About Maureen Kelleher Figueroa

I'm a writer and mom of a Latino toddler.

NCLR Report Calls for Better Preschool Quality and Access

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) recently released a report calling for new policies to increase preschool quality and access for Latino families. The report cited recent research from the University of California, Berkeley, which showed that in  2009 while 70 percent of white and 69 percent of African-American children attended preschool, only 48 percent of Latino children were enrolled.

NCLR’s report identifies two major barriers that hinder early learning in Latino children: the shortage of preschool programs that are designed to take advantage of the latest research on language acquisition and the lack of access Latino families have to center-based preschools (due to both limited numbers of facilities and lack of knowledge of where they are and how to enroll).

To reduce these barriers, the report recommends that the federal government require states to benchmark stages of English-language acquisition and provide better training for early childhood educators. To improve access, NCLR advocates establishing capital subsidies to build more preschools and partnering with community-based organizations to get the word out to parents.


This Week: NAEYC Hosts Q&A with a Bilingual Preschool Expert

Check out this link to the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s online Q & A with Karen Nemeth, a longtime bilingual educator, teacher trainer and author of Many Languages, One Classroom. She’ll be taking questions through Friday, September 16.

Innovation in Teaching Math to Latino Preschoolers

Yesterday I had the chance to visit Chicago’s Erikson Institute, the nation’s only higher education center exclusively dedicated to early childhood education. Erikson won a federal i3 grant to expand its Early Math Project, which coaches early educators in strategies that help children progress in mathematical thinking. Jacqueline Jones, Arne Duncan’s deputy for early childhood, and some other U.S. Department of Education staff visited yesterday as the institute kicked off their first year of expansion from just working with pre-K and kindergarten teachers to tackling the primary grades, too.

A large number of the Chicago Public Schools involved in the project are in Latin0-heavy neighborhoods on the city’s north and northwest sides, so Erikson has taken steps to ensure young Spanish-speaking children and their teachers will get the support they need. Five of the eight coaches recruited for the project are bilingual in English and Spanish, as is one of the two coach supervisors. A key element of the work helps teachers think about the mathematical language they use in lessons and activities; there’s a nice example of how to help multilingual children develop words related to spatial reasoning here. Program director Jennifer McCray says they want to encourage teachers to learn key words in both languages and use them with their students. “We’re aware of [the need] and doing what we can. We’re trying to help teachers think about it. Often there isn’t anyone there to help them think about it.”

Erikson also recognizes the common reality that in Chicago pre-K classrooms, the teacher may be a monolingual English speaker while the teacher assistant is bilingual in Spanish and English. Though the program is only able to offer its “learning labs” (training sessions) to teachers, coaches will have some direct access to classrooms and thus opportunities to interact with assistant teachers.

Raising Early Educator Quality Likely to Benefit Latinos

This week a few items crossed my desk and got me thinking about how improving the quality of early educators is likely to benefit both Latino preschoolers and those Latinos (mostly Latinas)  entering early education as a career.

In August, the inspector general’s office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services released a report saying that 81 percent of Early Head Start teachers now hold at least the minimum credential, a Child Development Associate (CDA), which requires 120 hours of class time and 480 hours of supervised professional experience with children. More than half of those teachers who didn’t yet have a CDA were in the process of earning one. Some centers reported trouble finding qualified teachers to hire; the Center for Law and Social Policy suggests that could be a result of Early Head Start’s rapid expansion thanks to stimulus funds.

At the same time, there’s a debate about how best to train early educators. Many experts agree that a CDA is not enough training to guarantee highly qualified teachers and the field’s typical salaries arguably encourage low-quality teaching and high turnover. The average preschool teacher in the United States earns only $23,870 annually, compared to $51,009 for public elementary and secondary school teachers. Some say the solution is for early educators to earn bachelor’s degrees and higher, just like K-12 teachers do, and that they should be on public school teacher salary scales with incentives to take more coursework.

Others argue that we should redesign early educator training from the ground up. In a recent Brookings paper, Sara Mead and Kevin Carey argue for the creation of “charter colleges” of early education. They argue that research has not proven bachelor’s degrees to guarantee educator quality, that most early-childhood degree programs don’t provide the skills early educators most need and that undergraduates with demographic profiles similar to many entering the early childhood field (low-income and minorities of all kinds, including Latinos) have low rates of college graduation.

