In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, associate professor at Vanderbilt University, who recently received a new NCSER grant to explore the associations among language comprehension skills in both Spanish and English, the processes involved in English reading comprehension, and special education placement decisions for elementary school students from Spanish-speaking homes. She believes the results of the study have the potential to mitigate English reading comprehension difficulties, improve school-based assessment practices to better inform special education decisions, and reduce disproportionate special education representation for students from Spanish-speaking homes.
How did you become interested in a career in education research?
My experience as an elementary school teacher in Southern California is what motivated me to pursue graduate studies. I taught five grade levels within a 3-year span in two very different elementary school contexts. Most students in the school commonly labeled as “diverse”—the same school I attended as a student—were of Mexican origin and from Spanish-speaking, low-income homes, whereas students in the other school actually represented a wide range of linguistic, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
I soon noticed a common thread across the two school contexts. The students who were English learners (ELs) tended to struggle with English language and reading development more than their English-proficient peers. This is not surprising given that EL students, by definition, are effectively still in the process of developing English proficiency. What I found disturbing were the discussions about routing ELs to special education services under the assumption of learning disabilities (LDs), which occurred far too frequently given the expected prevalence of LDs in this community of learners. Although ELs may benefit from additional services, I repeatedly found that many educators (including EL specialists and special education teachers) did not know how to determine whether ELs needed more time to develop English language and reading skills or had, in fact, a language-based disability.
I needed to learn more about typical and atypical language and reading development to help students, regardless of their language background, acquire the language and reading skills to thrive academically. What was supposed to be a 1-year stay to get a master’s degree to become a reading specialist turned into a life-changing, 6-year stay to get my PhD.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?
Year after year, myths persist about linguistically diverse students in the United States. These include such misconceptions as assuming most linguistically diverse students are foreign-born or have limited English proficiency and, most troubling, that speaking a language other than English is a risk factor for low academic achievement. I have found that too many researchers, educators, and policymakers share these misconceptions about linguistically diverse learners.
This represents a significant challenge as the very people who have limited knowledge about linguistically diverse students are those in positions of power who can and do make high-stake decisions. These decisions influence the overall well-being and academic achievement of all students, including linguistically diverse students. I would love to say this challenge can be overcome, but I know that shifting away from the pervasive deficit mindset about this population will not be easy. For now, I continue to underscore the vast heterogeneity among linguistically diverse students in the United States, and I make clear in all my work that speaking a language other than English does not impede the ability to learn. This may sound obvious, but it is necessary for all to know.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
We have a long way to go to ensure educational equity for historically underserved students and families. One area in need of attention is the common inequitable process for identifying—and reclassifying—ELs in U.S. schools. Typically, parents are required to complete a home language survey when they enroll their child in school. If parents report that a language other than English is used at home, the student is immediately flagged as potentially not having the academic English language skills necessary to access the curriculum in English and must take an English language proficiency assessment. The intent is to identify students who need academic English language support services.
The problem is that many ELs who receive EL services tend to face a cycle of watered-down instruction and low academic expectations. In fact, many ELs are never reclassified as English-proficient despite years of EL support and English-only instruction. In sharp contrast, if parents report English as the only language used in the home, the student is automatically assumed to have adequate academic English language skills; their academic English language proficiency is never assessed. If we had universal academic English language proficiency screeners, I hypothesize that a sizable proportion of the “English-only” school-age population would show language profiles similar to that of ELs. It seems clear to me that there is inequity in the EL identification process and that ELs are arguably held to a higher academic standard, without the accompanying rigorous academic English language instructional support.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
All emerging scholars must prioritize their research (from idea generation to grant writing to manuscript development) over other pulls on their time. However, emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups must be extra cautious to avoid overcommitting their time. It is almost a given that, precisely because they are from underrepresented, minoritized groups, there will be more service requests of all sorts for this subset of emerging scholars. Here is a typical example: A faculty member from an underrepresented, minoritized group tends to lead equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts at the department, college, and/or university level. Yet, being a scholar from a historically underrepresented and minoritized background is not synonymous with being an EDI expert. I think people don’t quite understand that these unspoken expectations can create a real time and ethical dilemma for emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that their peers from majority groups do not encounter.
This interview blog was produced by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), a program officer for the reading, writing, and language portfolio in the National Center for Special Education Research.