Dr. Alba Ortiz
Dr. Alba Ortiz is one of the nation's leading experts on questions of special education for English language learners (ELLs). In this in-depth interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Ortiz discusses challenges related to special education identification, ideas for making ELL families an integral part of all decisions related to students, and best practices for instruction. This interview will be part of Colorín Colorado’s upcoming new resource section on special education and ELLs, created in partnership with the National Education Association.
Just a kid from the south side of San Antonio
I grew up in San Antonio, on the south side of San Antonio in a community that I would call Mexican and Mexican-American. My mother still lives in the house that I grew up in, and so it was a very close knit community. My mother does not speak English. She has eight children. She's 104, but she still doesn't speak English. And so I grew up in a home where Spanish was the language of the home.
I didn't realize actually till I was in about the third grade that my father actually spoke English because he required that we speak Spanish at home out of respect for my mother. And when I was in the third grade, we got a phone and the phone rang, and this man says, "May I speak to your mother?" And I said, "I'm sorry, sir, my mother doesn't speak English." And he said, "Well, that's okay, mi hija, this is your dad."
And so all of a sudden, I realized that even though Spanish was the language of the home, that my father spoke English, and my mother with eight kids had enough comprehension of English that we really couldn't get away with anything like we tried to, speaking English in front of them thinking they didn't understand. But I went to school at a time when speaking Spanish was discouraged.
In elementary school, we would have to write lines, "I will speak English in this class." When I was in high school, you could get expelled for speaking Spanish on the school ground. I couldn't take Spanish because I'm old enough to have gone to school before we had Spanish for native speakers available. So, because I spoke Spanish I couldn't take Spanish classes. I could take German, but for a kid on the south side of a low-income community, that didn't seem to make any sense. I realize now it would've helped.
So I didn't take Spanish, and when I went to college, I had a deficient transcript because I didn't have a foreign language. And so I was gonna be required to take two semesters of Spanish. Fortunately, I tested out of it. So all of my education was in English. I became, obviously, English-dominant because schooling was in English. I've retained my bilingualism because of my family context.
And so it really wasn't until I became a professional that I came to realize that I had been socialized by a system to think that there was something deficient about the fact that you spoke a language other than English. And so I've been thankful to have had the opportunity to work in the bilingual education field to really come full circle and recognize that bilingualism is something to be celebrated, that culture is who you really are.
So I'm a professional by training, and I have a professional culture, but I'm also that kid from the deep south side of San Antonio proud to be a Mexican-American, proud to have parents that did teach us Spanish and retain the culture and allowed us to move across a variety of cultural contexts and to be successful in those contexts.
A career studying the intersection of special education and bilingual education
I am now a retired special education professor. I retired from the University of Texas at Austin, where I was a faculty member in the multicultural education program and directed the office of bilingual education. And so my career has spanned both special education and bilingual education and English as a second language fields.
I started out as a speech and language pathologist, worked in the deep south side of San Antonio, and then went back and got my doctorate and took my first job at San Jose State University. This is in the mid-'70s, where I was a special education faculty member, but had the opportunity to become the director of the bilingual education teacher training program.
And because all of my training was in special education, I had to go about the business of learning about bilingualism, which was kind of interesting because I grew up in a home where Spanish was the primary language spoken. My mother is 104 and doesn't speak English to this day, but what was really beneficial to me was that even though I had grown up as a bilingual child, I didn't really have an understanding of what that meant.
And so once I went into the bilingual education classrooms and saw the kind of instruction children were getting and began to study the field, I was able to reflect back on my own practices and realize that you can be bilingual, and that's an important characteristic when you work with English language learners, but that that's not enough. You also have to have some knowledge associated with it.
So I could think about the fact that as a speech pathologist, I had been trained to assess students in English. And so when I became a speech therapist, that's exactly what I did. I tested all these Spanish-speaking children in English, and lo and behold, they qualified as having articulation and language disorders. And so I put them on my special education rosters, and three years later, I dismissed them thinking I had done a really excellent job. But once I learned about the field of bilingual education and how children acquire second language, I realized that all that had happened was the passage of time.
And so the kids were doing better because they now spoke more English and they could pass the tests that I had been giving them. So then I spent really the rest of my career trying to understand the interaction between language proficiency, cultural differences, academic progress, and how students wind up in special education because educators don't understand when they're looking at language differences or cultural differences versus when they're looking at disabilities. So my movement into the special education field was probably one of the best things that happened to me professionally.
