School by itself can be challenging enough for kids, but when you add in the extra hurdle of also learning English, it adds another layer of complexity to things.
Children who are bright might be misclassified into remedial classes because of poor assessment practices that don’t take into account their dual-language experiences. Other kids who have learning disabilities might not get identified as such and miss out on the instruction they need.
Several College of Education faculty members are trying to address these issues as the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow in Oregon and beyond. They’re working to help schools better help these students, more quickly identify those who need additional attention, and find the best methods to teach them English while simultaneously teaching skills they’ll need to succeed in and outside of the classroom.
Ultimately, the goal is to more seamlessly phase bilingual students into mainstream classrooms rather than marginalize them on the fringes, while also supporting the primary language spoken at their homes.
“The roots of bilingual education are that linguistic diversity is a benefit not just to an individual but also to communities, our country and society as a whole,” said Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership.
“We’re helping dispel myths that somehow these kids are naturally at risk,” added Lillian Duran, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences. “They’re not. They just speak a different language, and that in itself does not make you at risk. Our educational system creates risk.”
When children enter a school district, parents often fill out questionnaires that ask what language is spoken at home. Any answer other than English triggers an English proficiency test. How children perform on that test could very well determine the trajectory of their lives.
But what about the kids who fall just short in that test and are classified as English-language learners compared with those who just barely pass? Umansky explores the effect of labeling kids as “English-language learners.”
“A lot of opportunities we offer kids are stratified based on race and English-language proficiency,” Umansky said.
Her research explores ways to support greater equity for students, particularly for those who come from immigrant backgrounds and that have a primary language other than English.
Umansky looked at thousands of kids who fell onto both sides of that tipping point. She found that kids who are classified as English-language learners do worse over time — by a small margin — than kids who just meet English requirements and move forward in regular classrooms.
“That’s pretty troubling,” Umansky said. “English-learner services are supposed to help kids, not hurt them.”
Stephanie De Anda
Stephanie De Anda has personal experience growing up in a Spanish-speaking household. As the oldest of three children, the degree of Spanish fluency decreased with each of her two younger siblings as each was exposed to more English at a younger age.
What languages kids hear from birth is a big part of De Anda’s research. She studies how kids connect words in one language to words in the other and how they form those links.
“This has a clinical application for us because we think if we can understand how these languages interact, then maybe we can leverage that in therapy,” said De Anda, an assistant professor in the Communication Disorders and Sciences Program and co-director of the Early Dual Language Development Lab. “So when these kids come to us with a delay, we can say, ‘Oh, I can support your Spanish in hopes it will also help your English and vice versa.’”
There’s a sense of urgency when it comes to supporting academic outcomes when working with kids learning English. Research shows 65 percent to 75 percent of children with early reading problems continue to read poorly.
Of children with reading problems, 10 percent to 15 percent drop out of high school, and 2 percent eventually complete a four-year college program. De Anda’s research focuses on identifying kids with early language delays and impairments and finding interventions that work best to make them successful in school.
“This has always been important, but we’re just starting to put resources toward it,” De Anda said.
By 2050, one in three children are projected to be Latino, and Oregon has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the nation. Schools need to be ready to address their needs. That’s where Lauren Cycyk’s research steps in.
Cycyk, an assistant professor in the Communication Disorders and Sciences Program and co-director of the Early Dual Language Development Lab with De Anda, looks at ways to incorporate and involve a student’s community in the process of helping them overcome language or learning disorders prior to entry.
“Language disorders are nondiscriminatory,” Cycyk said. “Learning disorders are nondiscriminatory.”
About 10 percent of children have language-learning difficulties. Her work ensures that early education and special education practitioners work with them in ways that respect children’s culture and language while also incorporating their family early in the process.
“For many families, their home educational systems are very different than ours in the U.S.,” Cycyk said. “It’s simply giving them the key to the black box: ‘Here’s how it works in our educational system, so let’s think about how we can encourage your participation so your child is successful.’”
Schools regularly test students to gauge their strengths and weaknesses. But when you assess a students’ skills in a language they are still learning, does that really gauge what they know about math, reading or writing?
Lillian Duran is working on ways to more accurately test kids’ skills and then catch them early. She develops assessments for preschoolers that measure their language and early reading skills, such as familiarity with the alphabet.
“Most measures we have right now are only in English,” Duran said. “When you have children who enter a program at 3, 4, 5 years old who have primarily been exposed to Spanish, those measures are a poor reflection of actual ability levels. They can historically score very low on measures of English language and literacy and yet still have very high skills in Spanish.”
Duran’s assessments help identify kids who would benefit from extra support so they’re ready for kindergarten and ensure students aren’t underestimated simply because they don’t speak English.
Duran developed her assessments by working with more than 900 preschoolers across the U.S. She’s now working on another measure to monitor progress, which she expects to be available next year.
“The need is only going to increase,” Duran said. “Just think of the resources we’re pouring into remediation when we should be putting resources into prevention and enrichment activities.”
In the 1960s and 1970s nearly 500 school districts were ordered to implement some form of a desegregation policy so schools’ racial makeup would more closely resemble that of their overall district.
In the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, however, 215 school districts were released from their desegregation orders, and the outcomes weren’t all positive, David Liebowitz found in his research.
Liebowitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership, compared districts that had been released from their desegregation orders with other districts that had not been released or were released at a different time. Districts that were released saw an increase in dropout rates among black and Latino students of 3 percentage points.
“There’s good evidence that desegregation policies improved schools and long-term life outcomes for black and Latino students,” Liebowitz said. “My study looked at what happened at the end of that period when desegregation ended, and it appears to have produced negative outcomes.”
Liebowitz, who joined the College of Education faculty in 2018, is building on his findings by looking for ways Oregon school administrators can better support Latino students in schools, and his work exemplifies that of his fellow College of Education colleagues, especially as it applies to Oregon.
“There’s not lot of quality evidence out there on what actions and behaviors school leaders can take that are most predictive of improved student outcomes,” Liebowitz said. “That’s a really great question to answer in the Oregon context.”
—By Jim Murez, University Communications