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The Q&A: Jeanne Tunks

In this week's Q&A, we interview Jeanne Tunks, an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas.

Dr. Jeanne Tunks is an associate professor in the department of Teacher Education and Administration at The University of No…

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

Jeanne Tunks is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas. She studies Latino students’ performance in mathematics and runs the International Teacher to Teacher Exchange program between math teachers in Texas and Guatemala.

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

Trib+Edu: Can you tell me a little bit about what the program consists of?

Jeanne Tunks: The exchange program consists of teachers from both the Denton Independent School District and Antigua, Guatemala, agreeing to serve in a two-year partnership so that a U.S. teacher is connected directly to a Guatemalan teacher. They live in each other’s home, they go to each other’s schools and they learn and exchange with each other. Then they go back to their schools and change their practices…

Trib+Edu: What problems with education in the state is the program meant to address?

Tunks: The problem that we are addressing was the fact that mathematic accomplishments by Latino learners in elementary schools is disparately lower than their white counterparts in school.

We didn’t really know what brought that about, but I conducted a six-month ethnographic study in a Latin American country to see how children are taught math there and how their understanding is assessed. [I] came back to the United States and then interviewed parents who were immigrants to find out “is that how you learned math and how you were supported” and found out that the information was identical.  

Our biggest question became, how do teachers who are not Latino themselves actually support the Latino learner, if parents aren’t connected to the learning process. Because what I learned in Guatemala is that parents love their children deeply and want them to do well in school, but they have no support mechanism. Those same non-support mechanisms continue in the United States, which leads to how a teacher is helping students and parents connect to the student’s learning.

What we study is how our non-Latino teachers are changing their practice after having had an exchange with Latin American teachers, and Latin American teachers changing their practices by being with U.S. teachers.

Trib+Edu: This whole program spurred from looking at why Latino students are doing worse in math and STEM fields than their white counterparts, so can you explain to me a little bit about that gap in performance between the students?

Tunks: What we see is that the pass rate on state tests is about 20-30 percent lower among the Latin American learner than their white counterpart. In some places, it's even lower, but in Denton schools it’s about 20-30 percent lower... These are the exams that are given by the state of Texas. Right now it’s the STAAR exam...

Trib+Edu: What are you hoping Texas and Guatemalan teachers get out of the program?

Tunks: Primarily what we do is we expose them to Latin American culture by having them live in the homes of a Guatemalan person. Every teacher can elect to make his or her own changes, so we don’t prescribe a specific change. We just expose them to many things, and they can choose what they want to change. Then we study what changes they chose.

We are in our second rotation. We did two years, and now we are on our second two years. One of the teachers in the United States was really concerned about language, that she wasn’t speaking enough Spanish in her classroom. So she decided to use 15 different phrases that she would use on a repeated, regular basis and have all of the kids in the class, not all of them were Latino, actually use those Spanish words.

There was an observed study, a research protocol where someone sat in the back of the room and every time she spoke the word it was documented and every time the students spoke the word it was documented. What she found was, across time, that she had, like, a 50 percent increase in the use of Spanish words among her students and hence a higher comfort level for her Spanish speakers and therefore a greater investment in learning math. Now she’s in a grade that wasn’t tested, so we don’t really have test scores to show a difference, but we do see a marked increase in the use of Spanish in the classroom.

Now what we find in the Guatemalan teachers, because we’re looking for a more student-centered instruction, they see the U.S. teachers teaching like that, when they come and live here in November.

The best example is a man who teaches in Parramos just outside of Antigua. He came here and the school gave him four suitcases filled with manipulatives. If you go to our Facebook, you can see his class, which I would say is all poverty children, in Guatemala working with manipulatives, making sense of their math. When I was there in July this past year, the kids were so eager to learn math and really wanted to do it because they had these manipulatives to work with and could finally understand what math was doing, instead of just putting numbers on a piece of paper. 

The school where we started in Antigua has built an entire mathematics laboratory where they have multiple types of materials. We have just conducted an analysis of the use of that lab and the lab went from no lab, which was zero use of materials to about a 70 percent use of materials across that school, even though there were only three participants in the program, because we introduce the materials to all the people in the school.

Their kids had a 40 percent pass rate at the high school level and that has increased to 74, after their high school teacher joined our project.

Trib+Edu: Could you see this program, and the lessons and methods it teaches, being expanded to other areas of the state and other students?

Tunks: I could see that this could become a model that other people could use. The model that was primarily there before we started, people go down to Guatemala, they show them some things, and then they leave. There’s no follow through, and you don’t see any progress. Whereas our project is more intense in that we really believe it’s the exchange that makes the difference.

All the teachers are in for a two-year stint. In our first year the teachers are really just getting to know each other and trust each other in each other’s homes and classrooms. The second year they make the decision on what it is they are going to represent as their data. We do exit interviews at the end of July every year. We know where the teachers started, we know where they decide they’re going to go next, and then at the end of the second year we would have collected a year's worth of data, and then we analyze the data…

Also here, you can’t just send teachers to an in-service that says you’ve got to learn how to embrace the Latino learner. We’ve learned that unless you go live with somebody in their house, breathe their air, share their experiences, laugh together a little bit, you’re not going to learn anything. It’s a little more intense than what a lot of people want to do, but we’re finding that it is making a difference in both places. 

Trib+Edu: What do you think is the key takeaway that teachers have gotten from this program, in terms of changing how we teach Latino students in Texas classrooms?

Tunks: I think the takeaway is know the child, know the culture, know the family, embrace it and engage…  I think it’s about knowing the culture and accepting that the Latin American family deeply, deeply cares about their children’s learning, and if our teachers who are predominately not Latino teachers can embrace that, then I think the children can be successful.

Trib+Edu: What kind of success have you seen with this program?

Tunks: The biggest success I’ve seen is our teachers changing their practice, but the outgrowth of that has been higher levels of student success. The greatest numbers that we have seen has been in this middle school class, where (the teacher) actually looked at the kids across the two years that she was in the program.

Prior to coming to her, their success rates was pretty low, and if they were going to pass state tests they had to do it over and over and over. She’s now two years out of the program and her kids consistently pass the test on the first time out. And all of them do because she now embraces their culture. She engages with their family, so she’s been a lot more successful because of that.

The students have shown success because their teacher has taken the time to get to know them and accepts them the way they are and is really caring about who they are.

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