And it also highlighted that we do such a poor job of preparing educators for the reality of students and their experiences in schools, particularly when language and culture, cultural differences are a big part of their life.
There have been some major changes in the way we approach education for students in general, English language learners in particular. So two-way dual-language programs have become increasingly popular where English language learners are in classrooms with their non-English language learner peers. And that has really moved bilingual education from being a remedial or compensatory program to being perceived as an enrichment program.
And so that has a positive effect for all students. And now one of the biggest complaints about dual-language programs is that the monolingual English-speaking parents are concerned that their children aren't getting enough of whatever the native language is in the program. And that's a real plus because for years, we've been fighting for the importance of native language and having that present in classrooms. So I think that's a big move. Bilingual education is an enrichment program for all students, including English language learners.
Big trends in the field
Response to intervention is now present in almost every school, and in that framework, the focus is so strongly on making sure that schools are effective for the diverse learners that they serve and making sure that instruction, core and supplemental, is of high quality to help close the gap.
And so we are attending to the educational needs of students and monitoring progress more closely and using that information to decide whether a referral to special education might be appropriate. And I think that's a big plus because we're not, you know, chomping at the bits to make a special education referral, and that can have positive effects. And so that is a big change.
In some places, there's a recognition that English language learners are the fastest growing student demography, and so schools are trying to get more English as a second language training for all of their personnel, and in some schools, they require that every teacher have an English as a second language certificate. And that's a real positive, assuming of course that they've really received quality training to develop those skills. And so those are two big trends that I see.
Under-identification: Why ELLs may not get the special education services they need
I think the challenge in identifying English language learners with disabilities is that when we look at this population, we tend to see widespread underachievement, high rates of retention, high rates of school attrition, and over-identification as students who need remediation or who have disabilities.
I think the issue for educators is that when you look at English language learners, particularly as they begin to acquire English, and you look at students with language and learning disabilities, their characteristics are virtually the same. And so it's very difficult to tell when you're looking at a linguistic or cultural difference versus when you're looking at a disability.
And so when you look at underrepresentation, for example, one of the things that happens is that educators attribute learning problems to the fact that children are in the process of acquiring English or because they reflect different cultural behaviors. And so they don't even consider the possibility that the student might have a disability. So you get under-referral waiting for children to acquire enough English so that then we can do assessments and have more confidence that we've identified a student accurately.
Another is that schools oftentimes put into place informal policies, such as you can't refer an English language learner until they've been in the system for two or three years. And so teachers are actually discouraged from making referrals, even though they may feel that the student's learning problems are so different from peers that they need more help than they can provide in the context of the general education classroom. So discouraging referrals contributes to under-identification.
There's also an inaccurate or a misconception in many school districts that you can't serve English language learners in special education programs at the same time. So sometimes the decision is that the language support is more important than trying to identify the disability, so that contributes to underrepresentation.
And then I think one of the biggest issues that we don't have very many bilingual special education personnel or special educators with English as a second language training, and so the decision is made that the student is better served in the general education classroom, not recognizing that when we don't refer students who may have a disability, we're violating their rights to an appropriate education, and we're allowing time to pass without intervention. So the problem becomes more serious, and then we have to take even more intensive intervention to try to get the student back on track.
So underrepresentation people don't think is as big an issues as over-identification, but I think in general, English language learners tend to be under-identified because you have all these barriers that get in the way of making a referral.
Over-identification: Why ELLs may be referred to special education too soon
When you look at over-identification, you get kind of the opposite face of the problem. In this case, people think that the problem is a disability and they don’t consider linguistic or cultural differences or educational opportunity as contributors to the problem. And so they make a referral too quickly, and then you get into some really difficult issues.
We don't have the assessment instruments that we need to make an accurate identification of disabilities among students who speak different languages. Even when you have assessment instruments available in Spanish, they may also be culturally and linguistically irrelevant for the student that you're concerned about. So the assessment instruments, you can take almost any student and assess them with the available tools, and they'll qualify because the instruments are inappropriate.
Sometimes we make the decision that general education can't serve the needs of the student, particularly because we have populations of students that really have significant learning difficulties. If you look at students with interrupted formal schooling for example, who come here as adolescents, haven't been in school or have had inconsistent schooling, the gap is so wide that the sentiment is that if you make a special education referral, the student will be with a teacher who has specialized skills, smaller classes, materials designed to close those significant gaps.
