educator Pipeline

While it is too early to know how California’s four-year investment will contribute to the number of AAPI bilingual educators in the future, a program in neighboring Washington state can offer a glimpse into how increased investment in Asian-language multilingual teacher training programs can help bolster that pipeline. 

CityU/STARTALK, a partnership between STARTALK and the City University of Seattle that began in 2007, recruits and trains fluent speakers of languages including Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Farsi, and Russian to become accredited multilingual educators.

The national STARTALK program was originally founded in 2006 as part of the National Security Language Initiative to meet the needs of international diplomacy and national defense by increasing the number of teachers who can teach students in critical “non-traditional languages” like Chinese, Korean, Farsi, and Arabic.

Because CityU/STARTALK is an affordable and flexible alternative route to teacher certification, it has helped many non-native English speakers gain certification and begin working as multilingual teachers in Washington, according to the program’s director. “There's hardly a Chinese or Korean program in the state that does not have one of our alumni in it,” said Betty Lau, the director of the CityU/STARTALK program. 

The number of Asian American educators in Washington has grown over the past two decades. In 2000, 2.3 percent of Washington educators identified as Asian American, according to a 2003 study from the University of Washington College of Education. But in the 2020-21 school year, 3 percent of educators identified as Asian American, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Lau credits the CityU/STARTALK program for “contributing significantly” to this small but notable growth in teacher diversity. Since its founding in 2007, Lau says the program has certified 102 multilingual Washington educators—89 of which are Chinese speakers and 11 of which are Korean speakers. But, she adds, “we still have a ways to go.”

“We need to do a better job of disaggregating data on AAPI students. We won't know what the [language] needs are if we aren't breaking down the information about the students by ethnicity.”

Lily Trieu

Executive Director of Asian Texans for Justice & Director of Texas Public Affairs at Teach For America

Investments like California’s “Unlikely” in Other States, But More Can Be Done for AAPI Teachers and Students

Lily Trieu, the executive director of Asian Texans for Justice and the director of Texas Public Affairs at Teach For America, is glad to see that California is investing in developing more bilingual educators specializing in Asian languages. But Trieu warns that it is improbable that we will see an investment of this scale in other states any time soon.

While California, Texas, New York, North Carolina, and Utah have the highest number of dual-language immersion programs in the nation, according to the American Council for International Education, the vast majority of these programs are Spanish/English programs. She points to two unique factors that helped advocates in California gain enough support for this initiative: the high population density of AAPIs in California and the fact that the state has more AAPI elected officials and representatives than any other outside of Hawai’i. “The vast majority of places outside of California don't have this [AAPI] representation,” Trieu said. “Therefore, there are limited resources for organizations and community leaders to effectively advocate for these issues.”

That’s why Trieu believes “a lot has to happen nationally” before districts can begin discussing investments in different Asian language programs for educators. However, there is still much that states and districts can do to support AAPI educators and better serve AAPI students, she added. Some of these efforts can position states and districts for success if they choose to invest in building a pipeline of Asian-language bilingual teachers in the future. 

Data disaggregation—breaking down demographic information into smaller groups of data based on characteristics like gender, income, or racial/ethnic identity—is an essential part of this work, Trieu says. There are more than 48 ethnicities and over 300 spoken languages that exist within the broad umbrella of “Asian American” according to APIA Scholars, a Teach For America community partner. 

There has been a multi-decade push by community advocates to disaggregate data on AAPI students in K-12 public schools in order to better understand community needs and more effectively target resources to AAPI families. In 2017, Teach For America joined more than 250 national, state, and local organizations to call for data disaggregation of AAPI student data on the federal level. To this day, Teach For America remains a member of the All Students Count coalition.

The collective work of data disaggregation advocates has led some states—including California, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, and Massachusetts—to pass legislation in recent years requiring school systems or state agencies to disaggregate AAPI demographic data, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

“We need to do a better job of disaggregating data on AAPI students. We won't know what the needs are if we aren't breaking down the information about the students by ethnicity,” Trieu said. “How do we even go about recruiting the right kind of language-proficient educators if we don't know what languages are in most demand?”

A diverse curriculum that portrays the accurate history of Asian Americans is also vital to supporting AAPI students, Trieu said, as too many AAPI students are “not seeing themselves represented in school textbooks.” 

Research has shown that inclusive and culturally-relevant courses can have positive impacts on test scores, attendance, graduation rates, and other academic outcomes—not just for students of color, but all children exposed to these classes. While several states including Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have made strides in passing legislation to mandate the teaching of Asian American history in K-12 schools in recent years, many more states still do not make a place for the topic in their curricula.

Districts can also support AAPI students and teachers alike by prioritizing recruiting and retaining AAPI educators in their schools to teach all grades and subjects. Ample research demonstrates how having even one educator of color can help improve outcomes for students of color, says Lau from CityU/STARTALK. 

“That has a positive impact on their future, especially in terms of finishing high school and going on to more education. It’s very critical,” Lau added. “They need role models in the classroom.”

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