Dr. Rosalinda Barrera
Dr. Rosalinda B. Barrera is the former assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). In that role, she was the principal adviser to Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters related to the education of English Learners.
In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Barrera discusses her childhood growing up in Texas, the importance of STEM education for all students, and strategies for preparing more educators to serve ELLs effectively. The full transcript of Dr. Barrera's interview and her full biography are also available.
I grew up in South Texas, not along the border area, but more inland. And grew up in a Mexican American community. So the geographic context was one of family and community life in Spanish, mostly in the preschool years.
And so, that brought English into the home after I had started school. But I entered first grade, because there was no kindergarten at the time, not knowing a whole lot of English. I went, it was a rural setting. So I went to a school that spans grades one through eight, one section per grade level, in a small farming rural community.
And so, I knew quite a few of the children there. It was not a totally unfamiliar experience for me to go to school in terms of people that I encountered there. It was an unfamiliar experience in terms of the language in that we were, at that time, not allowed to speak in Spanish. There was strict prohibition of the use of the home language.
And that was kind of unusual because my first three teachers in grades, first, second, and third grade were Mexican American teachers who spoke Spanish, but yet were also prohibited from using it at school. So I felt I was around people who looked like me and spoke like me outside the school, but not in school.
If I were to distill what I remember the most about those early years, then it would be my recollections would revolve around people, that the people at school looked like me. And from the teachers to the cafeteria workers to the bus drivers, it was a very comfortable environment.
But juxtapose that with the language policy that was in place that prohibited the use of the native language and I think, I wondered why that was. Even as a child, we never seemed to get an explanation as to why it wasn't okay to use Spanish at school.
For me, as a child growing up in the 1950s, it probably served to stop a lot of other learning that I could have done, because it brought with it I'm sure now, and I look back on it, questions about what was okay to use at home with family and what was not. And never seeing yourself and finding yourselves in the books at school was also probably something that stayed with me for a long time.
A memorable teacher
High school was twenty miles away in a larger community, the county seat I remember, and we traveled to school by bus. And so, the most helpful teacher that I found at my new high school was a math teacher, also Mexican American, like those helpful early teachers and other teachers in elementary school.
And I will name him by name, Mr. Jose Contreras. And he was a math teacher. I was in advanced placement classes even then, what were called accelerated classes. I had done well in elementary school, academically speaking and socially speaking too.
But in terms of academics, I went into high school into accelerated classes in English and in math. And he was the first instructor that I encountered in my algebra one class. I did well. And he encouraged me to join the high school math club, which had a lot of boys in it at the time. Remember, girls were not really pushed into math.
And I remember probably the most vivid memory I have of him, because I took at least two math classes with him, was being selected to go to Dallas, Texas for a mathematics fair. He drove. And then there were I think three boys that traveled. And I was the only girl who was selected to go to this math fair at an elite girls school in Dallas.
And while there, I was a junior, he asked what my college plans were. And not having received a lot of sound guidance from my counselor, a perennial story for a lot of Latino children, I told him that I really didn't know what I want as going to do the following year in terms of applying for college university admissions.
He said, "Well, along the way back to our hometown, why don't you stop at the University of Texas in Austin and I'll introduce you to one of my former students who was there." Carmen Martinez was her name. I said, "Yes, let's do that."
So we stopped in Austin and he introduced me to Carmen. Another Latino of working class parents who had been mentored by him. And she was being very successful at the flagship university. She said she would be able to help me and get me to fill out applications and so forth. And that's how I got there.
So, if I were to summarize why I remember Mr. Contreras then, I think it was because, it was because he was such a wonderful mentor, great role model. Took interest in the students and then helped them, went beyond the classroom and the textbook to say what are your college, asked about my college plans and then helped me get there. I think that's what a mentor and a role model and a counselor do.
Educational changes for ELLs: Academic content
The changes that I see in the trends in EL education are also influenced by my age and the years that I've been in education. I'm sixty-four, went to school in the '50s and '60s, taught at the beginning of the '70s as bilingual education was getting started. And so, I have been able to see at least thirty years worth of changes and non-changes, things remaining the same.
