Leonard Baca


Hi, my name is Leonard Baca. Uh, I am a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and uh I’m also the director there of the Buenos Center for multicultural education.

Uh yes, traditionally uh bilingual special education uh has been—or the stu—the students who are in the program have—have been referred to as the triple threat student because uh they have three strikes against them. Namely, uh their disability, secondly, their—their limited English ability, and uh finally the uh the fact that they usually come from lower socioeconomic status or poverty. Uh, so that uh particular metaphor of the three strikes against them uh has—has done some disservice to—to the uh program and to the students because it’s uh portrayed then as uh being difficult to teach and being uh difficult for them to learn because it leaves factors. So in the last few years uh what uh—what we’ve been doing to try to uh change that is to shift the uh negative perspective to a more positive perspective. So we’ve been speaking about the—the three strengths to build on model. Uh, and we’re referring to their—their learning potential which we’ve, you know, I believe is always a very big factor and even though they might have limitations, they still have a huge learning potential. And secondly, their native language becomes uh a real positive uh part of—of what we’re working with, and a strength. And likewise their unique culture because everyone comes from a somewhat different culture given their own family and ethnicity and background. And so we like to speak about bilingual special ed youngsters as uh individuals with uh, uh strengths rather then individuals with uh disabilities or—or deficits. So we—we’re basically trying to look at the glass as half full rather then as half empty. And I think that puts us in a much stronger position to uh, uh work with them, to raise expectation, to challenge them beyond what uh perhaps we might have challenged them uh had we been looking at them from a deficit perspective.

In the classroom setting, these—these strengths uh play themselves out in—in various ways. Uh, but certainly the—the language factor, I think, is one of the first ones that—that comes up. And uh what we want to make sure we communicate here is that uh as soon as a teacher is aware that there is another language other then English that—that operates in the student’s home or in the student’s uh environment, is to acknowledge that and to praise that and to reinforce that, validate that. Let the child know that that’s really something wonderful, that they have another language, that they’re special, their unique that they have more then one language in their home and that in the school we’re going to try to encourage that use of that language to the extent possible. Now some of these programs may have a native language or bilingual components, other may not because of lack of uh staff or—or what have you. Uh, nonetheless, the teacher can still uh acknowledge and point out the strength of that language. Encourage parents to use the language, grandparents to use the language. Uh, encourage a lot of verbal interaction in their native language because all of those are part of language development and uh are important re—regardless of whether the child is monolingual or bilingual. So encouraging everyone around the child to make full use of—of any language that might uh exist in the home. Uh, the learning potential, of course, is another important uh point to—to mention. And uh what we want to communicate to the student here is that everyone has tremendous learning potential and they are no exception. So that we focus in on letting them know, you know, we are going to expect for you to learn many, many things in this classroom and go way beyond the level that you first came in to the classroom. So uh we’re going to be expecting this and we’re going to be working with you to develop, you know, whatever talents and skills that you have and uh we will uh do everything possible to make sure that uh you perform at the very highest level. And, of course, the cultural component uh is a little less visible uh perhaps because we tend to take culture for granted. But uh there again we’re—we’re wanting to point out to them that uh your individual background, your individual uh, uh way of looking at things, your—your uh ethnicity is—is something that can serve you well in school. And so, you know, don’t leave uh your—your background at home. Bring it with you to school and we will make very good use of that. Uh, so pointing out to a student that uh all of these three facets, their—their potential to learn, their language, and their culture, are things that we think are very, very important and valuable and we’re going to use them here in the classroom. So uh communicating that through not only direct uh communication, but through uh informal ways that we acknowledge, you know, what they do at home is important uh, what they may have learned from their grandparents is important uh, and trying to make the bridge between their home and the school uh as explicit and obvious as possible. Those are things that we feel are—are really important here.

