March 2015
Andrés Ramírez, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, Florida, USA

Dr. David Rogers serves as the executive director for Dual Language Education of New Mexico (DLeNM), a nonprofit that is committed to promoting the effective design and implementation of dual language enrichment education across the country. David has taught in Paraguay, South America; South Bronx, New York; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. He received his MA in bilingual/bicultural education from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1992, and completed his EdS in educational administration at the University of New Mexico in 2000.

In this interview, teacher, advocate, executive director, and host of the well-known annual “La Cosecha” (The Harvest) Conference David Rogers shares his personal journey starting when he first confronted the exclusionary power of standard language, in this case Spanish, while teaching in Paraguay, South America. This significant experience and its teachings were catalysts for his continued academic journey and advocacy leading to the critical moral imperative of bilingual dual language education he outlines. His strategic vantage point as seasoned teacher; as relentless advocate for bilingual dual language;and as executive director of DLeNM in times of great dissonance between theory, research, and educational practice for linguistic and cultural minorities makes his advice unique and more timely than ever.

Please talk a bit about your personal story and how it intersects with bilingualism and bilingual education. What do you still carry with you from those days in your present role as advocate for/scholar in bilingual education?

I didn’t know anything about bilingual ed until I went to Paraguay and stayed there for 4 years with the Peace Corps. I lived in a “pueblito en el campo campo [small village in the middle of nowhere],” as they say there. We didn’t have electricity or tap water, we had wells and it was a very isolated community. But we had very good schools. I lived in the school house with three other teachers who came from the city that was about 50 miles away.

At that time, the language of school was Spanish, even though only some percentage of the students spoke any Spanish, but they all knew and spoke Guarani, their indigenous language. What I came to realize was that although all students loved to be in schools, and they never missed school and the families and the parents valued the school, by the time they were in second grade or third grade, those who did not speak Spanish would finish their studies and then they will go to work with their families in the fields. This was not seen as shameful in any way, it was just the way it was. If their Spanish was not very strong, then that was an indication that they would be better off working with their parents in the fields.

At that time, I started to think about this. [The students] were very intelligent, as I would talk to them about politics and government and topics like that. So this didn’t really seem right to me, although there was nothing to be shameful of. If they didn’t have the language, they didn’t continue. Those who continued their studies would go onto fifth grade. After that, if they wanted to continue their studies, then they had to take the bus to another town that was about 10 kilometers away from our community. They would have to walk about 3 kilometers on a dirt road to reach the bus stop, and then come back at night. So they could continue their studies, but only about 10% continued with their education after fifth grade due to lack of resources.

That’s when I became curious about bilingual ed, or the lack of it. Why couldn’t they continue their studies in Guarani as well as in Spanish? With those experiences, I went to Columbia University and studied a degree in bilingual and multicultural education and also taught in a school in South Bronx. It just made sense to me, as bilingual education would be the path for all to study and develop two languages as a minimum.

Now, as the executive director for Dual Language Education of New Mexico, what parallels do you see from  that time with the challenges we are facing today?

I think it is absurd. “Es una locura [it’s crazy]” that we have 50 years of strong research that show us that bilingual education works for all students, not just for linguistic and cultural minority students. And even though all our politicians, and for me in New Mexico our Governor, our secretary of education, our national secretary of education, the president all say that learning in two or more languages is a positive thing, politically [bilingual education] is not represented in any of the educational reform that is being discussed. We are fighting just to get more money for Title III, we’ve got twice as many of the English language learners we had 10 to 12 years ago, and yet Title III money—the only money that comes to us from the Federal government for those students—has remained the same. It stays in only words. It is crazy that we still have to fight to justify bilingual education in this country. Unlike many other countries, and to use the ideas of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, the U.S. insists in staying monolingual. Our leadership continues to consider bilingualism somehow as an attack on our feeling of nationalism in the U.S. Somehow, if we say that any other language besides English is appropriate for a U.S. citizen, we are being disloyal to our nationalistic feelings; it’s just absurd.

From your perspective, and taking into consideration your personal experiences as well as the political arena of much rhetoric and not as much action that you describe, how do you perceive bilingual education? How has your perspective on bilingual education changed (or not) over the years? Is there something different that we could be doing?

Yes. Twenty-five to thirty years ago, the main purpose and the reason why we considered bilingual education as a primary program in our schools was to help close the achievement gap and provide equity and access to good education for our second language students. While I still think that applies today, the big change in these 30+ years is that now we are a much more global society thanks to the Internet, thanks to air travel, thanks to the different international agreements. Not only is bilingual education a primary program for closing the achievement gap and ensuring equity and access to quality education, but it’s also needed to develop multicultural and multilingual citizenry that can compete at a global scale. Compete in politics, education, business. It’s needed in all countries to be able to ensure a sound future for their citizens. Those are some of the bookend motivations for bilingual education and personally [they are] also what I believe is the promise of dual language education; an education in preschool all the way through university level where we educate students in at least two languages.

