Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) member Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, Ed.D., is an associate professor of Special Education. Her current research focuses on the use of state-level longitudinal data to examine the intersection of language and special education status to address the issue of educational equity.
In the interview below, Mancilla-Martinez shares what inspires her research in developmental disabilities, what she has learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.
Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?
I became interested in developmental disabilities when I was an elementary school teacher in Southern California. I taught five grade levels within a three-year span to have the opportunity to work with a wide range of students over the academic year and during summer programs. Additionally, I taught in two very different elementary schools, one commonly referred to as “diverse” and one without that label. Most students in the “diverse” school – in fact, the school I attended as an elementary school student – were of Mexican origin and from Spanish-speaking, low-income homes. Not much had changed in terms of the student body demographic characteristics from the time I had been a student there. Students in the other school, however, represented a wide range of linguistic, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
I soon noticed a disturbing and common thread across the two school contexts that deeply preoccupied me. Students who were in the process of developing English proficiency (referred to as English learners, ELs) tended to struggle with English language and reading development more than their English-proficient peers, and discussions routing ELs to special education (SPED) services with assumptions of learning disabilities (LDs) occurred far too frequently given the expected prevalence of LDs in this community of learners. Of course, ELs may benefit from additional services, such as those provided via SPED. But I repeatedly found that most teachers, including EL specialists and SPED teachers, seemed unsure on how to determine if there was a second language development issue or a language-based disorder among ELs. This gap in knowledge and practice is what led me to graduate school. I knew I needed to learn more about the scientific process of typical and atypical language and reading development to best help students acquire the language and reading skills to thrive academically, regardless of their language background.
What are your current research interests and what challenges does it address?
Most recently, I am engaged in research that has policy implications. Specifically, using state-level longitudinal data, I examine the intersection of language and SPED status. The 2015 enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to identify the percentage of ELs with disabilities, highlighting the timeliness and importance of this line of research. Despite the fact that social factors associated with ELs – such as economic disadvantage and developing English proficiency – should not be considered causes of LD, a long line of research reports mixed, contentious results in the intersection between language and SPED status, including over-representation, under-representation, and a shift from under- to over-representation across grades. This is very concerning, since inappropriate SPED placement is associated with long-lasting negative life prospects, making placement decisions an issue of educational equity, as the services provided to students should match their instructional needs.
So called “new immigrant destination states” like Tennessee have, by definition, less historical experience in understanding and meeting the academic needs of linguistically diverse learners, whether formally identified as EL or not. It is my hope that findings from my current project will help inform practices and policies in Tennessee, and states with similar student demographic profiles, in serving the academic needs of all learners.
What have you learned so far?
So far, we have found that exclusionary factors (namely limited English proficiency and economic disadvantage) are potentially associated with rates of SPED identification, such that students from linguistically diverse homes may be underrepresented. This raises many questions, as it may be that students from linguistically diverse backgrounds who have existing – but perhaps less severe – difficulties are not receiving the necessary instructional support. These findings underscore the need to further investigate how linguistically diverse learners qualify for dual services (EL and SPED) and, arguably more important, whether instructional placement in regular or SPED classroom supports their academic achievement.
What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?
For me, it was a no-brainer to apply to become a VKC member. The mission of the VKC to facilitate discoveries and best practices to improve the lives of persons with developmental disabilities and their families is a perfect reflection of what I aspire to do. The fact that knowledge dissemination of the most current findings centered on developmental disabilities is central to the VKC allows researchers like me to reach a very targeted yet wide-ranging audience, such as families, educators, researchers, and other stakeholders.