Well, in special education uh we have 13 categories or so that the Federal government has uh outlined as uh eligible uh for special education and support and services. And some of them are fairly traditional, which is uh deafness or blindness or a severe disability and so forth. Uh, others are uh less uh obvious in that uh, uh they’re a little uh, uh more what we call socially constructed in the sense that individuals have to determine where we’re going to uh establish the boundaries for this condition. Uh, for example, mild retardation. We all are aware of severe retardation and we see sometimes physical signs like we do with down syndrome. But with mile retardation, the child looks perfectly normal and just by observing them on the playground you couldn’t tell that there was any kind of uh—of intellectual deficit. So it tends to be something that uh is a lot more subtle and it—uh, harder to—to recognize and requires academic performance before we begin to notice some limitations. Uh, that definition of mild retardation has changed uh five times in the last 50 years. Which points out the fact that experts are not always quite sure how we should define this and where the—the cut off point should be. And as a result uh we tend to refer to these categories as the more socially constructed meaning that social interaction among experts determines where certain cutoffs uh are established. And uh because these categories are—are socially constructed, they tend to be a little more uh fluid. They tend to be a little more uh uncertain and there’s often much more debate among professionals as to whether or not a child belongs in that program because it’s quite easy to establish uh whether there’s a hearing deficit, we put on some kind of a audiometer or we look at a person with a visual impairment, we give them an eye exam. And uh those data are pretty straightforward and we can make a pretty easy decision. But like I say, when it comes to a category like learning disabilities, mild retardation, a language disorder, and uh emotional disturbance, there’s a lot more uh difference of opinion among individuals in cultures as to what’s acceptable and what, you know, may not be acceptable. Uh and as a result, these socially constructed categories are the categories that give us the most difficulty with assessment as well as with instruction. So uh we find that there’s a large over-representation of uh children who come from different cultures and languages in these categories. And that tends to happen because their performance is often interpreted as being uh, uh a sign of some of disability when often times it’s uh just a—a phase of English acquisition that they’re going through rather then uh some disability.

Sure. Well, the over-representation of uh language minority students uh tends to occur primarily in learning disabilities and language disorders. And uh that’s primarily because uh the—those two disabilities uh are a lot more language uh based. Uh, or as with African-Americans uh that tends to be primarily in the educatable mentally retarded category. So there’s—there’s some differences there. Um, the uh—the degree of over-representation, I think, has—has improved with time. Uh back in the—the late 60’s and early 70’s when the problem was first uh acknowledged and uh discussed in the literature, um there were problems uh in mental retardation as well as these other categories. But uh with uh discussion, training, and uh better information in—in the—the various programs uh the situation has improved some. Uh one of the uh reasons why it has improved is because uh bilingual education and ESL education uh has also been developed during this time period. So as bilingual programs uh became well established and ESL programs were common in the schools, uh some of these youngsters who were struggling were uh referred to these services instead of special education thereby bringing down the number of over referrals to the special ed uh, uh process. And so we’ve seen—we’ve seen that happen. Uh, now under-representation uh ironically has—has also been a—a problem uh during this same time period. So that we’ve had both extremes of too many of these children being referred on the one hand and then occasionally uh, uh in certain areas or with certain groups, too few are being uh referred. Uh, the primary problem with uh under-representation is that you do have a valid uh case of a student with a disability who also has a different language. And for whatever reason, they’re not being identified or referred. Now the clear-cut example of this would be with migrant students. Uh, migrant students, as you know, will follow uh the crops with their parents and as a result will be traveling through a migrant stream as it’s referred to. And they’ll be following uh the various harvests. And uh they may be in a certain community for let’s say a month or two months and then it’s time to finish that work and move on to the next crop and uh then move on again uh to a different location. So the time that they spend in a given community is limited and we know that the special education process is lengthy. Uh, first of all, you have to fail in school. Then you have to go through probably a pre-referral process. Then after that’s completed then maybe the referral process will start ad there may be a waiting list for assessment. The assessment process is complex. It involves several individuals and several different uh tests. So that takes time. Then it takes time for people to—to uh exchange the data, and to analyze the data, and to uh set up a time when they can meet to discuss the information and do what we call a staffing. And so by the time all of this occurs and the staffing and a—and an IEP is uh formulated and the parents are brought in and told about it and give their consent and sign uh the uh forms that are required for their parental consent, you’re talking a fairly long period of several months. And as a result, migrant students uh when they come into a school district, the school will say, “Well, they’ll be gone, you know, before we get a chance to do this so let’s just do what we can and uh let somebody else down the line perhaps who will have them for a longer period uh do the—the special ed uh referral and staffing.” So it’s—it’s clearly established in the literature that migrant individuals are under-represented. Now uh in the case of gifted and talented, you have uh, uh again a—an under-representation of uh linguistically and culturally different uh children in those programs. And here again I think it tends to be for reasons of cultural bias, language bias, uh that uh teachers uh under refer these in—individuals. (Stutters) Obviously all culturally groups have their talented students and their gifted students but uh the perspective that we have of looking at giftedness pretty much comes from a—a white middle-class orientation. And as a result uh sometimes individuals from different cultural groups will go unnoticed or overlooked and uh they’re not necessarily able to demonstrate uh, uh their particular interest and talents. Uh often times uh middle-class white children are recognized because their skills in let’s say a particular uh type of uh work—uh, let’s say their really talented with the computer or something of that nature. Whereas a—a minority student uh, you know, might be talented at identifying herbs and working with the—the medicine man in their community. But that never really gets acknowledged in a school because the school doesn’t really uh tap into that knowledge. Uh, as a result uh these kids often go unidentified. So the—the process of how we look at gifted and talented uh students from different groups is being uh discussed and is uh being advocated uh that we—we take different approaches. Uh, paper and pencil measures are not going to be the best way to identify these children. While intelligence and uh general academic abilities are one thing we look for, there’s uh, you know, just unusual uh kinds of insights and talents and leadership abilities, social skills, that need to be identified through a different process, usually a nomination process. So what this would mean for—for people in schools uh would be to include uh people from different cultural groups on these committees that are able to identify talented youngsters so that uh the perspectives of other cultures and other languages will be included in the nomination process because you’re going to find these kids through some kind of peer and professional nomination rather then through paper and pencil testing.