Mead and Carey cite Texas School Ready as a potential model for the training such colleges could offer. The program is run by an offshoot of the University of Texas at Houston and works with thousands of Texas preschool classrooms to help them ensure their children leave ready for kindergarten.

I’d like to see some reporters take a look inside both their local CDA training programs, often run through community colleges, and watch the graduates at work in local preschool programs to see how they do when they enter the field. Here in the Chicago area, the Erikson Institute is working with community colleges to increase and improve their pre-service work with aspiring early educators on how to teach math. Are there similar efforts elsewhere? How are they faring?

How Will New Race to the Top Affect Latino Preschoolers?

The race is on among states competing for a slice of the $500 million federal dollars set aside to improve early childhood education systems. In August, the U.S. Department of Education released the application for its Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, a competition to reward states that align the many players involved in early childhood to improve data and program quality assessments and expand access to more high-risk children.

What might this mean for Latino preschoolers? One way to look at this question is to see which states experts say are leading contenders to win a share of the money and note their Latino population. New America’s Early Ed Watch recently predicted some of the leading contenders based on their existing track records in early learning. Their projected likely winners are: Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont.

Of these, Colorado and New Mexico are among the top ten states with the largest Latino populations. Pennsylvania is among the 16 states with Latino populations over 500,000. Oklahoma and the two small states of Iowa and Vermont are among those where Latinos are the largest minority. So nearly half of the likely contenders would appear to have especially strong interests in developing early childhood systems that support Latino preschoolers.

One challenge all the competitors will face is enticing family daycare centers to participate in state programs like Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, a star-rating system that usually comes with incentives for daycare providers to improve quality by training staff and making other improvements. While larger, center-based programs often participate in these systems, convincing mom-and-pop operators to get on board is much harder, and research tells us Latino children are more likely to be in family-based care than in center care.

And what about states with the largest Latino populations, like California, Texas and Florida? Unfortunately, at this time none of these looks likely to win, though Florida may be getting in the game. Last spring California eliminated its state Early Learning Advisory Council as a cost-cutting measure. Though the state may still apply for the challenge, without such a council in place they are less likely to be viewed as a serious contender. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has forsworn Race to the Top for ideological reasons. And though Florida won an earlier round of the competition, until recently the state has refused to participate in a required federal home visiting program that Florida lawmakers considered part of President Obama’s healthcare reform package. Until that situation changes Florida is not eligible to compete. But last week, Gov. Rick Scott signaled he wants the state to apply, so things might be changing.

New Study: Bilingual Babies’ Speech Perceptions Stay Flexible Longer

New research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences shows that bilingual babies stay open to different speech sounds for a longer period than monolingual babies and that the relative amount of each language babies are exposed to affects their vocabulary as toddlers. Not surprisingly, in a sample of English/Spanish bilingual babies, the more of one language they heard, the more of that language they spoke at 15 months.

In previous studies, the researchers have found that between eight and 10 months of age, monolingual babies become more able to distinguish the speech sounds of their native language. At the same time, their ability to distinguish foreign speech sounds declines. For instance, English-speaking babies become better able to distinguish “r” from “l” sounds at this age, while Japanese-speaking peers (who don’t hear those sounds as often) lose the ability to differentiate them.

In the current study, babies from monolingual (English or Spanish) and bilingual (English and Spanish) households wore caps fitted with electrodes to measure brain activity with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a device that records the flow of energy in the brain. Babies heard background speech sounds in one language, then occasionally a contrasting sound in the other language.

For example, a sound that is used in both Spanish and English served as the background sound and then a Spanish “da” and an English “ta” each randomly occurred 10 percent of the time as contrasting sounds. If the brain can detect the contrasting sound, there is a signature pattern called the mismatch response that can be detected with the EEG.

Monolingual babies at 6-9 months of age showed the mismatch response for both the Spanish and English contrasting sounds, indicating that they noticed the change in both languages. But at 10-12 months of age, monolingual babies only responded to the English contrasting sound.

Bilingual babies showed a different pattern. At 6-9 months, bilinguals did not show the mismatch response, but at 10-12 months they showed the mismatch for both sounds.

