March 2015
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KATE MENKEN ON THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION: AN INTERVIEW
Alsu Gilmetdinova, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

Kate Menken is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), and a Research Fellow at the Research Institute for the Study of Language in an Urban Society of the CUNY Graduate Center. She is Co-Principal Investigator of the CUNY-New York State Initiative for Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB) project, and Associate Editor/Review Editor for the journal Language Policy. Her research interests include language education policy, bilingual education, and emergent bilinguals in secondary schools. Her books are English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy (Multilingual Matters, 2008) and Negotiating Language Policies in Schools: Educators as Policymakers(with Ofelia García, Routledge, 2010).

Can you tell me about how you got into the field of bilingual education and bilingualism, and how your career unfolded?

I started out in 1994 in an ESL pull-out program teaching students K–4 at an elementary school in New Jersey. I had a TESOL degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but because Pennsylvania did not offer state certification in TESOL or require that ESL teachers be certified, I went to New Jersey. In the school where I worked, they offered a Spanish-English transitional bilingual education program with a pull-out component. It was an overcrowded school, and I served 15–18 students at a time, but my classroom was a converted storage closet with space for only 10 students, and the chairs were sized for the kindergarten and first-grade students. I went to the principal to discuss the situation, and though I was a first year teacher, she asked me to figure it out on my own. That same year, she was awarded administrator of the year.

There were two main things that I learned from that experience and my 2 years there. First, emergent bilinguals who have the opportunity to receive bilingual education were able to maintain and extend their home language practices and access grade level content while acquiring English. Yet, students who spoke languages other than Spanish and were only in the pull-out ESL class progressed less and couldn’t access the content in the mainstream classes. They tended to have lower self-esteem and more difficulty adjusting to schooling. Secondly, I learned that working with emergent bilingual students requires advocacy. This is something that I hadn’t learned in my teacher education program but is necessary to serve the needs of this population. So, one of my colleagues invited a journalist from a local Spanish-medium newspaper who documented the classroom conditions and the school. I showed him my attendance roster, and he wrote an article that came out on the front page of the paper. Several months later, an inspector came to evaluate the school. Back then, trailers were used to service emergent bilinguals, special education students, and students who needed additional services. It was very much racially and linguistically segregated.

Where did you work after those 2 years?

I worked for another year teaching English as a foreign language in Kenya and then began work at the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization in education reform. We worked with teachers to provide professional development, and on various initiatives with the School District of Philadelphia. It was also an advocacy organization, with a focus on professional development and support for educators. It was a very interesting time as standards were coming in nationally and I became involved in the development of Philadelphia’s standards (benchmarks) for emergent bilinguals, the start of a Chinese bilingual program, and other things. During that time, I took a class on language policy with Dr. Nancy Hornberger at the University of Pennsylvania, and I felt her class gave me a way to describe the work I was doing at that time as well as new perspectives on it.

My next job was with the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education in Washington, DC. It was while I was working there that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed into law. The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education was a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, supported and funded by the federal government. So, I soon noticed a shift in policy discourse at the federal level from bilingual education to a focus on English language acquisition. Among my responsibilities, I had to write policy briefs. I wrote one on wide-scale testing of emergent bilinguals that came back to me after review by the Department of Education red lined, with certain things that were politically sensitive crossed out. And in order to continue to receive federal funding, we had to rename the organization the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), which it is called today. Also what used to be the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education, or OBEMLA, is now the Office of English Language Acquisition, or OELA. It was interesting to be working in DC at the policy level, but as NCLB went into effect, I could not stop but think about how it would affect emergent bilingual students.

That is when you decided to go to Columbia University for a PhD and pursue your interest in bilingual education and language policy?

Yes, I worked for 7 years altogether before going back to graduate school. When new policy changes your work environment, it’s a good time to go back to school! And New York is an exciting place to be. I remember when I first visited one of the International High Schools, I realized how amazing and full of promise that some schools for emergent bilinguals can be. New York has always served large numbers of emergent bilinguals, and some schools do it incredibly well. So I felt things were more upbeat in public schools. I joined the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, specializing in bilingual/bicultural education. I knew when I was coming in that I wanted to look into the effects of the policy on emergent bilinguals.

After some courses, I began thinking that I might compare the impact of standards-based reforms in the U.S. with other countries in the world, and do a comparative study. But with time, I came full circle and decided to focus on the U.S. only. It was also the year when Ofelia García joined Teachers College, and she became my advisor. You have to have some personal connections to make your research more meaningful and feel passionately about it. So, this is what happened to me. For my dissertation, I went into 10 schools and studied the impact of NCLB on emergent bilinguals.

