Dr. Joanne Urrutia
Dr. Joanne H. Urrutia previously served as the Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Urrutia discusses her schooling in Puerto Rico, OELA's National Conversations initiative, the implementation of college- and career-ready standards for ELLs, and some of the accomplishments she is proudest of from her 35 years as an educator in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
A transcript of the interview and her biography are available below. This interview is also available on Colorín Colorado's YouTube channel.
Part I: Early Experiences
My school experiences in Puerto Rico were very, very positive. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and did my undergraduate work at the University of Puerto Rico. So, I spent the first 20-some years living in Puerto Rico. I come from a middle class family where both of my parents worked. And I have very good memories of my experiences in school.
I went to an all-girl's Catholic school run by very strict Spanish nuns. But the group of girls that attended, because it was a Catholic school, had a very mixed group from lower social community class to rich people to middle class. So, it was a very positive experience. My memory is that I grew in an environment where my language and my culture were very much respected.
But I also remember from forever being in a bilingual environment because in Puerto Rico we all learn English, although it's minimal. You know, you take an hour of English every day. But beyond that, our classes would be in Spanish. You know, our conversations, our discussions would be in Spanish. But many of the textbooks were in English. Like the science textbooks or, or the U.S. history textbooks or whatever. So, I grew up in an environment in which, you know, I was reading and writing in both languages from the beginning.
My favorite teacher was a nun who was Puerto Rican and she was my math teacher and my music teacher and I think that's why I really liked her. She was very in tune with the culture of Puerto Rico, so we did a lot of fun things. You know, she was a very bright woman and that attracted me. So, that was my favorite teacher growing up in Puerto Rico.
What I remember about reading when I was a young girl was not so much reading stories or novels, I remember the encyclopedia. I remember all these 20 volumes and going in and looking at the pictures and then trying to figure out what they were saying. That was my reading experience.
English as an adult
I can empathize with English language learners because I came to the United States as an adult. I was already married and I came to work while my husband went to graduate school. So, I had a lot of difficulties with the language and it's something that you learn. I think of it as always improving your language and always learning. So, that's what I guess got me so interested in this field of English learners and bilingual education.
Part II: OELA
Working in Miami Dade County
I've been in the (U.S.) Department of Education for nearly a year, it's going to be now in February, one year. I came from Miami Dade County. I retired after 35 years of working in Miami Dade County public schools. The last 15 or so I was working in the Department of Bilingual Education and World Languages. And the last nine, I was the director of the department. So that's the experience that I bring to the Department.
Sometimes the people that are in charge of making policy, with the best intentions in mind, don't understand the unintended consequences of the policy and I feel very strongly that you need to have the people that have the experience from the school base, and having spent the last 35 years of my life working in Miami Dade County Public Schools, I really had seen how policy, and how it's interpreted, can have a very positive or maybe not so positive consequence.
So, the combination of having Dr. Barrera, being a higher education person, and bringing me in with my K-12 experience really attracted me, because we make a really good team and you have the whole gamete of experiences and knowledge and I am really very, very happy that I'm able to educate and influence and put my two cents in terms of how policy is decided.
The most fascinating thing about the time that we are living now in the Department is that we are at a juncture in which the Secretary is really pushing a reform agenda and we've had 10 years of No Child Left Behind, which the consensus is that it has done a lot of good for English learners. It put the spotlight on the groups that were not performing and that's been a very, very positive thing.
But now we have to move to the next step and what's happening right now is that there's a lot of reform initiatives and what we are doing in OELA is making sure that the English learners are part of the reform from the beginning, not as an afterthought. So, I spent a lot of time working with other offices, for instance with the rest of the top office with the Office of Innovation and Improvement, with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, with the Office of Special Education, so we are like spreading our figures into these other areas and being welcomed so that when they are making decisions they take into account, okay, how, how does this population fit into what we're trying to do here. In particular we have very, very focused attention, we're putting focused attention in several areas.