This difference in development suggests that the bilingual babies “may have a different timetable for neurally committing to a language” compared with monolingual babies, said Adrian Garcia-Sierra, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

The researchers followed up when the babies were about 15 months old to see how many Spanish and English words the children knew. They found that early brain responses to language could predict infants’ word-learning ability. That is, the size of the bilingual children’s vocabulary was associated with the strength of their brain responses in discriminating languages at 10-12 months of age.

Early exposure to language also made a difference: Bilingual babies exposed to more English at home, including from their parents, other relatives and family friends, subsequently produced more words in English. The pattern held true for Spanish. (On a personal note, I’ve observed the same effect on my own son. At 15 months or so I think he was probably speaking more Spanish–he heard a lot of Spanish his first year of life–but now at age two he speaks more English, as his exposure to English has increased.)

The researchers say the best way for children to learn a second language is through social interactions and daily exposure to the language.

“Learning a second language is like learning a sport,” said Garcia-Sierra, who is raising his two young children as bilingual. “The more you play, the better you get.”

“When the brain is exposed to two languages rather than only one, the most adaptive response is to stay open longer before showing the perceptual narrowing that monolingual infants typically show at the end of the first year of life,” Garcia-Sierra said.

Raising Multilingual Children, Starting with Pre-K

As both the mom of a bilingual toddler and an observer of how children in a Chicago Mexican immigrant neighborhood learn English, I have more to say about the AP story on how parents raise children multilingually.

My husband and I are each fluent in our respective native languages, Spanish and English, but neither of us is fluent in the other’s first language. Because my Spanish is a bit stronger than my husband’s English, our language practice falls somewhere in between minority language at home (MLAH) and one parent, one language (OPOL). My husband and I converse in Spanish until I run out of gas, then I switch to English and he follows along. If we need to switch back to Spanish, we do once I’ve recovered some energy or come up with a linguistic workaround. Each of us tends to speak to our son in our native tongue but not always. Through much of my son’s first year of life, his dad worked overnight shifts.  I spoke a lot of Spanish to him during the day while Papa was sleeping.

While I applaud the mom  in the lead of the AP story for setting the rule that everyone speaking to her daughter should speak the language they know best and only that language, it hasn’t always worked that way in our house. My husband is shy about speaking English; correct pronunciation is a struggle for him. He has enjoyed speaking it with my son, especially when the child was pre-verbal, partly because he felt he wouldn’t be judged on his mistakes. I thought giving my husband pronunciation practice by reading simple children’s books was a great idea, and I wasn’t worried that my son’s English would suffer from a few less-than-perfect doses of the language because I speak English fluently. Over the last year, many of our friends and family have commented on how much my husband’s English has improved!

Now, though, I’m thinking it’s time for my husband to push the Spanish and for us to try to speak more Spanish-only at home. My son understands both English and Spanish well, but he speaks much more English.

Over the next few months, he’ll be transitioning from a part-time nanny  to a daycare center. The nanny knows both English and Spanish but tends to speak to him in English. The daycare center has Spanish-speaking teachers and a dual-language preschool. However, I’m told  in the toddler/two room they “just focus on getting them to speak,” which presumably means English will be the focus.

Watching my son master language has been fascinating. His first word after mama and dada was agua (water). A few more Spanish words came along, then it was all English all the time for a while. We’ve recently seen a resurgence of Spanish, including counting. He counts more with his dad so “uno, dos, tres” came first. In English, he started counting “nine, eight, seven” first because I count backward when it’s time for him to get out of the bathtub!

Meanwhile, in watching the neighbor kids, I can see that by three or four of them have enough social English to talk with me on the street. They pick it up from their older siblings. The real challenge is whether they can read or not, in either language. Some do, some don’t.

Few States Have Standards that Support Early ELLs

Yesterday, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) released an issue brief on state policies supporting young English-language-learners.  The brief cites a 2010 Urban Institute report that says one in four U.S. children has a parent who was born in another country. Most of these children speak a language other than English at home.

Many middle-class parents with multilingual backgrounds–like the family in this recent AP story–actively support their children’s language learning in both English and the language they speak at home. These families also work hard to find dual-language school options for their children. Less affluent families, in contrast, may lack the time and resources to support their children’s language development, often prioritize their children’s education in English–even when their own language competence is in another tongue–and trust school systems to educate their children effectively in English.