And so special education can actually become a dumping ground for students who have significant difficulties for reasons other than the presence of a disability. So overrepresentation becomes a huge issue because we haven't been able to overcome what is oftentimes negative expectations associated with a disability. So the student over time does worse because they're not getting the appropriate instruction, because we may not have special education teachers who understand how to support the language and cultural needs of the student.
So even though they're in this smaller class, the gap can widen because the instruction is inappropriate. So there are a lot of factors that contribute to overrepresentation. And I think one of the big issues for students is that once we put them in, we seldom let them out. And so we identify students as having disabilities very early, and then they can spend the rest of their school career in a special education program or receiving special education services, even though they don't have a disability.
Are students getting the services they need?
We sometimes celebrate the fact that we have proportionate representation. So we have the expected number of students identified as having students with disabilities, but the critical question is do we have the right students? And I think if you disaggregate data about special education placements, you find that overwhelmingly, we label students as having language or learning disabilities, but we have a whole host of other categories as well. So we need to decide whether we've identified not only the right number of students, but the right students. And then the bigger issue is: are we providing them the services that they need?
Are the majority of students successful?
The field has moved to using what we call multi-tiered systems of support, of which response to intervention is typically a component. And so when we look at that model, it has several levels, but there's an assumption that students who receive high quality evidence-based instruction will do well. And so under that model, our expectation is that 75 to 80 percent of students will meet grade-level expectations.
When you look at English language learners, that is typically not the case. So that if you look at assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, you find that eighth-grade English language learners are really far behind your English language peers in core areas like reading, so there's a huge achievement gap that's there.
And you don't have 75 to 80 percent of the kids being successful in relation to core instruction. And so a lot of the work that we do has to begin there, that we have to look at the quality of educational opportunity that the English language learners are getting.
We have to look at oral language, reading, writing instruction to make sure that it meets the needs of the students so they're either getting native language instruction and English as a second language development, or if they're in an English as a second language program, we're really tracking how they are acquiring language skills so they develop literacy.
So any time you have a situation where the majority of students are not successful, then you have a problem with instruction. When you see academic underachievement, we have a tendency to locate the problem in the student. And so we begin to provide interventions to close that gap and may not be paying attention to the fact that anytime we have an identifiable group that is not meeting expectations, then we need to go in and carefully examine curriculum and instruction to make sure that it is addressing the needs of those students. And so until we have high performance among English language learners generally, I think we have an issue with instruction.
Variation of disability rates by state
When you look at special education representation, what you find is that whether you have a disability or not pretty much depends on what state you live in for a variety of reasons. One is that states don't use common disability labels. So you may have a cognitive delay in one state, an intellectual disability in another. So you may be in a state that has cross-categorical placement so they don't assign a disability label to you.
You can have several issues and wind up in this broader category. The eligibility criteria varies so that we may have cut off scores for example on an intelligence test for identifying an intellectual disability, and that can vary across states. So you may have an intellectual disability in one state and move to another and not have it.
Reporting, data collection and reporting are quite different. So for example, it's difficult to get counts of English language learners in special education because not all states disaggregate data by language proficiency. Even when you look at a category like racial-ethnic classification and representation, you find different criteria for how we place a student into a racial-ethnic category.
And so there are all of those variations in terms of policies, procedures, definitions, criteria, reporting requirements that result in wide differences in the number of students identified as having disabilities.
What does effective instruction for ELLs look like?
Effective instruction always starts with assessment. And it's really important to look at assessments across skills, so oral language, reading and writing as integrated skills, but also looking at what the student's strengths and needs are within each of those domains because oftentimes, particularly in relation to special education referrals, we're referring students because they have low reading skills. And we design interventions for reading, but we fail to recognize that they may have reading problems because they don't have strength of oral language. So assessment becomes key.
Using evidence-based practices to develop the skill that we are concerned about becomes really important. So in core instruction with reading, we know that we have to do phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and so we're sure that instruction covers all of those areas.
Instruction has to be culturally responsive, so students are going to have a difficult time learning if they don't see themselves in the curriculum and if the teacher and the delivery of instruction doesn't acknowledge those funds of knowledge that they have. Teachers have to be able to monitor progress, so these are the skills that I'm teaching. Who's learning them? Who needs additional support? Differentiation becomes key, particularly for English language learners because they are such a diverse group.
So there is a big difference between the English language learner, who comes here as a recent arrival having been fully schooled and on grade level, and that student who's had an interrupted education and is, you know, a couple of years below grade level. There's a lot of variation in the strengths of their native language and where they are in the trajectory toward learning English.