One area is early learning. Starting earlier is very important for all children and English learners are no different. So, the department is putting a lot more attention to that and that is a critical area for English learners to make sure that they, they start on the right foot and that they're included in that initiative. So, we're doing several activities in that area.
We're also looking at the area of special education. And we have already done some collaborative work in that area, bringing practitioners and researchers, but it's an area that needs a lot more attention because it's very difficult for the classroom teacher to make judgments as to whether the difficulties that a child is having either with language development or with learning difficulties. So, it's an area that needs a lot of attention.
The other area that we're also very interested in is in the area of STEM. But in particular with the data that the office of Civil Rights is collecting, we're really very interested in looking at access to high level courses and completion of high level courses. We want to see if the reason why English learners are not performing in this area is because, of lack of access to certain courses or in some schools. So, we're collaborating with the Office of Civil Rights also taking a closer look at them. So, those are some of the things that are keeping me busy.
Bringing ELLs into the conversation
When we're working with other offices within the Department, it is very interesting to have conversations and understand the basic assumptions that people have about English learners. So, it is a combination of pointing out certain specific areas that people might not have thought about before. For example, you know, they think of the ELL sub-group, that is static and it's not. It's a group that every year gets replenished with new English learners. So the people that don't know, don't work in this field don't really, it's not in their consciousness, you know.
Another area that is also very interesting is they think of the ELL sub-group as a very homogenous group. And we know that it's a very heterogeneous group and that ELs at the elementary level may have different needs than ELs at the high school level. The children that come highly educated in the native language have different needs then children that have a very limited education. So, these are the kinds of things that we're trying to bring to the awareness of the other departments and make sure that they understand. So, it is educating them, because they're not experts in this field.
And then also being part of the conversation allows us to, you know, make recommendations and, you know, be part of the process of thinking through the policies, so, and it's both. And I am learning a lot too from all of these other initiatives. It's a very, very enlightening experience to work within the Department of Education. I have learned a lot.
OELA's National Conversations
One of the first things that I got involved when I joined OELA last year was the National Conversations. We felt that is was very important that we reached out to the field and listened to them to make sure that we capture the, their input in any of our own initiatives or in any policy decisions that the department might be working on. So, we had six National conversations.
We went to six different cities all over the United States and we opened those conversations to anybody that wanted to come. It could be a teacher, parent, students, district administrator, state administrators, advocacy groups, so it was a very dynamic conversation and we went with no agenda. There was no agenda. We did not make a presentation, we did not guide them in any way. We spent a day and half listening and after the sixth conversation it, we distilled the major concerns and topics and there was a consensus that there's a lot of work needed in terms of standards and assessments, in terms of teacher preparation, in terms of access to the college and career ready standards. Special education was an issue that also came up. So, we gathered all this and we provided folks with an opportunity to tell us where we should direct some of our energy and some of our research dollars also. So it was a very, very good experience.
ELL assessment validity
One of the things that was a common topic in the National Conversations was the issue of assessment and accountability, in terms of assessments, the issue of validity of using a test in English to measure the knowledge of students that don't speak English. The issue of the accommodations with assessments, whether they're valid accommodations or not, that was pretty constant through all the six conversations that we had.
So, it's an area that has been addressed in the sense that the Department issued two Race to the Top competitive grants to development the next generation of assessments. And they are required to address the validity of using that new test with English language learners.
And as a matter of fact we had a whole day of technical assistance that brought experts in the field of English language development to the Consortia to address how to go about doing that. They are required to include English learners in their pilot testing, in the design of their items and, so it's a big, big task for them and we're all anxiously waiting to see if that is accomplished.
In addition to that, the Department recently issued another competitive, awarded another competitive grant to develop the next generation of English language proficiency assessments. So, that's how the Department is supporting this. They're putting funding out there for people in the field to see how they can improve in this area. So that's something that we're trying to address the concern about validity of assessments.