Alas, CLASP’s policy scan indicates the trust of those less-affluent families might be misplaced. While research shows that supporting a child’s growth in the use of his home language often strengthens his ability to master English, only one state–Illinois–requires bilingual services for three- and four-year-olds in state pre-kindergarten programs. And, according to the National Council of LaRaza, only Alaska has comprehensive early learning standards that explicitly support dual language learning across children’s developmental domains.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education released its final guidelines for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. While CLASP calls the new competition an opportunity for states to revisit their early learning standards in light of recent research on both how children acquire multiple languages and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I’m not sure how high a priority that perspective will be. It sounds like the main goals for the Early Learning Challenge are to get states to align their many offices involved in early childhood better and to develop systems that help parents find high-quality childcare and early learning programs. The extent to which these changes will benefit English-language learning preschoolers remains to be seen.

Where are the Spanish-Language Toddler Books?

I’m on a quest. My son’s second birthday is coming up this weekend, and I want to find the books for two-year-olds that children read with their parents in Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. So far, the best one I have is a book my in-laws brought up from Mexico when they visited last summer, La Guardaría (The Nursery). I’m ashamed to confess our home library of Spanish and bilingual titles is pretty small and mostly consists of translations from books first published in English. Before I had my own child, I was obsessed with obtaining such books and passing them out to my neighbors; these days, reading my son the ones we were given by family and friends keeps me occupied.

Let me say first off we are just getting into checking out books from the library. Up to now, I haven’t been fully confident we’d be able to send the books back in the same condition we checked them out. We have a stack of five or so from our local library branch, which has a good quantity of kids’ books in Spanish.  Again, many are geared toward older children. My husband (our primary Spanish-speaker) still chose three or four in English to one or two in Spanish.

One would think that in this Internet age, finding Spanish-language books for toddlers would be an easy search. Alas, it has not been so easy for me. I’ll admit my aversion to online shopping increases the challenge, but when Amazon’s Best Spanish-Language Books for Kids kicks off with 11 translations from English, you know you’re in trouble.

The nearest Spanish-language bookstore to my home, Librería Girón in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, does not have a kids’ section that knocks my socks off. The last time we were there, we ended up buying an English-language copy of Thomas and Friends (complete with small plastic trains and a map), but most of the books were Disney knock-offs and such. I left feeling frustrated.

Washington, D.C.’s public television station provides a web site, Colorín Colorado, that has a great selection of preschool and picture books, including stories from Mexico, so it wins the prize for best online resource I’ve found so far. But I’m still looking, so readers’ tips are encouraged.

Mother and Child, Learning Together

A number of early childhood learning experts I’ve talked with describe programs like Head Start and Educare as “two-generation” strategies: They not only benefit young children directly, but they also help parents increase their parenting skills and further their own educations. At heart, strengthening a parent’s literacy and commitment to education pays off for both parent and child, especially before children enter elementary school.

Now, the National Center for Family Literacy and the MetLife Foundation are teaming up to award 10 grants of $25,000 each for partnerships between community colleges and family literacy programs. The application deadline is Aug. 22 and awardees will pursue their projects through the 2012 calendar year. You can find out more about the application process here.

Plenty of studies show that the mother’s level of education is the pre-eminent factor in determining her child’s educational success. But if one listens enough to that drumbeat, it can feel like there’s no hope for children of parents with little formal schooling. Yet research also shows that children can benefit when parents attain higher levels of education. According to a 2007 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research, children’s performance on a standardized math test can be increased 1.5 points for every additional year of maternal schooling.

Reporters in Florida, Rhode Island and Kentucky might be particularly interested in a recent report on such partnerships that feature case studies based in Columbia County, Providence and Jefferson County. Many of the students profiled are Latinas raising young children and trying to further their own education: learning English, passing the GED and moving on to begin college-level coursework. The adult education field has long struggled to help its students transition successfully to college courses and, ultimately, degrees. Though current statistics on transition are dismal (Only three percent of GED recipients earn associate’s degrees), the three programs profiled are beating those odds. Building strong personal relationships with students and offering childcare and flexible course scheduling appear to be among the components for success.