So monitoring progress becomes an important part of that, and making sure that the instruction is linguistically and culturally relevant, you know, those are the key factors. In the delivery of instruction, developing oral language skills is critical. Focusing on vocabulary becomes really important, particularly in relationship to building academic language skills. So trying to keep all of those factors in mind for each student can become quite a juggling act.
Having enough data to look at progress over time
We have to have data that describes the student's present level of performance, oral language proficiency, reading, and writing. And once we have that, though, I think we also have to have access to data that allows us to look at the student's performance retrospectively.
Once we have a description of the child's present level of performance, we have to have access to data that allows us to look retrospectively, preferably from the point of school entry, to see how the child's performance has changed over time. So what level of language proficiency did they have in their native language and English when they started school, and now, three years later, where are they in terms of developing proficiency in native language and/or in English, and how much have their writing and reading skills developed?
And so I think that in the area of literacy, schools now pretty much monitor performance on a regular basis. They do universal screenings to establish a baseline. They provide instruction, and then they look at benchmarking and progress monitoring assessments so that they know whether students are acquiring the skills that are being taught.
I don't think we do as good a job in the oral language domain, so teachers tend to rely on annual assessments of language proficiency. But they also have to recognize that oral language should be a part of their daily instruction and that they need to monitor how the student is developing skills across languages. And that, I think, is harder for teachers because we don't stress that as often.
And then the students begin to experience difficulty, you can't explain present level of performance unless you know where the student started. And the question that you're trying to answer is really where did the students start? Has he or she had appropriate instruction to develop a skill? What has been the response to that intervention? And when this student has struggled, what have I done to help get the student back on track?
And so that becomes really important data in making decisions about whether this is a student who may have a disability, and that would be the student that despite appropriate core and supplemental intervention has not made the progress that we would expect, and the progress is significantly different from that of peers.
Gathering information for students who don’t have school records
When we don't have enough data available about a student, for example if it’s a recent arrival with interrupted educational experiences, then we have to look to the parent to try to get as much data as possible, and then we have to conduct a series of assessments and interventions to establish performance level and to determine what their needs are and how we can best help them close the gaps.
I think that I would start by talking to parents and getting as much information from them about the child's development over time, any information they may have even if it's not formal information, but their perspectives on whether the child was in school, whether they were consistently present for instruction, whether they saw any problems as a result of the schooling or problems in terms of their child's learning. So we want to get as much information from the parent.
And then in the school context, I think we have to rely on instruction to get the data that we need to make decisions about what would be the best supports for this student. So you have to have an assessment that determines what skills they already have and what their strengths and needs are. And then you begin to provide instruction and monitor whether they are acquiring the skills that you're teaching, assuming obviously that the skill is being taught at the right instructional level, because students who don't have disabilities are going to make progress with good instruction. Those for whom there are other factors in place will struggle even though you have high- quality instruction.
We have a process that we oftentimes use that we called dynamic assessment. So you take a skill that you want the student to acquire. You assess to see how much of the skill the student has, and once you made that determination, then you actually teach to the skill, and then you assess as a follow-up to see, were they able to acquire it as a result of the instruction, or how many ways did you have two scaffold or adapt the instruction to help the student learn it?
And so again, when students don't have disabilities, they will be responsive to that instruction. And so you can do a series of assessments to try to establish the baseline, and that's going to give you information about how core instruction needs to be modified to meet their needs as well as what kind of supplemental intervention might be helpful to that student, particularly when you're talking about large gaps in their knowledge or skill base.
Identifying student strengths
I think identifying the strengths is key because you use the strengths to address the needs. And when you have a child who has significant issues, sometimes teachers want to focus on those needs and they can get overwhelmed by the fact that there's so many things that need to be done and so little time to do it. So they need to shift their attention to what are the skills and knowledges that the student already has, and how can we build from those to address needs?
And so if you do that and you identify one or two priority needs areas, then what you find is that by building the strengths, you can take care of that priority need a lot of the others sometimes go away. So because the students that we're talking about oftentimes have needs in so many areas, I think it's much simpler for the teachers to focus attention on everything they can already do.
When teachers focus on identifying students' strengths, they're sometimes surprised by how much they know and can do. We talk about identifying children's funds of knowledge, those elements of their own identity, their language, their culture, the skills that they've acquired in the context of homes and communities.
And when we do that, then our expectations are influenced in a very positive way because we recognize that there are a lot more strengths than there are deficits and that we can use those strengths to address the areas that we need, we think need intervention.
