There are currently about 5 million students in U.S. schools who have limited English language skills. These students are protected by civil rights law, and U.S. school districts are required to provide them with “equal opportunity” to succeed in the school system through “affirmative” measures. For several decades, policymakers, educators and politicians have battled over these measures, and over how English Language Learners (ELLs) are to be instructed in the U.S. school system.
, including the landmark
, in which the Supreme Court ruled that
education does not constitute
education under the
Civil Rights Act
by “merely providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” The decision further mandated that school districts must take “affirmative steps” to overcome educational barriers faced by non-English speakers, but did not specify a methodology.
The defining national debate in and surrounding this agency is that over the approach to teaching non- or limited-English speakers. “Bilingual Education” and “English Immersion” are the two main competing methods.
President Barack Obama named Rosalinda B. Barrera assistant deputy secretary of education and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) on August 23, 2010. OELA is an agency in the Department of Education responsible for administering English language programs for immigrant and limited English proficient students, estimated to be about 10% of total school enrollment nationwide. She succeeded Acting Director Richard Smith, who took the position on May 26, 2008, following the abrupt resignation of Margarita Pinkos.
Born Rosalinda Benavides in 1946 in Premont, Texas, (1950 pop.: 2,619) where her father was a letter carrier and her mother a homemaker, Barrera was the oldest of four children. With Spanish spoken at home, Barrera learned English when she started the first grade, at a time when speaking Spanish was forbidden at school. Growing up in the vibrant Mexican-American culture of South Texas, she later recalled that the Spanish ban “probably served to stop a lot of other learning that I could have done, because it brought with it…questions about what was okay to use at home with family and what was not. And never seeing yourself and finding yourselves in the books at school was also probably something that stayed with me for a long time.”
Barrera was valedictorian of her high school class in Falfurrias, Texas, before going on to earn three degrees at the University of Texas: a B.A. in journalism in 1968, an M.A. in Communications in 1969, and an Ed.D. in Reading Education in 1978.
After getting her M.A. degree, Barrera worked as a reporter with the Corpus Christi Caller-Times from 1969 to 1970, and then was a curriculum editor for the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin from 1970 to 1972, beginning her doctoral studies in 1973. At the same time, she taught second grade in a bilingual elementary school in Austin, moving to southern New Mexico in 1975. She then served as a reading specialist for the Region 19 Education Service Center in El Paso, Texas, before becoming director of K-12 curriculum and instruction for the Socorro School District outside El Paso.
With her new doctorate in hand, Barrera joined the faculty at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces in 1980 as a lecturer in education specialties, advancing to full professor of curriculum and instruction in 1993. She was a visiting faculty member at the University of Arizona in spring 1989 and the University of California at Berkeley in summer 1990. During her tenure at NMSU, she served as chair of the Professional Standards Commission, an advisory body to the New Mexico Board of Education.
In 1998 Barrera joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a professor of curriculum and instruction. In 2002 she became interim associate director for the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society, and became interim director in 2004, when she also was named an associate provost. In June 2005, Barrera was named dean of the College of Education at Texas State University-San Marcos, where she remained for five years.
An editorial board member of many academic journals, Barrera co-edited the 2002 book Multicultural Issues in Literacy Research and Practice and Kaleidoscope: A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8 (1997). She has served on the reading committee of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the National Advisory Committee on Head Start Research and Evaluation, the literacy advisory board for Reading Is Fundamental, and the boards of directors of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the National Latino Education Research and Policy Project.
An aficionado of xeric (low-moisture) gardening and architectural history and style, Barrera and her husband, Cecilio, a retired microbiology professor, have two grandchildren and divide their time between an apartment in Washington, D.C., and a home in San Marcos, Texas. The couple has two daughters: Marisa, who works for the nonprofit microlender ACCION USA in Tucson, Arizona, and Cristina, a preschool teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado.
New ELL Chief Stresses Science, Teacher Preparation: All Teachers Should Be Ready for English-Learners, Barrera Says (by Mary Ann Zehr, Education Week)
Interview Transcript: Dr. Rosalinda Barrera (¡Colorín Colorado!)