Well, the assessment process is uh obviously uh really important um and we can talk about uh various aspects of the assessment process, but I think it’s important to note that the beginning of this conversation that uh the primary predictor of—of placement in special education is what has been referred to in the literature as “The Teacher’s Squeak Factor.” Meaning that uh when a—when a teacher is—is really concerned and convinced that an individual uh is not learning well and needs special help, then that teacher will usually find uh various uh means of getting that child referred and out of the classroom and into a—a special ed placement. So it’s—it’s kind of that—that early uh, uh, uh concern and—and that conviction that this child has special needs. That is probably the most critical factor. So once the teacher kind of makes up his or her mind that uh this child really has something going on that uh needs special attention, then the assessment process is uh kicked in and uh we go through all of that and eventually a decision will be made. Uh, there are so many tests in special education that are used uh and so many different individuals that come in to administer those that uh once there is a concern about a child, it’s usually uh almost a foregone conclusion. About 90 percent of these kids that are looked at are eventually placed. So it’s the teacher’s uh referral that uh, uh is the strongest factor. But getting into the assessment itself um will um as we know—uh because we are interested in uh efficiency, uh we’re going to be relying on usually norm referenced instruments that can be administered somewhat quickly and scored somewhat quickly uh through a standardized process and uh some information delivered that—that will help make a decision. Uh, as a result, uh, this process uh, uh often times will uh discriminate against non-white middle-class students because the norms are governed by the majority of—of kids that are included in the norming samples which obviously would be in the mainstream-type students. And so anyone who is outside of the mainstream will not be well represented uh in the norming process. So that’s what uh often times happens. Uh, then again uh English language is uh the language of instruction, it’s the language of the school, it’s the language that all the tests are—are developed in, so if you come from a non—non-English speaking family of background, even if you come from a family that uses a different dialect, you’re going to be at a certain disadvantage because you’re going to be uh measured with uh instruments that require mainstream English performance. So we—we see that that uh, uh operates here as well. Um, I.Q. tests and other kinds of tests uh, uh rely primarily on uh your experience and uh your—your background. So we’ll ask you a number of questions and perhaps language may not necessarily be the barrier but the uh lack of experience with that. Uh, for example uh in the Southwest if they ask a youngster “Where is Chile?” they’re likely to say, “Well, my mom probably has it in her refrigerator.” And uh the question is really talking about a—the—the country of Chile. Um, likewise uh they’ll ask uh “How far is it from New York to San Francisco?” And uh while that may be something that uh a middle-class child may learn early on, if you come from uh Latin America or from Asia uh these are not necessarily uh pieces of information that you’ve acquired quite yet. Uh, if they ask you how tall is the average American uh man or woman. Uh if you come from Western Europe or some other place, you might have one perspective. Again, if you come from Peru or uh some—some of the Latin American countries where people are quite short uh you’re—you’re not going to know the answer to that. Uh, so uh language is not only the concern but the content of the question is—is a concern. And uh as a result these youngsters will uh be scoring at—at lower levels of performance. Uh this is why uh people in the field are calling for more dynamic and authentic assessments that would involve much more observation and interviewing uh where the parents are—are asked, “How does this children—how does this particular child perform as compared to brothers and sisters when they were of similar age on various tasks?” Not only academic tasks but tasks within—within the home. And uh through those kinds of interviewing uh procedures we’re much more likely to get uh better information. And likewise uh looking at student work—work samples somewhat in a portfolio kind of model, uh we’re able to see what the best uh accomplishments uh of the student are in various subject areas. So uh one of the important things as I say here is looking at uh non-standardized uh authentic type assessments, uh dynamic assessments, where uh, for example, a child could receive some instruction regarding a particular task and saying, “Look, let me show you how to do this and now that I’ve shown you can you show me back uh if you can do it?” Then you—you’re sure that there’s been some instruction before you uh measure to see if uh the child can perform. So all of these things are—are—are being used but another important point about testing is that uh it uses up so much of our—our uh resources. Um, studies have indicated that up to 40 to 45% of our special ed budget is expended uh just on deciding what program to put the child in. Uh so it—it’s clear to many of us that far too much of our money and energy goes into this elaborate, uh extended assessment process. Uh, we become so concerned about not making a mistake and putting a child in the wrong program, which is a legitimate concern. But to the point that we use nearly half of our resources uh before we have begun the important part, which is uh how do we help this child become a better learner and develop their full potential. So there are people and commissions and groups that are looking at how could we uh somehow be a more uh efficient uh and uh not use so much of our resources, uh getting a child into a program where they’re able to receive services. So my hope is that within the next uh few years uh there will be some regulatory uh revision and change that might allow for a—a different way of uh identifying and testing students so that um we don’t uh, uh use so much uh, uh of our time and energy and resources on—in the testing process.