Eliminating other factors before we make a referral
In terms of making a referral, I think the most important thing is having an understanding of the difference between difference and disability. So the referral process is available when we think that the student has a disability, and the intent is to make that referral as soon as necessary in order to get the supports that the student needs, particularly if they ultimately qualify for special education.
Before we make the referral though, we have to eliminate other factors as the primary cause of the problem, and so that's where that multi-tiered system of support becomes really important because the first thing that we have to do is to document that the student has been provided high-quality core instruction. The second thing we have to document is that we assessed and identified a need that we couldn't meet in the context of core instruction, so we provide supplemental intervention designed specifically to address the identified skills gaps.
And then we have to document the results of that. When a teacher determines that they've done everything that they can do to help the student and it still hasn't worked, it's not required by federal law, but what is very common practices that on campuses now, we have child study teams or campus-based problem-solving teams where we bring a group of individuals together to look at the information that we've gathered about the student and to consider whether there are additional interventions that might be helpful to try and remediate the problem
The benefit of that team is that it brings together expertise from a variety of fields so that you may have the bilingual education teacher, the English as a second language teacher, the counselor, an administrator, so a variety of perspectives are brought together to look at the problem and determine whether a referral is appropriate. At the time that we make the referral, we're saying we have considered key factors and eliminated them as the cause of the problem.
So it's not limited English proficiency. It's not a need for native language development. It's not a cultural difference. It's not lack of opportunity to learn. And so if we can eliminate those, then we can make the referral because ultimately, federal law does require us to say, this child's problem is not a result of those factors. We have eliminated other possibilities, and we have a student with a disability.
Limited academic language in both languages
I think if you look at language proficiency, for example, that teachers sometimes don't recognize that the students that they're serving may come from lower socioeconomic status environments. So they have excellent communication skills for their home and community context, but they may not have the academic language, the vocabulary that they need to be successful in school. And so you wind up with a student that teachers would describe as having low proficiency in their native language, not because they have low proficiency, but because they don't have school-like language, and then they are limited English language proficient.
And one of the characteristics that we have historically attributed to students with disabilities is low skills in both languages. And so teachers, I think, may get confused by that, and so they will attribute literacy-related problems, for example, to a learning disability because they don't recognize that you can't become an effective reader and writer unless you have strong oral language skills. And so the student may need to acquire academic language so that they can become effective in the literacy domains. And without that support, then their disability — then their behavior begins to look like a disability.
How culture may impact behavior in the classroom
If you look at behavior, one of my favorite examples is teachers who work with, I'll use Mexican-American students as an example, that really don't understand why it is that when they're reprimanding children, the children won't maintain eye contact. And so that is a cultural difference.
You know, having grown up in a Mexican-American home, I know that if my parents were reprimanding me and I looked directly at them, they would consider that an act of defiance. So looking away is a way of showing respect and an indication that you recognize that what you've done is wrong. And so teachers will look at behaviors like that, judging them from their own cultural base, and make a determination that's it is a behavioral issue.
And so they'll begin to treat children as though they have behavior disorders, but I think the point that's important is if you look at a behavior and it's common to a group, it's somewhat interesting that you as a teacher have not recognized that is a cultural difference. So it becomes a really important for teachers to be sensitive to the fact that we communicate in different ways.
We may not be comfortable if you ask for a public response, you know, raising our hand and presenting ourselves as a knowledgeable person in front of our peers. And so teachers may consider that to be shy, withdrawn behavior, and if it persists over time, they may think about referrals. To me every teaching act is a cultural act. It's the interaction of the culture of the teacher and the culture of the student.
And if the teacher isn't aware of what the norms and expectations are for a particular student or particular group, they will interpret the behavior as deficient in relationship to their own cultural preferences or norms for behavior. And so we have all kinds of examples like that.
If students don't learn English quickly enough, teachers may think they have problems. If they go to their, back to their native country or, Mexico is a common example, in Texas, where I live, where kids will be gone for several weeks because they're visiting relatives. And so that interrupts their education. Teachers don't consider that interruption as a cause of the problem, so they don't fill in those gaps, and a student begins to look like a student with a disability.
Communicating effectively with parents about student needs and services
Well, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the federal law that governs services for students with disabilities. And if you examine the mandates within the law, there are a lot of protections for English language learners, and sometimes our problem is that we have the mandate, but we don't respond to it or implement it appropriately. So parents have to be notified of any action that we're going to take that might change the child's placement.
They have to be notified in a language that they understand and speak and using language that, you know, the general public would understand. And it has to be very clear to the parent that we're making a referral because we suspect that their child may have a disability.
