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The Q&A: Rebecca Callahan

In this week's Q&A, we interview Rebecca Callahan, researcher and associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Rebecca Callahan is Assistant Professor at the Department of Curriculum & Instruction in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Rebecca Callahan is a researcher and associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin. Callahan is currently researching the effects of school context, social and academic processes, and teaching practices on the academic and civic development of language minority students, as well as students identified with learning disabilities. Her recently published work appears in American Educational Research Journal, Educational Policy, Social Science Quarterly, Theory and Research in Social Education, and the Bilingual Research Journal. She co-wrote the recently published book The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy and the US Labor Market.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: What drew you to research bilingualism?

Rebecca Callahan: My interest came from being a former bilingual K-2 teacher. For a long time, we have known the social and psychological, and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. That research has been really clear and really solid. We know practicing proficient bilinguals are more likely to graduate, go to college. They have mental acuity and problem solving skills. They delay the onset of Alzheimer’s for five to seven years. There has been wonderful psychological and cognitive research in this area.

Trib+Edu: How does this play out in schools?

Callahan: What we see in school districts, there is a huge preponderance of bilingual education and dual language programs. In these classrooms, half of the students are native Spanish, Vietnamese or Mandarin and the other half are native English speakers, and the idea is to teach all the children in both languages. That way, all the children come out with well developed bilingual, biliteracy skills in both languages. White middle-class parents tend to seek out these programs, and they are very popular because you are essentially giving your kid two languages.

We see the benefits that come from this, and as a nation, we seem to value this for some kids but not for others. School districts are constantly cutting bilingual and first language services for kids that already speak another language. There is this idea that those kids need English. The outside world is all in English. The testing system is English. Music, art and P.E. are in English. The cafeteria is in English. They will learn English. We have the opportunity to develop their home language as well but we don’t do a very good job of that.

As an education system, we are in such a rush to make sure they learn English, we forget they come in with this resource. It just seems like there is a disconnect between what we know research-wise and what schools do. We have really seen a decrease in services for these kids and they are spoken about in a deficit oriented way. Really, we should be looking at these kids as potential bilinguals. If we do it right, they will learn to read and write in both languages when they graduate from high school.

Trib+Edu: What prompted the book?

Callahan: There is this mismatch. We know all this research in one area but at the same time, schools are cutting programs left and right. We thought maybe if the research isn’t convincing, maybe we should look at it from an economic standpoint. We are in the information age, in the era of the Internet. For any local business, their clientele no longer is within a 10- to 15-mile radius. Their clientele is potentially global. Having employees that are bilingual would seem that much more important.

We went into this project trying to figure out if things have changed. What we really found was that studies using U.S. census data have a very blunt definition of bilingualism, say, if you speak any other language to any degree, you are bilingual. You are lumping into the same category bilingual, biliterate college graduates and manual laborers who came to this country six months ago. There was no measure of literacy skills. The studies in this book really try to discern who has a level of balanced bilingualism, with literacy in the first and second languages. That is where we saw the huge difference. Once you can measure, you get at what is an advantage really.

One of the chapters interviews employers, who showed a clear preference for bilinguals. We are just going to see this preference in the labor market because the client bases have just changed so drastically over the last 10 years. Google has changed how we approach learning entirely. The access to information we now have, and the ability to develop and maintain languages online is so different now. We’ve got this incredible natural resource here. They are more likely to be hired and in the era of layoffs, are less likely to be laid off.

Trib+Edu: You shared your research at the Capitol last month, in an open presentation. What did you focus on conveying to legislators and education leaders?

Callahan: As academics, we tend to speak to other academics, so we wanted to broaden the base. We feel like the audience for this book really needs to be educators and policymakers. The reason the policymakers have not been swayed in the past is because we have not necessarily seen the difference in the bottom line. We think what we are doing K-2 is so separate from what happens when the kids go into the labor market 15 to 20 years later, but it really isn’t.

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