I think some of the changes that I have seen that I appreciate are, first of all, the focus on academic content while learning language and not having an isolated focus on language learning, on a reductionist view of language learning on top of that.
I remember at the University of Texas, one of my professors on my dissertation committee was Theodore Anderson who was one of the grandfathers of foreign language education. And bilingual education at that time was very tied to the foreign language education center. It came out of there. And so, for the first few years, we saw the tremendous influence of some pretty reductionistic theories of language learning on what was to become bilingual education in Texas, because I was teaching in Central Texas.
So as the years have moved on, it's been very, very good to now finally in the 21st century, part of the 20th century, to see this growing attention to academic content learning, that language by itself and the parts of language are not going to be the vehicle that drives learning. It's going to be meaning and communication and talking about what matters to you.
That's what's going to drive communication, which is access through language, oral, written and sign. And so, the meaning and the content, the academic content, that's important for children to learn is something that I welcome in EL education.
For too long, we were dealing with parts and pieces of language that didn't add up to the whole or to meaning for children. So to now to see the content in various science, social studies, math, the arts, become important vehicles for language learning is, I feel like we've arrived. We need to continue that.
Educational changes for ELLs: Diverse materials
Another change that I have seen that probably I helped to shape in the early days was the inclusion and use of culturally relevant materials for diverse learners, children from other language cultural backgrounds.
I remember starting as a bilingual ed teacher and having only imported materials to work with, materials in which the language didn't sound like the, didn't sound like the language with the vocabulary, the lexical items of the children that I was teaching. And I remember not having found myself in the books in school when I was growing up. And here was kind of a repetition of that as working class children in Austin, Texas were not able to find themselves in the books from Puerto Rico or from Spain or from Columbia and South America.
I have always been committed to inclusion of diverse authors, especially domestic homegrown authors. And I remember the joy I felt as an adult encountering those first materials coming out of the bilingual education. I think there were resource centers at that time that went out into the neighborhood to bring in the stories of the community and so forth, the folklore, the history, that had not been reflected in books for children becoming bilingual in school.
So that's another big change that I think has been very important that we want children not only to, I think of mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. We want children to find themselves, to see themselves in the mirrors of literature, to look across through the windows at other cultures, other people, other characters.
And then be able to move back and forth between all those different worlds that literature opens up for us. And so, the child who commands a broad linguistic repertoire and experiential repertoire is probably going to be most successful in navigating the world. So that means opening up and expanding the authorly cycle and circle to include many diverse authors.
Educational changes for ELLs: Additive approach
Some other trends and changes that I think have been very, very positive for the field of EL education — one of them has been the gradual, but sure adoption of a much more additive approach and understanding to language learning.
By additive, I mean knowing that children can come to school and we don't have to subtract their home language, that the home language is a foundation for other language learning. And that incorporating the children's experiences, language and culture into the school would probably have benefits for all learning for that child.
And so, additive interpretations of language learning are still not dominant enough. We're still having to prepare new teachers and new generations of educators who will understand that and not see languages other than English in conflict with school learning.
That again linguistic strength, other kinds of strengths, flow from that native language and that home culture, community culture. And so, schools taking advantage of and building on those strengths is very, very important.
We talk about children's assets and not deficits. Seeing children as bringing something to school that we can build on is extremely important. And I think that is now a much stronger theme in EL education, especially in places where we don't have historical communities of EL students, the diaspora of EL learners is immense throughout the country.
And so, kids are in South Carolina and Georgia and Arkansas and states that have not had a whole lot of English language learners. And so, we're still having to advocate for the same kind of additive views and perspectives of language learning. I think it will continue for years to come. But we've made a lot of progress in terms of not seeing children as riddled with problems and deficits just because they speak another language and know another culture.
Educational changes for ELLs: Concurrent development
Another good change I think that I have seen that's probably a little more academic and not yet as widespread in some classrooms is the research and theoretical understandings that language processes can develop concurrently rather than in strict sequence. Especially the older you are, the faster you want to move in a second language.