We sometimes communicate in ways that confuse parents. To me, from a personal example, I've had the experience of talking to parents and asking them to tell me about their child's learning disability and to talk about the special education services that the child has received, only to find that the parent is very surprised that I'm saying their child has a disability.
And so in reflecting on that, one of the things that we discovered is that we typically will refer to a learning disability when we're speaking Spanish as a problema de aprendizaje, which literally translated means, "a learning problem." So we tell the parent that their child has a learning problem. We don't tell them they have a learning disability.
And so the parent agrees that their child can't read, and we will tell them le vamos a darles clases especiales. So we're going to give them some special classes. We don't tell them we're going to put them in special education, or they don't interpret that what we mean is that we're going to put them in special education. And so even though we're speaking Spanish, the concepts that we're communicating are not on target from the parent's perspective.
So they may sign permission to place their child because we're saying we're going to help them learn to read. That's the learning problem. And we're going to give them special classes. And so that's specialized support. And that's very different message than we are attaching a disability label to your child and putting them in a special education classroom where they may be segregated from their peers.
Making ELL parents a central part of the referral conversation and process
The first step is to recognize, particularly if we're talking about potentially identifying students —— English language learners as students with disabilities —— is that parents are the prime decision makers. And so that's why making them aware of the actions that we're going to take becomes important, but also making sure that we provide opportunities for them to be involved at every stage of the process.
So even before we make a referral, inviting them to the problem-solving teams where we talk about the issues that the student is facing, what we might do in school two help resolve the difficulty, but also how parents can support us in the home context. And sometimes parents don't realize the depth of knowledge and expertise that they have that are so central to the child's success.
So making sure that they understand that and that they do, you know, what they can to support their children at home becomes important. Making them a part of the referral committee, making them a part of the multidisciplinary team decision-making process, that becomes critical.
I think a beginning step is analyzing whether we have a school that welcomes parents into the school building and really welcomes them in terms of involvement in the activities of schools because sometimes parents don't come to school because they know there aren't personnel there who speak their language or because they themselves have had a negative experience in schools, and so we have to really analyze where parents are and what we can do to make sure that they understand that they're a critical part of the work that we do.
And in schools that we've worked with, having a parent liaison in the school building goes a long way to helping us bridge that gap because if you have a parent room where parents can come, you find that they're always full. Parents become support systems for each other. That's where they get information, and so that's, if we can get them into the school building and get them familiar with what we're doing and why we're doing it and what role they can play, parents are interested in having their children be successful. And so they're going to be our biggest allies in this process.
Evaluating factors such as culture, language, and student background
The other requirement of IDEA that is very important is what we refer to as the exclusionary clause. And that means that when we put the data together and we make an eligibility determination, we have to provide assurance that the problem is not related to limited English proficiency. It's not related to a cultural difference, to economic disadvantage, or to lack of opportunity to learn. And so those provisions apply very directly to English language learners.
The limited English proficiency language is there, and so that's specific, but recognizing that most English language learners also have those cultural differences, economic influences at play, that's very important language.
Once we have the assessment data, we have to bring together a team to look at that data and decide whether to student qualifies. And I think that's where the multidisciplinary teams that come together have to have expertise not only about special education, but also about language, culture, economic status and other influences so that you get broad-based enough expertise so you're not making the judgment by only looking at the special education eligibility criteria without considering how language and culture might play a role.
And one of the most important members of that team is the parents because ultimately, the parent has to confirm for us that the problem exists on a 24-hour-a-day basis because that's what a disability is. It's not something that occurs in the school context and then goes away at the end of the school day. And so getting the parents' perspective becomes critical.
If parents aren't there, we might rely on cultural brokers, for example someone that really understands the child's home and community context, cultural group, and can help us interpret the results of the assessments and really make an accurate decision about whether the student qualifies. And after that, we have a really complex problem in that now we have, if the student qualifies, we now have a student with disabilities.
So the people that develop the Individualized Education Plan have to have the expertise to design a plan that addresses disability-related needs as well as the child's background characteristics.
Using assessments in the language that will provide the best information
IDEA has very specific language about assessing in the language that is going to provide us the best information. And so that's interpreted to mean native language assessment if the child as a limited English speaker. And so I think that's a very specific element.