The other motivation is an ethical and moral one. If we don’t embrace bilingual/multicultural education, we are going to continue to tell linguistic and cultural minority students that come to our kindergarten to leave their culture and their mother tongue at the door and basically take away from them that which is an asset, putting them at even more of a disadvantage than when they enter schools.

In dual language education, we often talk about the imperative to develop more dual language education so there is opportunity for more students to build on their linguistic and sociocultural capital that they bring with them. This is something that we need to turn into an asset and leave that deficit model thinking that we have. Somehow, all students need to do well in English only in what still is an Eurocentric curriculum that we offer.

All in all, we think that there are three motivations/purposes for bilingual (dual language) education today:

The first, that has been with us for more than 40 years, is to close the achievement gap between White and linguistic/cultural minority students to ensure equity in high quality education.

The second being a moral and ethical purpose, which is to build rather than to tell students to abandon their mother tongue, rather to build on the linguistic and sociocultural capital of our students—changing deficit to asset way of thinking.

The third is to build a multilingual, multicultural citizenry to ensure the U.S. is competitive in the world, in education, politics, business, etc.

For me, it will always be about  students, families, and communities. Our future is improved when we can prepare, engage, and support the education of students and families within their community. When the student is prepared for a career or college of their choice, then we have ensured their future. However, when a student is educated and returns (or remains) to their community to serve and contribute as a multilingual/multicultural citizen, then we have secured a better future for us all. That’s capacity building at its best.

One of the events that has been growing over the years is “La Cosecha” conference. Please tell us a bit more about “La Cosecha” and how it has been changing over the years to its current state.

I would think that so far I’ve talked about some things that we haven’t been truly successful in, but I think that “La Cosecha” has been our greatest success. One of the purposes of “Cosecha” is to provide professional development and professional growth opportunities for educators, administrators, and policy makers. More than anything, “La Cosecha” has been our main tool in getting the message out to people that dual language education is for all students, not just for culturally and linguistically minority students. It’s a promise of enriching education for all students to be able to learn in more languages. “La Cosecha” has done well to get that message out and to plant seeds to motivate educational leaders in school districts around the country and around the world. This past year, we had visitors from seven countries, and we are going to visit two schools, one in Cuernavaca, Mexico and the other one in Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica this coming summer. It has really done well to inspire. For DLeNM, this is our 12th year as a nonprofit, 18 here unofficially as we began with “La Cosecha” 19 years ago.

What we haven’t been able to do completely, and it is part of our daily work, is to build capacity in our schools, our school districts across the country, to provide what our small nonprofit provides to schools, which is support for program development, professional development, advocacy, policy—these are all things with which we are all engaged. The next step we are taking is to work with NABE (National Association for Bilingual Education) affiliates, with the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education, with the San Antonio Area Association for Bilingual Education, the California association, the Colorado association. We are trying to help them build capacity, as this is the kind of work that we do in program retreats or training in sheltering and scaffolding, biliteracy development training. Those are areas we are developing and areas that we are not even close to achieving yet. It is our hope that the political environment would change and that our politicians would start to not only talk about learning in two or more languages, but actually start to write policy, maybe the reauthorization of the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), and that we actually start to appropriate funds for at least start up programs like the ones we had with Title VII. All those are long gone, we are talking about 11–12 years ago, and we need those back. So, hopefully, they would start walking the [walk] instead of “puras palabras [only words].”

You mentioned previously the three goals and imperatives of bilingual education as you see them, not only as closing the achievement gap, but as a way to build on the multilingual repertoires of our communities as well as to build competitive citizenry for the 21st-century global world. Have you seen any trends or patterns in new approaches to bilingual education to try to advance these goals?

One trend that I don’t necessarily know is a good trend but that we are following closely, is how the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) seems to be growing in its influence. In my opinion, the office was quiet for about 10 years during the Bush administrations and No Child Left Behind. Then, we started to note how the number of OCR cases began to drop down significantly. I’m not saying that OCR should be called for every little thing, but we certainly saw more school districts being content with doing less bilingual education or in some cases eliminating bilingual programs. We saw money being taken away from bilingual education as well. Anyway, the trend now is how we see OCR involved in New York, in Los Angeles, in Denver, and they are demanding programs and initiatives that bring equity and access to quality education for linguistically minority students for the underserved. In those areas, we are seeing school districts choosing dual language education as the core program for turning academic, linguistic, and sociocultural success for those students who have not been doing well historically.

I hesitate to say that this is a good trend yet. What I would say is good about it is that for the first time in my career, I have seen the programs being developed first at the district level. That is, before they allow or require a school to implement programs, it is the districts that are looking at the model they want to implement. The district is the one that is looking at what kind of resources they must have, what kind of professional development they must have, what kind of materials they must have. Up until now in my career of 27 years or so, it’s mostly the school community that started [developing programs]. It has been a very grassroots effort for dual language programs to appear. There have been very few districts—and I can name them on one hand, like Ysleta School District in El Paso—there have been very few districts that have had district-wide initiatives for pre-k–12 dual language. So, one trend that I’m very appreciative of and one that we are not sure but there are good things about it is that the OCR is now working with the districts that are beginning to look and plan for dual language education as a way to provide access to quality education for cultural and language minority students.

