Federal

Science and Teacher Training Are On ELL Chief’s Agenda

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 12, 2010 6 min read
Rosalinda B. Barrera, the new director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition, plans to use the “bully pulpit” of her office to draw national attention to the need for English-learners to receive high-quality science instruction.
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Rosalinda B. Barrera, the new director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition, has a strong interest in improving science instruction for English-language learners and building the overall capacity of the nation’s teachers to work with such students.

“In this day and age, with the diaspora of English-language learners across the nation, it behooves us to prepare all teachers to work with ELLs,” Ms. Barrera said this week.

In a 45-minute interview, the former dean of the college of education at Texas State University-San Marcos focused on how she aims to increase awareness of the needs of ELLs nationally through new research studies and by ensuring that such students benefit from existing federal initiatives or grant programs. But she stopped short of revealing her position on any proposed policy changes to affect English-learners.

Ms. Barrera “is not one who has been on the regular scene on the national policy level,” but she is well known in the fields of teacher education and bilingualism and biliteracy, said Kris D. Gutiérrez, a professor of literacy and learning sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the president of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.

“I was excited when I learned of the appointment that they were selecting someone who brought in a deep understanding of the language processes and practices of the English-language learners,” added Ms. Gutiérrez, who has known Ms. Barrera professionally and personally for 25 years.

Filling a Void

Ms. Barrera is charged with reinvigorating an office that hasn’t had a permanent political appointee as director since Margarita Pinkos, a former school district administrator from Palm Beach, Fla., resigned in May 2008, during the administration of President George W. Bush. Some observers say Ms. Barrera is inheriting a position that doesn’t have much influence because the oversight and monitoring of funds from Title III, the section of the No Child Left Behind Act authorizing money for English-language-acquisition programs, was moved out of the English-language-acquisition office, or OELA, and into the elementary and secondary education office at the end of the Bush administration.

“It was a mistake,” contended Kathleen Leos, who was a director of OELA under President George W. Bush. “What authority does [Ms. Barrera] have to oversee the policy development and implementation of policies that go with the states’ formula grants? That’s where the power is.”

The National Council of State Title III Directors opposed the administrative restructuring and continues to push for oversight of Title III to be moved back to OELA. For fiscal 2011, Ms. Barrera is overseeing about $56 million of the $800 million Title III funds.

However, Ms. Barrera said the administrative change provides an opportunity to ensure that services for ELLs are better integrated into initiatives directed by other divisions of the Education Department. Her goal, she said, is to make OELA “a hub of knowledge and research and have more of a policy dimension than we have had in the past.”

In the 2½ months that Ms. Barrera has been in her new job, her “prime targets” for integrating the ELL agenda so far have been the Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education and the office of special education and rehabilitative services, she said. She noted that she has a “close relationship” with Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and someone whom experts on English-learners point to in the Education Department as understanding the education needs of such students.

Ms. Barrera also has been working with the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences to shape research on ELLs. For example, she said, a study is getting under way that examines how English-language learners are being identified as having special needs. She said the IES plans to produce a practice guide on how educators can meet the needs of ELLs who have special needs.

Science and ELLs

Ms. Barrera said she will use the “bully pulpit” of her federal job to talk about the need for ELLs to receive high-quality science lessons, an area that several experts on ELLs say merits much more attention on a national level that it’s getting now.

One way she plans to do that, she said, will be to highlight how money from Title III can be used to prepare ELLs for careers in the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She also envisions that OELA’s small discretionary-grant program for professional development can play a larger role in preparing teachers to offer high-quality science instruction to English-learners.

She added that such students can benefit from learning academic language for science in both English and their native language.

“At the elementary level, we have a big task because elementary teachers are prepared as general education teachers,” Ms. Barrera said. “They are not grounded in science and math.”

Part of Ms. Barrera’s legacy at Texas State University was to envision and lead the creation of a partnership between the university and local school districts to improve science instruction for ELLs, according to Sarah W. Nelson, an associate professor in education and community leadership at the university. The project, funded by the Texas Education Agency, began in 2007 as a small pilot effort to prepare bilingual teachers in the San Marcos Independent School District to teach science to ELLs. It has grown to involve teachers in 12 school districts in Texas.

With professional development from the initiative, “teachers were teaching science more, and they felt more confident in teaching science,” said Ms. Nelson. “They felt better about their skills in inquiry-based practices rather than using textbooks.”

Point Out Gaps

Okhee Lee, a science education professor at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Fla., and a prominent researcher on how to improve science education for ELLs, said that Ms. Barrera can best support such students’ access to science by drawing attention to the very wide achievement gap on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between English-learners and non-ELLs in that academic area. She could also play an important role in helping educators understand why science is a “good fit” for ELLs, Ms. Lee said.

“It has such inherent value for students to do hands-on work and inquiry in group settings,” which meshes well with language development, she said.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University and a specialist on ELLs, said that national common-core standards for reading and writing in science give Ms. Barrera an opportunity to draw attention to the overlap of science content and the academic language that English-learners need to do well in school.

Ms. Barrera, 64, was born in Premont, Texas, and is of Mexican-American heritage. Spanish is her native language; she learned English when she went to school, she said. Her schooling was only in English. In the early 1970s, she was a bilingual teacher of 2nd graders for two years in one of the first bilingual schools in Austin, Texas.

When asked if she will promote bilingual education—or native-language support for students while they are learning English—in her new post, Ms. Barrera answered: “I’m a strong advocate of high-quality education for ELLs. There is no one-size-fits-all response for their education.”

During President George W. Bush’s administration, federal officials did not go out of their way to support bilingual education, many experts in the field say.

Ms. Barrera said she views bilingual education as a viable option and “will talk about it.”

Ms. Gutiérrez predicted that Ms. Barrera “is not going to be trapped in the old discourses and battles.” She noted that Ms. Barrera designed a teacher-preparation program at Texas State University that required all participants to become certified to teach either bilingual education or English as a second language.

“I know she will promote the importance of bilingualism and biliteracy for all children, not just for special populations,” said Ms. Gutiérrez.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Science and Teacher Training Top ELL Chief’s Agenda

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