The next question we have is a broad question about the field of bilingual education. What are the purpose, scope, process, and outcomes of bilingual education and bilingualism? How did they change over the years? How do you envision their evolution in the future?

To start with the changes in the field, one main shift was that bilingual education programs were defined as transitional in the past. I was not an educator in the 1970s and 1980s, when the first federal policies were set, but I can comment from the 1990s onwards from what I’ve witnessed myself. So, the move from the popularity of transitional programs to dual language bilingual programs is the biggest shift I’ve seen. With increasing globalization, language contact, growth of the global economy and marketplace, bilingual education is being recognized as an opportunity to build upon and extend home language practices of emergent bilinguals with the goal of developing language and also literacies for academic purposes in the home language and English as well. We do not want the schools to be subtractive, we do not want to create linguistic fissures. Instead, we want to bridge the gap between home and school, community and school. And today, the shift is visible.

More and more parents are enrolling their children in dual language bilingual programs. However, dual language programs are still a small minority in comparison to other programs and the transitional models of bilingual education are still more common. But we have begun to move away from thinking of bilingual education as remedial into thinking about it as an enrichment model. This enrichment model entices English-speaking White parents to also enroll their children in dual language bilingual programs. People in the general public are more and more aware of the cognitive and economic benefits of bilingualism, and are seeking opportunities to find bilingual schooling for their children. The work of Bialystok on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism is taken up by the public, and knowledge of more than one language is an asset in the current global economy. For many parents here in New York, the choice of dual language programming is seen as an alternative to gifted and talented programs (G&T), as another form of enrichment. These parents are interested in finding either dual language or G&T programs for their kids, and all of this interest has made getting into dual language bilingual programs more competitive here.

However, there is also concern that this is a form of gentrification, or what Nelson Flores called a “Columbusing” of bilingual education in his recent blog. As a field, we need to consider how to harness this interest in ways that remain true to the original aims of bilingual education. How can bilingual education programs take all of that interest and use it to further the original aims of the field rather than undermine them?

So, from your point of view, what caused, served as an impetus for this shift in thinking about bilingual education?

I think it is a combination of things. We are past the period of thinking about the one nation, one language ideology as an ideal; it does not exist in the same way. What it means to be an American is being redefined, as according to the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) more than half of all students are minorities in public schools today. More and more parents, especially elite families, are choosing bilingual education for their children. Anti-immigrant sentiment is still present, though, through the adoption and implementation of English -only policy in states like Arizona. But it seems to be out of touch with reality. There is a real understanding among this U.S. elite about globalization. Everybody is affected by these changes. Even politicians are now more inclined to speak Spanish in public. The shifts are happening at the elementary levels as well. Parents here will pay top dollar to send their kids to language immersion preschools, many of which are extremely expensive. For instance, in Manhattan there are some of these elite immersion schools in languages such as Mandarin, Spanish, and French, where most of the students are predominately from wealthy, White families and very few home language speakers of the language of instruction—if any—enroll. There is great interest in such programs.

Another example is for older grades, too, such as at the Avenues school, which is a private school in Manhattan with grades Pre-K–12. Children at this school are extremely elite with tuition over US$40,000 per year (for instance Suri Cruise, the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, is a student there). They offer dual language bilingual education in Spanish or Mandarin. So, families of the elite and middle class are recognizing the value of bilingual education and are seeking out these options in public and private schools, and clearly they have become trendy in many places. Again the key question is how we as a field can ensure that this popularity of bilingual education brings a positive change for all students, including emergent bilinguals.

What do you think about the fact that most of these schools are using Spanish, Mandarin, French, and Arabic languages? And what is the potential for bilingual education with languages that cannot be classified as world languages?

Political power of the communities and the numbers of speakers affect the provision of bilingual education. These languages can survive within their communities, in places where there is a vested interest in language maintenance and bilingual education. Some communities are well organized. Cubans in Florida after the Revolution of 1959 and later Puerto Ricans in New York City were instrumental in developing bilingual education nationally. These groups have legal status in the U.S., so were able to speak up for themselves and advocate their right for bilingual education. Bengalis who live in our community have not pushed for Bengali-medium education in the same way, for various reasons with differing degrees of acceptance that schooling will be in English among different language communities. But it is true, that in New York, less commonly spoken languages have far lower status within the school system, with bilingual education raising the status of certain minoritized languages.