And you will take on listening, speaking, reading and writing all at once rather than in strict ordering which is something that we abided by for so long in language teaching and learning in the schools. And even today I think I see some pretty questionable practices in terms of when a child is ready to move over into a second language.
We think that it happens only in the school. But it could be happening outside the school. And we need to realize that the language learning environment is beyond this classroom. And we need to consider the impact of home and community and so forth that move us away from a strict, linear, rigid, narrow interpretation of language learning that says that maybe writing is the way to move into reading. That maybe I'm learning to write and read as I'm learning to talk in the second language.
Occurrences and ideas that really push us I think to continue to explore how one does grow in language across the life continuum, across different environments, across different eras and so forth.
Lack of change
Let me talk about the things I haven't seen change fast enough. And some of these things go back to the previous century. They go back to my predecessors that I admire and respect so much who were writing about Mexican American children in the early 1900s.
People like George Sanchez from New Mexico who wrote in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, about the, what we would call, lack of quality education for Spanish-speaking children in the Southwest, for example, children who are being referred to Special Education classrooms to "mental retardation" classes because they spoke another language and the schools didn't know what to do with them.
And so I've learned from these instructors who were my instructors at the University of Texas. George Sanchez, I was fortunate enough to take a class with him. Americo Perez, two classes that I took with him. And they bemoaned and lamented the lack of progress. And I do too now in certain areas.
For example, assessment. I wish we were further ahead in terms of assessing English language learners. The same thing that I dealt with in the 1960s are still here. How to distinguish language differences from language disabilities. My goodness, we were grappling with that in the 1960s and the 1970s. And we still are in the 21st, the second decade of the 21st century.
The lack of consistency in identifying kids across, within a school, within a school district, across states, "everybody doing their own thing" pattern, when it came to educating English language learners is still very much alive today.
There are other things that important to English language learners that are still disregarded I think and we don't do enough with them. Parental engagement is one area. In some schools, we're still mired in a parental involvement, in a one way parental involvement model, rather than in a parental engagement, parental empowerment model.
So those are at least three areas that I see us not making enough progress, haven't made enough progress. I have some of George Sanchez's early writings. I think this must have been something published in the 1950s that was a literature review of professional journals and education at that time that tells stories of classroom conditions for Mexican American children in the Southwest. And I bet some of those things are still there in some classrooms. And that's sad and disappointing.
Sometimes I realize that we've got to keep working at preparing new generations of teachers. And especially as the population keeps growing and dispersing across the country, we need to work with teachers across the nation. Because EL learners are in schools across the nation.
So I think there's a lot of work for us to do in my office, in the Department of Education, in terms of helping promote quality standards and quality assessments, quality language programs for English language learners.
It is not up to only bilingual teachers and ESL teachers to teach EL learners. All teachers in this day and age should be prepared and should be, should feel confident that they can work with English language learners. I have always said that one field of schooling that needed to do that was special education. That has been a continuing need for us in teacher preparation, to prepare all teachers, including special education teachers, to work successfully with all children.
A diverse workforce
I think it's important for teacher training in the next few years to produce more teachers of color, teachers who look and sound and have the experiences of children that are in our schools. Our workforce is still predominately white, predominately female, predominately working class and middle class. And we need to have a more diverse teacher workforce in the 21st century.
We also need more clinical experiences for teachers, for pre-service teachers, in schools where the school enrollment are diverse. We shouldn't be sending teacher candidates only to selected schools that look like them. But we should be trying to send teacher candidates to high-needs schools, to schools in different communities, rural and urban and suburban settings. And not just those schools deemed in some cases "safe" by the teacher educators in that particular university or teacher preparation program.
Teacher preparation programs
We also need university college leaders to recognize the very, very major importance of teacher preparation, that without high quality teachers in our classroom, especially in the early grades, our school systems are robbed of what they could do with children in the upper grades.
And so that teachers in elementary and secondary need to be recognized and applauded by university leaders. Teacher preparation especially, we now call it traditional teacher preparation, because also have teacher preparation and alternative certification programs. But teacher preparation then in traditional settings like colleges and universities need to be recognized as an important part of the mission of a college and university. And there needs to be leadership, as I said, demonstrated for teacher preparation.