Well, there’s been a—a fair amount of progress made uh primarily in the higher—higher used language. Uh Spanish, of course, uh there’s quite a few different instruments that are available. Um, Vietnamese uh is another language. Chinese, uh another language uh where um there’s more uh tests available, uh tests such as the “Beganst,” (spelling?) which is kind of an achievement type criterion reference measure. Uh that’s available in uh, I believe, about seven or eight different languages. So there has been progress um but there’s still a need for the use of uh interpreters, for example, and some of the uh low incidence languages. And uh even in uh—among the Spanish speaking uh because we don’t always have bilingual personnel like psychologists, and speech pathologists, and so on. Uh we often find that uh, uh interpreters and translators um are—are needed. But interpreters and translators need to be trained. The Council for Exceptional Children published a few years ago uh standards for the use of interpreters and translators. And uh if districts are—are going to use that model, they should look at those standards and provide the training that uh is recommended. Uh, we trained uh interpreters and translators in Colorado through a Federal project and we were looking at uh, um 18 semester hours of uh course work because you not only need someone that speaks the language, but you need someone that understands uh the schooling process, and someone that understands a little bit about disability, and someone that understands a little bit about bilingualism. So the knowledge that is expected of a good interpreter or translator uh goes beyond just being fluent in the language and uh sometimes this is not recognized. Uh one of the—the most common uh abuses perhaps is that we bring in a little brother or a little sister and uh these children don’t need to be involved in this level of uh detail about their family and having to communicate these—these things to outsiders and—and other professionals. Likewise, the school janitor and uh the uh cook aren’t the best people to bring into—to a—to assist with this. Uh we should try to find uh, uh someone who uh has school experience and academic background, as well as language proficiency and uh then provide the training before we use uh interpreters and translators.