We have to conduct assessments that are non-discriminatory, and so the law doesn't require that you do native language assessments. If that is the child's stronger language, then obviously the intent is that the child be assessed in the native language or in the language that we think we're going to get the information that we need to make a special education eligibility determination. And so that becomes an issue, for example, when students aren't in bilingual education programs and they've received all of their instruction in English. So when we assess, we also have to assure that were using instruments that are valid and reliable, but they have to be valid and reliable for English language learners.
So that means the test has to have incorporated a representative sample of those students, either students in bilingual education programs or students in English as a second language programs. We have to be sure that the test is not going to be biased linguistically or culturally against student. We have to have a qualified assessor, and so to me that means that the person has to understand not only the special education assessment process, but also the influences on assessment results, such as linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic status, et cetera.
What does an IEP look like for an ELL?
The IEP for an English language learner looks very much like an IEP for any student in that you are describing what the learning issues are, the disability classification that we're assigning, the kind of instructional supports, technology, etc., that we're going to provide, but in most school districts, the IEP form that is filled out was designed for monolingual English speaker.
And so we have to think about how we can adapt the IEP to be sure that we address some components that are going to be crucial to the English language learner. When we say goals and objectives, are they native language or are they English goals? Which teacher is going to be responsible for addressing which component of the IEP? So we have to address the role of the bilingual education teacher, the English as a second language teacher, that general education teacher, and how these various teachers are going to collaborate to make sure that there's some consistency and logic to the education that the student is receiving.
We have to make sure that the recommendations that we make for instruction are consistent with what we know about language proficiency, cultural difference. So the IEP has to be linguistically and culturally relevant, and so it becomes important. That's why the expertise in the room becomes really important because too many times the decision is made that the disability takes precedence, so the student is exited from a bilingual education program for example because people think they're going to be confused by dual-language instruction.
And so you get that conversation if you don't have expertise in the room that speaks to the importance of providing a strong native language base in order to ultimately help students acquire English, and then if you have a disability and the disability exists in your native language, trying to address the disability in the student's weaker language doesn't make sense. We can't have those discussions if the IEP form is designed for students who speak one language.
What roles do different educators play on the referral team?
Once we have an English language learner who has a disability, we have to make sure that we don't absolve special education of its responsibility to meet the needs of that student. And so schools need to have access to bilingual special education teachers, particularly, as I said, if we identify that the disability exists in the native language. And for English language learners, if it's not in the native language, then it's probably not a disability.
So we have to have a bilingual special education teacher who can address native language instruction. If you don't have bilingual special education teachers, then the special education teacher has to have English as a second language training because special education delivered in English without accommodation of language proficiency is not going to be effective. And so we have to make sure that special education has the personnel training to meet the student's needs.
And then we have to recognize that even though we've identified the student has a disability, they spend the majority of their day in a general education classroom. And so that means that the general education teacher has to be able to accommodate the disability and the language proficiency, and that's where English as a second language specialists play a critical role.
They will likely have the student in their classroom, and so they can accommodate language proficiency. They need to learn something about disability and the additional supports the student might need. But they also need to be consultants to the general education teacher and to the special education teacher so that regardless of where the student shows up, people are responding to the fact that they are dually identified. They are an English language learner, and they have a disability.
So that's a critical role, and it's surprising to me, but in many school districts, in many schools, when they have special education referral or placement committee meeting, they don't include the English as a second language specialist, and that person needs to be in the room. So a bilingual educator or an English as a second language specialist needs to be part of the deliberation as to whether it's a disability or a difference.
I think actually that part of federal and state law requires coordination between the special education multidisciplinary team and the special language program placement committees. And so I would work through the special language placement team and through my principal reminding them that the law requires that you have the expertise in the room that will help you make an accurate decision. And so it's all about collaboration. And so it should be hopefully an easy discussion.
Why administrators are critical to special education processes for ELLs
I don't think special language programs or special education services are going to work unless you have an administrator that really understands the law, the policy, the supports that student needs and makes it a priority to have those supports in place. So principals are responsible for the whole school.
And so that means they're critical in terms of implementation of bilingual education and English as a second language programs. They have to provide the expertise that teachers need for all teachers, general, bilingual, ESL teachers, special education teachers, a professional development program so that information about English language learners is shared across personnel.
And then the administrator is critical to the special education process because the principal or the principal's designee has to be at the team meeting, and at that team meeting, they're the ones who can assure that whatever services we are recommending are going to be put in place and they're gonna be implemented with fidelity. And so that takes a knowledgeable principal to bring all of those elements together.
The role of district administrators in special education processes
The central administration has a central role in coming into a school and conducting an assessment that identifies the school's strengths and needs. And then they have to provide the supports that are needed to address those areas that need improvement.