At the same time, students’ home languages can and should be used in all classrooms, including ESL. Exciting positive changes can happen from bottom-up language education policies, through the adoption of bilingual programs, through their linguistic landscape to visibly acknowledge the many languages of their students, through classroom materials that support language learning and affirm their home languages and cultures, and through ensuring high-quality preparation of their teachers. At the same time, schools are struggling due to the imposition of top-down policies that are mismatched local programming, which implicitly promote English-only programs, especially through their assessment and accountability provisions. We must attend to the accountability provisions of NCLB in the English language, and these undermine instruction in students’ home language. Now we have new assessment requirements nationally, based on the Common Core State Standards. These do not replace NCLB’s accountability requirements, but if anything accelerate them. Two state consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), are charged with designing the assessments of the Common Core State Standards, and they still approach assessment through the same accommodations paradigm as under NCLB. Although New York State is outside of the consortia, they are also still approaching assessment using an accommodations paradigm with the belief that a few accommodations will level the playing field between students. It is a transitional, not an enrichment paradigm.

What these assessments reveal is that emergent bilinguals are again at the periphery of federal education policies. Both groups, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, are approaching the assessment of bilinguals through extended time, and other accommodations used in previous assessments. One of the two groups will provide translations perhaps. But the reality is that assessments in English are de facto language policy. It happens every time you adopt English-only assessments, and thus the Common Core is failing emergent bilinguals and repeating the worst mistakes of NCLB. In New York State this is the case, literally and educationally. These policies promise to serve bilingual students as well, but current assessments are undermining the efforts to serve students using their languages in instruction. In New York, we even have test translations, but still there has been a dramatic decline in bilingual programs in the wake of testing and accountability requirements relying on tests in English. Now schools have been pressured to adopt Common Core textbooks that match the new Common Core tests, and in New York where tests were developed by Pearson, schools are being pressured to adopt ReadyGen, a curriculum by Pearson that is only available in English. What also happens is that the publisher, Pearson, developed the curriculum one module at a time, and schools only received them one at a time so they could not see the entire curricula and that it does not include languages other than English. Even great bilingual education programs in the state are adopting monolingual curricula. And teachers have to navigate the pressures to teach only in English, and make some room for home language in the classroom. They have to prepare materials on their own which might not parallel that of the Common Core program, and might not be of high quality.

Where do you want the field of bilingual education to go toward? What aspects of your current or past work have contributed to this goal(s)?

It is important to recognize that teachers are policy brokers, and administrators play a huge role. Teachers are often the experts, the language experts in their buildings, they are those certified in bilingual education or TESOL. What is commonplace, however, is that a school principal, who has no background and has limited understandings of bilingualism and bilingual education, is the one who makes decisions about language programming. Teachers, while well versed in the topic, also receive no preparation as arbiters of language policy. They are not taught how to navigate top-down policies, reconcile them with the knowledge from their training, and implement them. So they need this preparation, and principals also really need to be prepared to effectively serve emergent bilinguals. Having teachers is not enough, you cannot have an effective program without an effective administrator.

More work has to be done in the area of curriculum and materials development. It is a constant battle, to think of bilingualism beyond the confines of bilingual classes and how to incorporate the home languages of all students into the mainstream classroom, even if the numbers do not warrant creating separate bilingual programs. How to create room for both languages in bilingual programs without separating them—for example, using only one language in social studies, language arts, and using another language in math and science. New research in translanguaging is promising in this regard as it allows breaking these boundaries between English-only ESL programs and bilingual programs. It is high time to move beyond the parallel monolingual approach, where bilinguals are misperceived as two monolinguals in one. How do we loosen these boundaries, and use students’ home languages in one and the same class? Thinking more holistically about bilingual education is important. TESOL teachers also need bilingual preparation, learning how to use student’s home language in ways that will support their learning of English and other content-area classes. This should become an item placed on TESOL’s agenda as no classrooms should ever be monolingual in English.

Assessment is another big area of research and practice. In applied linguistics, we have experienced a multilingual turn, even linguists are now questioning what is language, complicating the idea of one nation one language, and no longer seeking that as an ideal. This multilingual turn needs to happen in TESOL as well. Teachers of English to speakers of other languages should also receive bilingual training. The multilingual turn is also in contrast to what is happening in schools, which are still typically monolingual. There is a need to recognize that language practices are more fluid, flexible, dynamic. Instead of seeing students as partial, only knowing a language partially, bilingual language learning and teaching should become more holistic, allowing students to learn and speak two or more languages, and leverage students’ home language practices to deepen and extend them.

Lastly, another piece is policy, and we have talked about that already. The question is: How do we adopt top-down and bottom-up policies that are also flexible and support bilingual education?


Alsu Gilmetdinova is a PhD candidate in the Literacy and Language Education program at Purdue University. Her interests revolve around bilingual education, language policy, and TESOL.

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