The issue of accountability is very controversial and we don't have a real consensus, agreement on whether English learners should be included or shouldn't they wait until three years before they're tested. Or, you know, people have different opinions about that. So, the experiment that we are now going through is the flexibility package. So, okay, one size doesn't fit all. So, let's see if we have out in the field some ideas of how to improve the accountability, making sure that it is a meaningful accountability and that it does not mask the performance of the sub-groups.
So, we are waiting to see what the next possible system of accountability is. And I think everybody is sort of struggling in that area. How do you balance holding everybody accountable without putting all of these expectations that are not viable expectations for certain subgroups, students with disabilities and English learners.
So, again it's a very exciting time because everybody is now saying, "Okay, let's, let's put our heads together, let's see how we can best do this." And, and we are not saying, "Oh, we have the answer." Let's see if some of the states have better answers.
Another topic that was very important and, and kept coming on and on and on in the National Conversations is the issue of professional development for teachers and administrators. The English language learner population is growing and continues to grow.
So the times when the ESL specialist was the only person that had the responsibility for these children has come and gone. More and more states are receiving immigrant students and rural areas, in addition to the urban areas, are receiving these students. So, teachers don't feel equipped to deal with these students, to their linguistic needs. So, over and over in the conversations, the point was made that there has to be additional professional development, but not only for the specialist, more importantly for the general ed teachers, the elementary ed teacher, that fourth grade teacher that might have, you know, 5 or 10 kids in her class that are English learners, for the content teachers in high school, and also for the principals to provide them with better practices on how to address the needs of these students.
So, it's everybody's responsibility. If you think about it, most kids spend in school, six, seven hours a day and in the past they might spend one maybe two hours with a language development specialist or a bilingual teacher. The rest of the day they're in general Ed classes. So, it's everybody's responsibility to work on the language development and on the content acquisition also.
So, how do we do that? How do we do that simultaneously? So, that's where professional development comes in. And professional development that is sustained, that is based on research and theory but also that has a mentoring and co-teaching model so that people learn the skills and how to do that. And it's very interesting because the nations that are doing well, in terms of the International assessment, PISA, the number one, Finland, they have spent a lot of money on teachers, on upgrading the prestige of the profession, on being more selective about the candidates that go into that profession and they seem to attribute a lot of their progress on that component, so professional development is key.
Getting involved with policy
Teachers that want to be more involved in the field of English learners or in any other education field, the first place to start is with your local professional organization and then go to the state and then national. You get involved and that's how you hear about policy decisions that are coming down the pipe, about issues in the legislature, you know, the papers don't always cover the issues that are of interest to you as a teacher but if you belong to a professional organization and you go to the meetings, get their newsletters or blogs or whatever, that's how you start getting involved and, and getting access to information.
Because many times teachers find out about a policy two years after the policy has been passed and now they're implementing it. There's a funny thing about policy. If you remember when you were a child, and you played that game, I think it was called "Telephone", and you would sit in a circle and you would tell your friend something and your friend would tell the other one and the other one and tell the other one and by the time the message came back to you, it was totally different.
Well, a similar thing happens with policy. The United States is such a large country and so you, you have Federal government setting policy with the best of intentions. Then the state agencies interprets that policy to the best of their intentions and then the district administration interprets it and then the principle of the school interprets it and then you hear about it.
So sometimes the message gets confused when it goes all the way to the teacher into the classroom. And it's important that as professionals, teachers be informed. Be informed as to what exactly the law says, whether it's a state law or a Federal law. And be able to make judgment as to whether it's being interpreting correctly or not. And that's where professional organizations come in. They usually have workshops, sessions, you know, a lot of newsletters that help you learn and get involved at that level. So, I highly recommend that.
Part III: New Standards
College- and career-ready standards
In terms of the college- and career-ready standards, the Department of Education cannot dictate curriculum. So, that is an initiative that the states have embraced and pushed forward. The Department of Education, it's only encouraging folks to join in that effort and by, and what I mean by encouraging is by putting incentives in different grants that pushes all the states to increase the rigor of the curriculum and the standards for math, science, language arts and so on.
