Thomas & Collier Research
Research and Evaluation
in Dual Language Education
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Virginia Collier won't say where she lives. Soft-spoken, unfailingly polite and formal, she stammers on the phone that she'd prefer to keep her home city a secret. "I have. .. uh. .. groupies," she says. One can almost hear her blush. Dr. Collier is no rock star or even a charismatic politician. She's a researcher who spends her time poring over vast quantities of data, a grandmother who reads Winnie the Pooh to her grandson, a professor approaching early retirement from George Mason University. But she does indeed have groupies, and plenty of them. They emerge, enamored, from the audiences that attend her speeches – approximately one every two weeks – at conferences all over the nation and in more than 15 countries.
The discoveries she has made through almost two decades of research with her colleague Dr. Wayne Thomas on school effectiveness for English Language Learners (ELLs) are part of her appeal. She and Thomas have analyzed more than two million student records in what is arguably the largest and longest longitudinal study anyone has done on ELL programs, practices, and outcomes. Their research has influenced classroom practice, school district and state politics, and school policy in places as distant and diverse as Norway and Uruguay. ELL educators and policy makers who battle politics, xenophobia, and a dearth of resources every day welcome the hard data – facts in an environment frequently overwhelmed with propaganda that Collier and Thomas produce.
But groupies are hardly born from data alone. It is Collier's passion, backed up by the numbers, that draws fans to her cause and, to her chagrin, to her side. For years, Collier has gone on the road, on the Web, and to publishers with the message that bilingual education is the only model of ELL schooling that really works, and that dual-language bilingual programs are the best. The data show that English Language Learners need five to eight years of education in their primary language while they learn English in order to close the achievement gap with English-speaking students. The data also show, surprisingly, that students in bilingual programs often do better in all of their academic subjects than do native English speakers who receive no bilingual training.
Listen to enough conservative radio in Arizona, California, or Massachusetts, the three states that have passed English-only referenda, and you'd think Collier's message would be a tough sell. And those are the extreme states; almost all states and school districts offer bilingual education or ESL classes for only three years or fewer. But Collier says her message is catching on, even in California, where parents of English-speaking students who see the benefits of having their kids learn Spanish have advocated for existing bilingual programs. "If [bilingual education] is done for all students, it's called two-way," says Collier. "Two-way schools are consistently the highest achieving schools in any district. That model has been spreading like wildfire."
For Collier, the ELL advocate, this success is a crucial one. Among the many findings that she and Thomas discovered over the years, there is this: How do you create a high-school dropout? Take children who have just arrived in this country and place them in mainstream English classrooms. Provide no bilingual or ESL support, or give them a single year of intensive ESL classes, as California has done under Proposition 227. Under these scenarios, all but the most persistent and lucky children will have fallen so far behind by high school that they will have no chance of catching up. When voters pass a referendum like Prop. 227, says Collier, "we lose another generation of kids, and we can't afford that in this country. We're going to pay for it economically in the next generation."
Collier never intended to be a teacher. In fact, she actively resisted it. "Both of my parents were teachers," she says, "and I always thought I would never be a teacher because they worked so hard." Collier's father, an expert on Central American history, took his family with him for year-long stints living in the capitals of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. He was a rugged traveler who expected his family to keep up with him wherever the next turn in the stream bent. "We went everywhere there was a road," says Collier. "This was in the '50s, so there were many places with no roads. And when the bridges flooded,
you forded the river. That was just my dad." Collier became not just conversant in Spanish but also fluent in the cultures of the Central American countries where she lived. During the long drives back and forth between North and Central America, she had plenty of time to reflect on the differences between the cultures and to absorb the philosophy of her historian father. "My father always had the perspective that all the people of the world are really one, and that we're all working together. And that the more we have a global perspective instead of this very narrow regional perspective, the better off we are."
Collier hadn't yet figured out her career plans when she married young, becoming a minister's wife – "a full-time job," she says. They had two daughters, and Collier was still nursing her youngest when the teaching profession found her. "We were moving around quite a bit, and we were in a city where they needed a high-school Spanish teacher. They begged me. .. I said no. And they begged me again, and I broke down and did it." It was an overcrowded high school, and Collier was assigned to teach in a trailer. What some people would consider a hardship worked to Collier's advantage and cemented a heretofore unknown love for teaching. Isolated in the trailer, Collier didn't have to worry about noise, and so she played Latin American music to get her kids interested in Latino culture. "One of my students came to me and said, 'You know, you're a really great teacher,'" she says. "I've never forgotten that comment. I was having such a good time thinking of different ways to get them excited about Latin America."
When the family moved to Washington, DC, Collier pursued her master's degree, placed her eldest daughter in a brand-new bilingual school (her daughter is now a bilingual/ESL teacher), and simultaneously found her first job teaching ESL. Most of the immigrants in the largely African-American public school system were from Central America, and Collier identified with them. "I knew the political situations in their countries, their passions and interests. I connected with them and wanted them to do well in school." But being an advocate for her students wasn't easy. As one of the few white teachers in the DC schools, Collier says she "felt very discriminated against." As an example, she cites the year she worked without a single textbook. "I said we needed textbooks, and [the administrators] said 'You're supposed to be innovative. You don't need textbooks.'" She adds, "The administrators' first concerns were not the ESL students."This was not Collier's first battle with discrimination. Back at Greensboro Senior High School in North Carolina in the late '50s, Collier had befriended Josephine Boyd, the first black student in the state to integrate a white high school. "My best friend and I invited her to eat lunch with us, and that started a wild year," she says. "We were all alone. .. against the rest of the 1800-member student body. People shot into Josephine's home, and there was a lot of anger and hatred expressed toward all of us. There were things thrown at us every day, and verbal abuse; we were spit on." The violence, Collier says, was as bad as it had been in Little Rock, but less well publicized. It left Collier with a bedrock of determination and a search for engagement in social justice. "You pick a corner of the world that you want to bring major change to. We felt we had a lot of influence in racial relations; the big change happened in 1965." After that, she says, "I was just hunting for my next advocacy issues. It was natural to take on helping immigrants to do well in school."
In 1980, after earning her PhD, she became a professor at George Mason University, and shortly thereafter met Wayne Thomas, an academic partner who would balance her passion for advocacy with pragmatism. After so many years working in the classroom, Collier believed that ELLs who received bilingual education would do better in the long run than would those who learned only in English. Thomas, a research methodologist, was skeptical, saying, "The only way to find out is to analyze data." Using one local school district's records, the pair set out to answer the questions: "How long does it take these kids to become academically able to do well in school in a second language, and what are the things that influence that process?"
Today, two million student records later, Virginia Collier is sure she knows many of the answers. It takes challenging content education in an ELL's first language, not dumbed-down curriculum. And "it takes a very, very long time. Most policy makers are not willing to wait that long, to provide funding that long. And so the constant battle is to convince school districts to hang in there and not have unrealistic expectations that it will take only one or two years for a kid to get to grade level. That's not true for any child in the world."
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