Another trend that I see and that is very early in its stage, I’m hearing finally about a good number of institutions that are seriously looking at revamping their teacher education, their preservice programs, in order not only to increase the number of bilingually endorsed or bilingually certified teachers, as there is a huge shortage of bilingual education teachers, but to strengthen the quality of the teacher that is available to take on these new positions that are being created as the dual program languages grow in number. Those are trends. I’m seeing great leadership at the district level and even at the state level. For example, there is Utah, there’s Delaware. North Carolina should not be included just yet, but there are state initiatives that include dual language education and dual immersion. I’m a little hesitant to say that these are completely possible trends, because so far some of those state initiatives have gone to serve more middle class students and by default more Anglos in many communities, and those are not the students that I personally feel need these programs as much as others. There is certainly room for them to participate, but we are concerned here in DLeNM about the student that is not making it in school because they do not have a program that uses their first language and validates and celebrates their culture.

So, there are some state trends going on. North Carolina is actually one of those states that has increased their dual language programs significantly, and the majority of their programs are serving lower socioeconomic students, those who have been historically underserved. I’m very excited about that initiative, and they are defining the initiative as they go. Maybe that is the best way. In New Mexico, we may see a more favorable attitude toward dual language. We have a lawsuit in the state by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) involving more than 60 families. We are saying that they did not have equitable access to quality education. Bilingual education and dual language is talked and mentioned in these hearings and these conversations that are happening as one way the state could make the community happier if they were to support the program. Of course, in New Mexico, we do get additional dollars for bilingual education, but what that has done is that some districts simply say they have bilingual education in order to get dollars, but they do a very poor job in designing and implementing their programs.

What about at the level of curriculum, instruction, theory, and the like? What have you seen in the later years in “La Cosecha,” for example in terms of buzzwords or concepts teachers are talking about?

For veteran teachers, for those who have been successful and who are committed, the topic right now is biliteracy development and what does it mean. So, you have several debates going around, you have your educators and educational leaders that continue to say that there needs to be strict separation of language when you are instructing in a dual language classroom or a developmental bilingual classroom, and you have those who believe that there should be fluidity between the use of languages. Ofelia García talks about translanguaging as something very natural that is happening in our communities and that should be fully integrated into the way we instruct our students.

These are healthy debates in my opinion. They are very healthy debates. I tend to believe that there is a time for both: When you are instructing a course, let’s say “biologia [biology]” the course should be given in Spanish. But I think there is a time, especially in our language arts classes, when we can compare and contrast the two languages in which the students are learning so they come to understand better where they are coming from—underlying proficiencies between the two, and what traits of language are specific to that language. I think that helps students be better language learners. So, I do believe there is a time where we should be free and we should give our students freedom in the classroom to move between languages. In social studies, we should be extremely supportive of that because that is just a natural way for social studies.

So, right now, biliteracy development and how we do that—how do you ensure that happens since they are learning in two languages, how from the language and literacy perspective do we maximize the student’s learning through direct teaching on commonalities and differences between the two languages? There are a number of exciting things that are happening with the work of Carol Beeman and Sheryl Urrow, Ofelia García, and Kathy Escamilla. There are a number of great things that are happening, so right now that is a trend, that is a hot button with anything that has to do with biliteracy or teaching for transfer. Those presentations at “La Cosecha” are always full. They are always filled to capacity.

Anything else you may want to say to the readers about the past, present, and future of bilingual education?

My recommendation for people who are struggling with development and implementing good bilingual education is that, of course, they need to be advocates of their program, but my recommendation is not to get trapped in the pettiness of the political debate. Don’t allow yourself to get trapped in debates about whether or not bilingual education works. Speak with authority from the 50 years of research that shows it works and that it is the best way to serve linguistic and cultural minority students. Speak with authority about what is happening in the classroom, what is happening in your school that is evidence everyday that bilingual education works. Involve yourself in building and implement the best program possible and let everyone and anyone come and see the great work of your school community.

Don’t get trapped in those debates about testing, and don’t allow yourself to believe that the tests, especially the standards-based testing, are the best indication of success in your program. We all know that it only touches the surface as far as a demonstration of what the students are doing well or not. It does not get to all the pieces of what is important in education. Everyone, even the politicians, seems to be reaching that conclusion.

When you have an opportunity to advocate, speak with authority from research and from your own observations about how things are going in your school, in your classroom. That’s the way we are going to change policy. That’s the way we are going to change the focus and we are going to start getting politicians to just stop with the words and start writing or revising policy or reauthorizing education acts that support dual language and more developmental bilingual education.

Andrés Ramírez is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, USA. His research focuses on the academic achievement of emergent to advanced bilinguals in K–16 contexts.