And the colleges of education, schools, departments of education, need to be looked to as hubs of innovation and improvement for learning and teaching, not only for the elementary and secondary schools, but also for the tertiary levels, the colleges and universities.
And so, teacher preparation, educator preparation, better ways of teaching and learning, teaching and learning for the 21st century, should be important to all college and university presidents.
And then we need to have high standards for alternative certification programs. Teachers need to be as well prepared by those entities as they are by other school systems and so forth. School districts, school superintendents, school leaders, also need to speak up for quality teacher preparation. And we need to envision new ways of preparing teachers, new ways that have a lot of the teacher preparation occurring in classrooms in the field. So that all teachers are interacting with a very diverse enrollments that we have in our schools.
I want to differentiate as I talk about STEM between STEM as preparation for careers at the upper grades and science and math instruction in the lower grades. And I have been a very strong proponent of early science instruction. I don't think we can expect to have students looking towards careers in the STEM fields if they haven't had strong foundations in science and math in the early grades.
And I think high school is too late. I think middle school is too late. I think preschool, kindergarten, are the places we ought to be starting teaching and learning that's going to lead to STEM awareness and STEM careers.
I think science is a natural for language learning, for literacy learning, integrating the curriculum. Science is very powerful in our world. Science is powerful and important to our personal lives, to the future of our nation and ultimately to the survival of our planet. And I can't see science being a once a week thing or a once every month we'll do science. I see it begin an integral, every day part of schooling.
And I was fortunate enough to have my older daughter experience a very strong science foundation in first grade because being a university parent, the closest school and neighborhood school was the university school served university students.
My child got a very strong science foundation, not only turned my daughter onto science. It turned me on as a parent to science. And all the things that we could do with it for reading and writing and how it sparked her interest in content area reading, moving away from the fairy tales and the traditional stories and the rhymes to the content area of reading of science, beginning with dinosaurs that kids are so interested in in the preschool years.
So Imogene Rate, my daughter's first grade science teacher, impressed upon me the importance of quality science teaching and its power for helping children grow in language and literacy and writing. And just inviting curiosity about the whole world, about how volcanoes erupted, how the shuttle worked, how this other thing did something else. And it was a very important lesson for me.
A special scientist
The other person who was very instrumental, I think in my appreciating science, so my husband, a microbiologist, who in the '60s and '70s worked very actively with other scientists, mathematicians, engineers, across the country to get Latinos and other language minority students into the sciences. In fact, he helped found an organization that's still alive today called SACNAS, S-A-C-N-A-S, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences. The use of the term Chicanos reflects the 1960s.
And so, I was very aware of the work that he was doing to try to bring more Latino and Native American students into the sciences. In the 1960s, you could probably get all of the Latino and Native American scientists into one little room. There weren't very many.
And his view is one of all the way from preschool to graduate studies and the doctorate for students and the academy and also industry and so forth. So he had a lot of influence on my thinking about the need to make available to underrepresented students opportunities in science and math.
I knew that those, that there are certain courses in school, especially in high school, that are gatekeepers to students' progress academically. And if you don't get into Algebra I, you're going to be kept back from other things in math. If you don't get into certain science courses, you're also going to be prevented from doing that.
So early on I think I pushed those gatekeeping courses back and thought it's not just at this level that we need to work at. It's in the early years. And put together, the early experiences with Imogene Wright and my husband's experiences with graduate school and I think I developed a more continuous kind of pipeline view of science and math and STEM.
We have much work to do in growing a domestic population of scientists and engineers. For so long in colleges and universities, we've depended on international students who have come to us and become our grad assistants and our professors in the computer sciences, in engineering and so forth.
And we've neglected development of kids in our own backyard who could be growing to become bilingual, multilingual scientists, bilingual multilingual engineers and so forth. So there's a lot of work to do in the STEM area.
STEM learning for parents
I think first of all, schools need to act on their understanding and belief that science and math start early. I think math we pay attention to. Science gets neglected. And I think science is a very strong vehicle for language learning.
