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Lucrecia Santibañez: Research Explores Inequities in EL Teacher Training and Student Outcomes

More than 20 years ago, Proposition 227 was passed in California, requiring that all public schools teach curriculum in English and providing only a year of special instruction to English learner students in the hope of quickly producing assimilated and English-proficient students. After the proposition was repealed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, the state now has a great demand for qualified teachers in dual-language immersion programs – a demand that Lucrecia Santibañez wants to explore and refine.

“Dual-language immersion schools have grown so rapidly, that it makes you wonder where the teachers come from,” says Santibañez, an associate professor in the Urban Schooling division, who arrived at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies this past fall. “Twenty years ago, we basically prohibited bilingual education, so fewer teachers got bilingual credentials. And now, we’re hiring and hiring and hiring.

“I am trying to take stock of where California’s education was … what had been accomplished and where we were making progress,” she says. “Some people might think bilingual education or English learners are a niche issue, but almost 40 percent of California kids enter schools as an English learner. So, almost every teacher can expect to have an English learner at some point in their classroom.”

Santibañez is continuing her research supported by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and Stanford University – on the experiences of K-12 English learners and the teachers that serve them. Her findings, which are part of the Getting Down to Facts II project, revealed a holistic look at the unique needs of English learner students, the shortfalls in training and preparation for this teaching workforce, and the estimable impacts of these on California’s society and economy. 

“Teachers of kids who speak another language do need a specialized skill set, like understanding things about language, understanding things about learning a second language, how to assess that, how to engage with parents who are non-native [English] speakers,” observes Santibañez. “English learners are disproportionately concentrated in schools that have more novice teachers. So, it’s very important that right off the bat, they have strong preparation.”

In her work on teacher preparation for English Learners with co-author Francesca Lopez of the University of Arizona, Santibañez found that, “credentialed teachers in California that pass a language proficiency test and take a limited number of courses related to language and culture can be eligible to obtain a bilingual authorization. But that may not be enough to turn you into a bilingual teacher that can successfully work in a dual-language environment.” 

“We have many native [Spanish] speakers in Los Angeles that continue to speak Spanish at home, but they have not been schooled in Spanish necessarily and they are not trained [to teach in Spanish],” Santibañez says. “Although some teachers are able to get the support they need from professional development at their school sites, there are other sites where this is either not provided, or is less rigorous. One teacher can come out of one program with a strong [dual-language] skill set and another may come out of another program with the bare minimum. But both teachers have a credential. I’m interested in understanding how those dynamics affect the quality of the teaching that is going on in the classroom.”

Exploring inequities in the classroom – for both teachers and their students – is a recurring thread that runs through Santibañez’s work. Her most recent project, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Science Foundation, is looking at the causes and consequences of student mobility in California and its effects on learning.

Santibañez will co-lead with researchers out of the University of California at Riverside the multi-district study – which includes LAUSD – using data gathered by the CORE-PACE Research Partnership, which will afford the research team with a longitudinal range of information on test scores, socioemotional learning, and attendance, engagement, and school climate. The study focuses on vulnerable students as defined by low income, English Learners, students with disabilities, homeless and foster youth, and overall, by race and ethnicity. 

“It’s an important question because the [assumption] for most people is that when kids change schools, it’s uniformly negative,” says Santibañez, who will serve as co-principal investigator on the three-year study. “It is true that moves disrupt children´s progress, their friends, all that. The richness of our data allow us to take a very deep look at all of these things: are the consequences of a move different depending on the timing of the move—moving in elementary vs. middle school for example. Are there strategic moves made by parents to take advantage of opportunities afforded by different kinds of schools? We want to understand if moving is different depending on where you were before – maybe you are moving to a school that is a better match for you – or maybe not, [and if] there socio-emotional factors that mediate the effects of these moves. We want to understand what the effects are for the kids.”

Professor Santibañez earned her PhD in education, her M.S. in economics, and an M.A. in Latin American studies at Stanford University. Prior to arriving at UCLA, she was an associate professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University and an assistant professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City, and has worked as an Education Economist at the RAND Corporation. Santibañez has conducted research and evaluation work in Mexico, Colombia, Laos, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Mozambique. 

As a principal investigator or co-principal investigator, Professor Santibañez has received research grants from the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund, The World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Santibañez’s work has been published in both English- and Spanish-language journals including Economics of Education Review, Teachers College Record, Review of Educational Research, Education Policy Analysis Archives, the International Journal of Educational Development and Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativa. She serves on the editorial board of the American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, the International Journal of Educational Development, and Comparative Education Review. Santibañez has made regular appearances in media throughout the United States and Mexico including NPR’s “All Things Considered,” BBC’s “The World,” Univision, Ed Source, Education Next, The Christian Science Monitor, Education Week, Reforma, El Universal, and Milenio