Well, some of the—the common fallacies that—that you encounter uh in working with the bilingual students with—with disabilities is that uh, uh for example, uh teachers will think that uh because someone is uh let’s say ‘intellectually limited,’ that uh there’s no way that they can learn in two languages, they will think that there’s only so much space in the brain and you might as well use it all for English because uh how can you expect this child with uh limited intelligence to do something as complicated as learn two languages. And so maybe the best thing is to limit the child to one language. Uh, what they fail to understand is that uh it’s—it’s uh not so much the uh language registers like Spanish and—and English and German that uh are limited, but it’s the—it’s the language capacity uh in general. So it’s language with a big ‘L.’ And it—it’s true that uh let’s say a Downs Syndrome’s language will be limited whether they’re bilingual or uh monolingual uh but that language can be expressed in several different registers. So they’re only going to grow so far in—in their linguistic ability but uh they can do that in more then one language. So uh it’s—it’s a—a fallacy that we need to uh—to work with so that uh teachers don’t uh assume that “Gee-whiz, we better not use more than one language here because there’s uh this limitation of intellectual ability.” Uh, that’s—that’s one fallacy. Uh, other fallacies that we see in the schools with uh these students um often times have to do with uh how much can they accomplish? Because of things like the Triple Threat metaphor uh and other kinds of uh negative information that’s been out there uh teachers will often assume, you know, we really can’t do too much for the students so let’s keep them busy and let’s keep them happy and uh, you know, they’ll uh do what they can. Uh, this is a terrible attitude to take because uh we’ve seen these children uh achieve remarkable outcomes when they are really stretched, and challenged, and given uh opportunity uh to uh—to learn with—with assistance, of course. And so providing those uh support systems and scaffolds, uh the resources uh to uh—to learn, we find that they—they achieve so much more. So expectations is a fallacy that—that’s uh pretty common uh in—in the work that we’ve seen.

Well, you know, parent uh community involvement in education uh has become so much more uh important in the—the last 10 or 15 years and uh when you’re working with the students with disabilities and students from different languages, uh it becomes even more important that uh we pay a great deal of attention to involving the family and the community uh because uh it requires um that kind of support for effective uh learning. Uh so what we, you know, recommend is that the schools reach out to parents in every way possible and make their uh partnership and participation uh more meaningful and uh make it easier for those parents. For example, things like transportation, things like child daycare um at meetings. Things like having interpreters available to communicate or help with the understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. Those are all very, very essential elements to have in place creating a family resource center within the school is something that’s been found very, very helpful. Uh, I was in Omaha prior to coming here and uh was visiting a program and they were showing me their Family Resource Centers and uh we went out to a half a dozen schools where they’re starting uh ESL and bilingual programs. And in each of the buildings they had dedicated a space, a—a room uh and made it into a parent resource center where parents could come in and have—have a cup of coffee, uh make phone calls, and if had all kinds of tables and materials available for them to make materials uh to use with their children at home to assist teachers in—in making classroom materials. Uh, they could check out tape records and cameras and uh different equipment that they could use at home and uh—with their students. Uh, they could provide tutoring for students in this resource center. And it became kind of a center of the community. And the parents uh began to look at—at it as though it was their home and—which it is. And it was their school, which it is. But these uh—these families and parents uh have been somewhat marginalized uh in the past. Not intentionally, but uh unintentionally just by the way uh things have gone. And so getting them to take ownership in the school and feel that they’re welcome there and to have a place to come to and to uh do a little bit of socializing with other parents as well as get—get very involved in a classroom uh process, uh is a big uh important uh factor. So those are the kinds of things that uh we would certainly encourage. But beyond that uh, getting parents, uh especially those that are leaders in the community, more involved in accountability committees and advisory boards, uh eventually on the school board, uh is—is really important in order to get the full benefit of uh parent environment.

Well, at the Buenos Center we are uh working on a regular basis uh as many others are around the country uh trying to improve our understanding of how these children learn, of what some of the obstacles are, of what we need to do to prepare better teachers. So we’re—we are uh developing materials. We are doing uh a good deal with teaching training and with research trying to see what it is that uh can be done better. And so we encourage uh people when they’re in Colorado to come by and visit our center and our staff. Uh, we’ve come out with a new set of uh training uh materials on CD-Rom, uh on many of these issues. We have one on parent involvement. We have one on language acquisition. We have one on adapting instruction. These are some of the topics, one on assessment of bilingual students. Um, and they make up pretty much what you would find in a course at a university. And so they’re very good for workshops and the training sessions and they’re easy to use and uh they can put them right on your computer and uh have plenty of uh classroom footage on them, uh video footage, as well as uh power point presentations and things of that nature. We’re eager for people to be aware of these and to use them and we usually uh have them uh available at conferences for demonstration. And so we look forward to sharing with uh our colleagues around the country.