So in my ideal world if they see that the principal doesn't have the requisite knowledge and skills, they provides professional development for the principal, or they put someone in place that does have that background and knowledge because they set the stage. And then the central administration has to work with the principal to identify what areas of professional development are key to being able to provide particularly high quality evidence based instruction for these students.
And so there are, if you look at the effective schools formula, you have to have strong leader. You have to have effective and well implemented bilingual education and English as a second language programs. They have to have quality assessment that allows you to establish baselines and to monitor progress in the native language and in English.
They have to have a strong linkage with parents, and so I would take the effective school's formula and identify my strengths and needs, and then if there are quite a few of them, design a plan that's going to probably take me three to five years to implement, setting some priorities for what are the most important things to have happen in order to close the gap.
Providing support in the student’s strongest language
One of the things that needs to happen is that we need to share our knowledge across programs. So one of the issues for special education is that oftentimes personnel don't have a grounding in second language acquisition, the role of the native language in the child's development, how culture plays a role in student performance, and how they respond to instruction.
So we need to get that information, share that information with our colleagues in special education. And so when a child has a disability, it's not unusual for special educators to think that they need to provide instruction in one language to build strength in a language so that the child can make progress.
And oftentimes they also reason that because the student will ultimately wind up in all English programs that because of the disability and because they may be slower in their language acquisition, that we need to move to English so they have all the time in the world to acquire the skill. And while that makes common sense, there isn't a research base that supports it because what we know is that you have to have strength in one to build strength in the other.
And so it's akin to telling a monolingual English speaking parent, “Your child hasn't learned to read. He's in the second grade. We've done everything that we can to help them him English literacy skills. It hasn't worked, so we're going to try German.” And for monolingual English speakers, we would never consider that because we know that if English is their native language, then we need to build strength in that. And then moving them to German would create an almost impossible situation.
What people don't realize is that the same is true if you're a Spanish speaker, for example. So if you have a disability in Spanish and we've provided instruction and we can't close that gap in the language that you understand and speak best, it's gonna be very difficult to do it in a language in which you have limited proficiency. So instruction in one language might make perfect sense, but it probably should be the native language to avoid other problems from happening.
What happens when we move kids with disabilities out of bilingual education?
I think the other issue is that people really think that special education takes precedence, and so they may dismiss the student from a bilingual education classroom. Sometimes they do it because the special education teacher is a monolingual English speaker. So if you dismiss from bilingual education, then you get English in general ed, English in special education, and you get a totally confused world for the child.
So we really need to think about how we can prepare teachers so that they can address the dual needs of the student regardless of their placement.
The research supporting native language instruction
We live in a context where everything is about evidence-based practice. And I think it's important for us to communicate what the evidence is in relation to instruction of English language learners. We don't have what you would call a robust body of knowledge about language of instruction, for example.
But the studies that have been done, particularly meta-analyses that look at student outcomes as a result of instruction in the native language versus English are all very consistent. The students that do better that are those that receive native language instruction. And that native language instruction has positive effects not only for native language development, but also for English language acquisition.
And so we can underscore the importance of ensuring that students have access to instruction in a language that they understand and speak, and that building the foundation will help us build English language proficiency faster and better, and that there's a research base that we can call upon to make that point, and that the research doesn't change when we identify a student with a disability.
I think that population of students, even more than their non-disabled peers, require native language instruction to the extent possible. Even in programs where the student's receiving instruction entirely in English, looking for native language supports becomes really important. So reinforcing for the parent how important it is that they speak their native language at home, that they resist the temptation to switch to English if they themselves are not proficient, allowing children to use their native language in the classroom and interaction with peers who can provide a really great native language support to communicate concepts that teachers teaching English may not be able to do, finding bilingual para-educators, volunteers to come into the classroom so even when instruction is in English, trying to find where and how we can support native language development becomes really critical for students, including those with disabilities.
Dr. Alba Ortiz is Professor of Special Education and Director of the Office of Bilingual Education at University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Ortiz received her Ph.D. in Special Education Administration from the University of Texas in 1976. Dr. Ortiz is a nationally recognized expert on the education of linguistically and culturally diverse learners with disabilities. In 1992, she served as the President of the International Council for Exceptional Children. In 1994, she was awarded the President's Achievement Award by the National Association for Bilingual Education. She recently co-chaired the Exceptional Needs Committee for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and is currently a member of the National Education Research Policies and Priorities Board.
This video interview was made possible by a generous grant from the National Education Association.