In terms of the implications for English learners, one of the things that needs to happen is that in the current law it specifies that if you change your English language arts standards, then you have to look at your language proficiency standards and upgrade those also. So, if states are adopting college- and career-ready standards, which they are in the process of doing now, that will have an impact on language proficiency standards.
But that's what the states do, that's not what the Department does. The Department can provide resources in the area of research and ask experts to take a look at language proficiency standards and assist in determining, "Look, what are the skills that are needed so that English learners are ready and are able to access this rigorous academic content that is part of the college and career standards?" So, it has an effect and it's going to be a great challenge for all the states and the districts to move towards that direction, and the Department is happy to see that movement but the Department is not leading it.
Implementing new ELA standards
One of the important things about college- and career-ready standards…first of all the concept is when a student graduates high school they should be ready for either going into a career or going to college. And right now we have many students receiving a high school high school diploma and they are not ready. So, when they go to college, they have to take a lot of remedial courses and pay for them.
Or when they go looking for a job, the skills that they need are not quite to par as to what the employer expects. So, that's the concept behind college and career readiness. So, elevating the rigor and the standards, it's a great thing and I think it's, it's something that all students need to achieve.
The implication for English learners then becomes, how do we give access to a rigorous academic content to students that are learning English? For many years, we educators have been trying to support as much as we can these students, and we might have been guilty in the past of sort of saying, "They can't do it, they, they don't speak English, how can we expect them to do certain things?" So, first of all, it's important that we give English learners access and we provide instruction on grade level, whether they can speak English or not. At the elementary level, it's a little bit easier, at the high school level it's very difficult. But we most provide access to grade-level instruction.
New standards in Miami
Let me tell you a little bit of what happened in Miami, five or six years ago or eight years ago, I can't remember. In Miami, we were told by the state that we needed to provide access to grade-level instruction. So, the leadership at the time decided, "Okay, all of these books that we have been using for English language development are not really on grade level. So, we are doing a disservice to these children, so we're going to throw them all away and we're going to use the regular BASAL in the elementary school with all children."
Of course, everybody had a panic attack and it was a very hard thing to do. Very, very hard. For the teachers, for the support staff, for my department, because we had to take the materials that were written for English-speaking children and somehow provide the support and the scaffolds so that the children at different proficiency levels could have access to it.
So, it required at least two years of working on curriculum, supplementary curriculum to support this. It required a lot of hours of professional development, summer internships, all kinds of activities so that we would prepare the teachers to be able to deliver on grade level. But it did something very interesting. It gave the specialists, the ESL specialists, for the first time the idea that this is what this kid needs to know in fourth grade in terms of regular language art skills. You know, like main idea, supporting details and you know, clauses and, which they knew but it wasn't in the forefront so it sort of pushed the teachers and pushed the kids and, and kids will always rise to the challenge if you provide the appreciate support. So, we did at the elementary.
In addition to that, in Miami we have always had native language support. We offer it through various models. Because we have such a large Hispanic population, we offer Spanish in every single elementary school of Dade County public school. To English learners, non-English learners, everybody takes Spanish. So we took the standards of the Spanish language arts and we mapped it with the standards and the objectives of the English language arts. So, not only were the English learners learning the skills in English but they were learning the same language art skills in Spanish and they could transfer.
So, we did a mapping of the Spanish language arts and the English language arts. So, they were getting double doses, so if they didn't get in the English, they got it in the Spanish. But we were concentrating on the skills, not on language development but on the language arts skills. So, we've, we did, that work is still ongoing, because, you know, you always can improve it a little bit better.
Standards for secondary teachers
The parallel thing happened later on at the secondary level and that was even more traumatic. Again, we brought in language arts teachers and ESL teachers two years we did partnerships.
We developed curriculum over the summer, we brought teams to write curriculum with the intense professional development. I don't know if you remember from you high school years, but the literature for your high school English courses is this thick, the book. Well, you can't expect that child that is learning English to go through that at the same pace. So, we have to pick and choose.
