Rosalinda Barrera, the Listener

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 24, 2011 2 min read
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I’m wondering when Rosalinda B. Barrera, the director of the office of English-language acquisition for the U.S. Department of Education, will move beyond being in a listening mode to a stage in which she articulates new policy recommendations for English-language learners. Some people in the field of ELL education are eager for this to happen since her post didn’t have a political appointee from May 2008 to when she took the helm of the office six months ago, and we didn’t see much action from that office during those two-plus years.

The U.S. Department of Education blog reported this week that Barrera met recently with 25 teacher leaders for a “dialogue” about issues affecting English-language learners at a conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education. She also gave a speech at the conference, but the Education Department reported only on what others told her, not what she told anyone.

The teacher leaders expressed concern, for instance, that tests used in most states are only available in English, and thus don’t measure very well what ELLs know and can do. They advocated for greater use of native-language tests, but the Education Department’s blog post doesn’t say if Barrera concurred.

As part of her plan to hear what people in the ELL field have to say, Barrera is also spearheading “national conversations,” or forums, on ELL policy. One has happened already, and two more are scheduled to take place by mid-April.

I wrote a profile of her back in November, but she didn’t express strong viewpoints on existing policies then. She stressed the importance of preparing teachers to work with ELLs, but didn’t translate that belief into any policy recommendations. Should the reauthorization of the ESEA, for example, require ELL teachers to be “highly qualified” in the same way as teachers of core subjects, such as math and science?

When asked if she would promote bilingual education, her response was that she doesn’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all response” in education. I heard her make that same comment at a forum soon after my November interview with her as well. But does Barrera think the Education Department should fund the development of native-language tests for ELLs, or that the reauthorization of the ESEA should include incentives or requirements for states to create them?

To see if she’s taking the department’s work regarding ELLs in any new directions, I requested a copy of her speech at the NABE meeting. Mostly, the speech reviewed how ELLs fit into already existing programs for all students. She mentioned, for example, that about half of the 49 winners of grants from the Investing in Innovation Fund, or i3, “addressed the competitive priority to implement reforms that will improve outcomes for ELLs.” She also noted that several Promise Neighborhood grantees may yield effective educational approaches for Latinos who are ELLs.

But the “national conversations” are all that’s new focused specifically on ELLs that’s come to my attention since Barrera took the Washington job.

We’ll see whether having that post filled makes a noteworthy difference in the amount of attention Education Department officials are paying to this growing group of students. For Barrera to make a difference for ELLs, she also has to be empowered by the Education Department to do so.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.