I think both science and math need to be seen by the child as connected to their real world. And a lot of times, there are missed opportunities to bring science and math experiences from home into the classroom. And I think the once a year science fair just doesn't cut it. I think home science and home math need to find their way into the classroom.
And that speaks to the need to engage parents early on and inform them about the importance of science and math to their children's learning. That especially those students who do not have parents who have been successful in the schools previously, or kids who will be first-generation college students, whose parents did not go to college.
It's extremely important to inform their parents about the role of science and math in the world, not only nationally but also internationally. Some parents may not know the wide array of careers that are out there available for their children in the, you know, as they go through school and graduate.
So acquainting parents with the different professionals that one finds in STEM fields, professionals in hospitals, in aerospace and so forth, is extremely important to parents. And not only is important. It's sometimes very interesting and exciting to parents to learn about their careers, those careers.
So I see a strong content reform piece to the STEM for at-risk children. But I also see an important part focused on parents and career awareness, so that parents are informed about how to talk to their children about science and math.
I came to OELA about five months ago. And I came to the office with a very strong commitment to integrating EL education cross the other departments, across the other offices in the Department of Education. And fortunately, it was an orientation that was very much supported by the department.
So that the EL agenda and EL education becomes a natural part of, say, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. So that we connect to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. So that we look for services for ELs in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. So that we inquire of the professionals in the institute for Education, Sciences what attention is being provides English learners in the research agenda of that office. And other offices in post-secondary education, the Office of Post-Secondary Education.
So that interest in collaborating and integrating is one way that I think we can become a strong role model for the kind of collaboration and integration that we would like to see in the schools, so that English learners and English learner education is not marginalized and set apart and not integrated into all of the planning and executing of teaching that occurs in schools.
We want all teachers to be informed about how to work successfully with English language learners and we want all of specialists in the schools to also be informed about better services for English language learners.
So that is probably the primary goal for me during the time that I will be here to look at the other offices in the Department of Education and to advocate for expanded and high quality services for English language students. So that all our high profile initiatives such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation (i3), Promise Neighborhoods, have a dimension that speaks to English language learners and that that is very much a natural and integral part of those initiatives.
Another very important goal for me as Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition is to provide technical assistance in not the strict interpretation of technical assistance as having to do with the grants that we fund. But technical assistance and professional development for educators working with English language learners at the local level.
The local level, the classrooms and schools are very important to my work. We have both formula grants that go to schools. But our work is primarily with the state departments of education who oversee those dollars.
And then we have discretionary grants and we work with colleges and universities in preparing teachers to deal more effectively with English language learners. And so, the local level gets slighted sometimes. I want us to connect. I want the office to connect, with classroom teachers, with school principals, with school superintendents.
We need to take our National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, NCELA, and have that speak and provide a service to educators at the local level. So I think you will see us in the next year really finding ways to connect more actively with the local level. We're getting ready to move into three national conversations on English learner education.
And it reflects that commitment to reconnecting with the local level. The Office of English Language Acquisition did not have a permanent director for two, three years. It has one now. And so we need to re-establish, reconnect, refocus probably, but all in collaboration with those people who are working the closest with English language learners.
And also identify exemplary practices, promising practices, best practices that are out there in the schools to share with all other school systems that are attending to the needs of English language learners.
Dr. Rosalinda B. Barrera was named assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) by President Barack Obama on Aug. 23, 2010. She is the principal adviser to Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters related to the education of English Learners.
As head of OELA, Barrera administers programs under Titles III and V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which support high-quality instructional programs for linguistically and culturally diverse students. Her office also supports foreign language programs for elementary, secondary and postsecondary students and professional development programs for language teachers in these fields.
Barrera, née Benavides, was born in South Texas, where her father was a rural route mail carrier and her mother a homemaker. The oldest of four children, she was valedictorian of her high school class in Falfurrias, Texas, before enrolling at the University of Texas, where she earned a B.A. degree in journalism with honors in 1968.
Learn more about Dr. Barrera from the Department of Education website and this Education Week profile, which appeared in November 2010.