But it did several things, again it, it raised the teachers of English development, it raised their expectations of what they wanted for the kids. And for the kids, high school kids in particular, it was like, "Okay, this is my goal this is where I have to be." Because before they, if you set the goal, "Well, I'm there, I'm okay." But if you set it over here then, they work towards it.
So, it's again to emphasize the fact that in order to have kids graduate and be ready for college, you have to provide them grade-level instruction. If they're recent immigrants and they came with no English, it's going to be very, very difficult and they might not make it in four years. It might take them longer. But, it's something that we have to do, otherwise they will not know what the bar is, where they have to be to be able to go to college. And that's what the Common Core Standards are, trying to do, trying to tell everybody, this is where you have to go, if you want a good job or you want to go to college.
Validity at the state level
For the last ten years since No Child Left Behind has been in place, the states were required to develop standards and develop assessments to correspond to those standards. And in Florida, we have been very active. I was part of the several committees that were working on, on setting the standards and then looking at the assessments. But it's, in the area of English language proficiency, standards and assessment is a very new area.
And I would venture to say that most states were sort of trying to do the best they could, including Florida. And we had no data to base our decisions, so we did the best that we could in terms of setting proficiency scores and you know levels. So, it is time to go back and now that we have maybe 5, 6, 8 years of data and start doing a more detailed analysis and, and revisiting how all of those proficiency levels were set, how proficiency expectations were set. So, it, it's a very complex process of, of doing good assessments, valid, reliable and then setting standards. So, being there and I know that it's something that can, it has to be continuously refined and worked on.
Part IV: Experiences in Miami
Some of the work that I'm most proud of in working with a great team of people in Miami, first of all, is the area of parental involvement, which is a very difficult area to have work effectively. We established in Miami what we call the Bilingual Parent Outreach Program. And the whole idea behind the Bilingual Parent Outreach Program is that first of all, you have to go to the community because they won't come to your central location and we're a very large district, so…second, that you have to create capacity among parents and that you have to identify leaders within those parents and then have them take off and, and promote the, whatever program it is that you want to implement.
So, the Bilingual Parent Outreach Program is something that we started and is still going and it has been very effective involving hundreds and thousands of parents and have developed some leadership among these parents in which, now they are participating in district level committees and even national committees. And these are parents, some of them that don't speak English, so, I'm very proud of that.
World Languages Program
Another initiative that I'm really proud of has to do not so much with English learners but it has to do with the study of languages. Miami is a very international community and it has been for many years. And we have, although it's a majority Hispanic, we also have people from all over the world.
And, back in the late '80s, we started a program with the governments of certain countries, the International Studies Program, and basically what we have is a dual-language program that starts in kindergarten but in addition to studying the language, the children that participate in the program also study the government, the history, the culture of, in this particular case, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain.
So, it is a choice program in Miami Dade and we've had it for many years in the elementary and the middle school. We were not as successful at the high school level because they were various competing programs with this. It is a very prestigious program in Miami but it only exists in Miami, it doesn't exist anywhere else. So, the colleges don't, are not familiar with it. But before I left, we managed to fund a high school, the International Studies Preparatory Academy. And it's on its on third year now and it is a high school where the children that come from the programs from the elementary and middle school are eligible to go to this school or any other kid that is fluent and literate in the language of instruction. Because the kids will study half of the day in English and half of the day in French, Spanish, Italian or German.
So, if you're a taking a biology class in French, you better be fluent. And the goal is that when they graduate they will receive a double diploma. One from the United States and one from the country. And that's really an incredible program. Which is not easy to replicate but it's, it gives the kids a global view and these kids, well, we already have kids that have come back and said, "You know, I got this job, because I am fluent in French," or you know, "I am able to communicate with the clients, anytime", you know, or whatever. So, it's a very…I'm very proud of that program is high school is a beautiful building, really, really nice.
Laura Park Elementary
The last thing I want to mention and I have to put it in context because, you know, places like Miami, San Antonio, Los Angeles are places where the Hispanic communities, it's a very large Hispanic community and a lot of schools are offering dual-language programs.
