IES has funded scholars that push for equitable educational experiences. Dr. Lillian Durán is one researcher who stands out in this area. Her work has focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán recently was funded to expand the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDI) suite of psychometrically robust measures for Spanish-speaking DLLs by developing and validating measures for 3-year-olds. As a continuation of our Hispanic Heritage Month Series, we asked Dr. Durán to discuss her research with Hispanic student populations.
Lorena Aceves, a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start on detail with IES, asked Dr. Durán about her work and her experiences. See her responses below.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
I am the first generation born in the United States. My mother was born in Rüstungen, Germany in 1931. This was in central Germany that was divided after WWII and became East Germany. She escaped as a young woman and made her way to the United States. My father was born in Nochistlán, Mexico in 1911, and his family migrated to the California when he was six years old because his father worked on building the railroads. In my home, we spoke German, Spanish and English, but English was my primary language. My personal experience in my family has fostered my interest in multilingual homes, and children who are growing up in first generation families.
Professionally, I became an early childhood special education teacher in 1998 and worked for 9 years both in Prince George’s County, Maryland and later in rural southwestern Minnesota. When I moved to Minnesota, I served three counties where Spanish-speaking children were about 25% of the population. I was the only teacher in nine school districts that spoke any Spanish, and I realized the incredible need in the field to support families who speak languages other than English, especially since there are so few teachers and specialists who are multilingual. In Minnesota, I was motivated to pursue a doctorate to fully immerse myself in understanding evidence-based solutions to serving multilingual children and their families.
What got you interested in a career in education science?
When I was a teacher, I had so many questions about best approaches to working with multilingual children and their families. I found myself looking for extra reading and trainings, but there was little information available to help me. At that time, I was a lead teacher and had signed up for my district to participate in a research project with Dr. Mary McEvoy out of the University of Minnesota. She was instrumental in encouraging me to apply to the doctoral program and agreed to be my advisor. In the end, she tragically passed away in an airplane accident, as many reading this will know, and Dr. Scott McConnell stepped in and took me on as an advisee. I tell this story because I think it is important to remember how important mentorship is to women of color out in the field and the incredible impact providing opportunities and encouragement can have. Without Mary pointing out my potential and giving me the confidence to even consider a doctorate, I might never have applied to a program.
In your area of work, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
This is a complex question because the truth is there are many competing priorities. However, I believe an important priority at this point is to develop more effective bilingual language and literacy interventions that support meaningful improved outcomes reflecting community priorities and values. The interventions need to move beyond a singular focus on English language and literacy development to include culturally and linguistically sustaining practices in intervention design. We need to think much more deeply about the outcomes we are working to achieve and conduct more longitudinal research that can document change and performance over time. There is significant evidence that multilingual learners, in particular, need time to progress and that short-term studies cannot adequately capture more meaningful academic and life outcomes. Our current IES-funded project is looking to develop IGDIs for 3-year-olds to help educators make data-based decisions to improve children’s language and early literacy performance in Spanish, as well as to track growth in their development over time. I also think we need to conduct more research with a broader range of understudied populations including more cultures and languages to better understand their needs as the United States increases in diversity. In order to improve equity, we need to move beyond treating all multilingual students as one uniform group and begin to more systematically explore within group differences to effectively differentiate educational approaches to maximize outcomes.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?
Quite honestly, the biggest challenge I have had to overcome in my life was my childhood. My parents had many challenges and struggles, and I had to care for my own needs and learn how to survive on my own from a very early age. I know this is personal, but I think this experience will resonate with many as we often do not address how many of us who go into education have experienced adverse early experiences ourselves and have had to draw on our inner phoenixes to get to where we are. Once I survived the first 18 years and was able to maintain my sense of self-worth, self-efficacy, and joy, there is not much else the world can throw at me that I can’t survive.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
The best advice I can give is to be true to yourself and have confidence in your intelligence and your contribution to the field. Change is difficult for many people, and there are many entrenched ideologies and practices in academic settings that might inhibit your creativity and ingenuity, but don’t let them! During my doctoral program, I had ideas about a Spanish version of the IGDIs. Initial reactions to the idea included, “Why do we need to measure kids in Spanish if we are teaching them in English?” I did not let that discourage me from reading and understanding what it would take to develop a measure in Spanish. After a decade of IES funding, it is clear there is a need for Spanish early language and literacy measures, and there is, in fact, currently a clear mandate to do a much better job of measuring children in their home languages to accurately capture their ability levels and reduce the likelihood that they will be underestimated reinforcing deficit-based stereotypes.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?
A critical but often overlooked part of education is assessment. Without accurate assessment, it is difficult to know whether what we are doing is working. I have had the great fortune to spend the last 10 years dedicated to Spanish assessment development. Having available high quality and psychometrically sound measures in Spanish that programs can use with confidence is critical to promoting equity in educational practices. It is important that measures developed in languages other than English are not simply translations of English measures, but rather true reflections of the cultural and linguistic characteristics of the population of interest. Technical manuals and evidence of the validity of the measure should be readily available just like they are for the English versions. Too often, measures developed in Spanish have undergone a less rigorous development process, and this does not support the accurate measurement of the ability levels of Spanish-speaking students. Therefore, my team’s assessment work has created a roadmap for embedding equity into measurement design, and I hope that our work leads to more strength-based approaches to assessment and intervention with young Spanish-speaking children that honors their home language and culture.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
I think we need to create more accessible early career funding mechanisms for scholars of color and other underrepresented groups. Securing IES or NIH funding is a daunting process that realistically only pays off for very few of us. Smaller grants that can launch pilot work in emerging fields should be available to seed promising research careers and lines of research. This approach would support innovation and create space for more diverse scholarship and representation. We need to democratize the funding streams and think of new ways that scholars can enter the field with adequate support to launch their work.
Dr. Lillian Durán is an associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Education at the University of Oregon.
This interview was produced and edited by Lorena Aceves, a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start on detail with National Center for Education Research, IES.