And coming from the International studies programs and, and a lot of magnet programs and choice programs are dealing with language, I felt that that there are a group of the community that was not taking advantage of this. So, I joined forces with an African American principal and her community surrounding her school was undergoing reconstruction. They were going to tear down a whole bunch of public housing units and build brand new ones.
So, we needed to come up with a program that would be attractive for families to come back to the neighborhood. It is still a very poor neighborhood. We decided to make it a bilingual school. So, this Laura Park Elementary, Title I, I would venture to say it 90% African American and it is on its 7th year, I believe, 7th or 8th year of having a dual language program.
All of the children in this school learn Spanish and English and in Miami, that is very important. Because anywhere you go, to look for a job, if you're bilingual you will be ahead of the game. So, I wanted to make sure that the African American kids also had an opportunity. And this was an experiment. I don't know if we'll be able to replicate it but the children are very happy. The parents are thrilled and I think it was a great thing that we did.
Technology as a tool
My first experience in this field was a long time ago when a grant was awarded to Miami Dade County to develop software to teach English as a second language. So since the early '90s we have been integrating the use of technology in our classrooms of English as a second language. So we started with the development of this software which, believe it or not, some teachers are still using and they love it even though it's dated now. But that was sort of the entry into technology.
Florida in general has a great technology infrastructure, but Miami Dade has also great infrastructure for technology with T1 lines into every school and networks in every school and so on. So that said, I would venture to say that the teachers of ESL in Miami are better equipped than regular teachers, because I am a strong believer in the use of technology for individualizing instruction, for allowing an interactive environment to happen, for allowing kids to play with language.
So we have a very extensive use of technology to teach English, all the way from kindergarten to high school. Some are programs that are specifically designed for language development, others are programs that may not have been designed, but adapt very well. And we have developed support materials and even work with publishers to integrate them so that they follow our curriculum and they can support it. So, yes, technology to me is a great tool.
It's not something that you use by itself; it's something that has to be an integral part of what's happening in the classroom. So we very seldom have labs, most of our implementation has three to five computers in the classroom and kids rotate through that. In our newer schools, we have white boards with access to the Internet. And for content it's fantastic because if you want to do a research paper and you can find it in another language and then write (about) it in English, that helps you. So I think it's a great tool that we're just starting to really explore how to use it.
Secretary Arne Duncan named Joanne H. Urrutia deputy director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) on Feb. 7, 2011. In her post, she provided support and advice to Assistant Deputy Secretary Rosalinda Barrera on all matters related to the education of nation's English Learners (ELs), currently estimated to be about 10 percent of K-12 students nationwide. She spearheaded the Special Initiatives Division within OELA, which interacts and collaborates with other offices within the Department to support not only special programs for ELs and foreign language instruction but also to ensure that ED's new educational initiatives address the needs of ELs and promote high-quality instruction for them.
A veteran K-12 educator, Urrutia brings 35 years' experience from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where, for the last nine years of her tenure, she was the administrative director for the Division of Bilingual Education and World Languages and where she was responsible for all EL, dual-language and foreign language instruction districtwide. She also was instrumental in the expansion of the International Studies program, which offers programs in collaboration with France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where her father was a chemist and her mother a manager in a local clothing factory, Urrutia attended Catholic schools before enrolling at the University of Puerto Rico, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1972 with a degree in mathematics.
The recipient of numerous awards, Urrutia, in 2010, was named the Cheryl Benz outstanding educator of the year by the Bilingual Association of Florida and the Miami-Dade TESOL Council. Urrutia has conducted studies in the field of bilingual education and was the co-author of the 2005 study "An Examination of the Validity of English-Language Achievement Tests Scores in an English Language Learner Population," in the Bilingual Research Journal, and she has assisted not only school districts around the nation in the implementation of language programs but also the states of Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Puerto Rico, and the countries of Costa Rica and Honduras. An aficionado of the arts, Urrutia and her husband, Rafael, a retired school Miami-Dade district administrator, divide their time between an apartment in Washington, D.C., and their home in Miami.