Centering Black students in language education

Nelson Flores of the Graduate School of Education co-organized a conference at Penn to explore the challenges of equity. 

professor standing next to brick wall with Graduate School of Education Building sign
Nelson Flores, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, is an expert in bilingual education. 

Ensuring equity for Black students in language education was the focus of a conference at the University of Pennsylvania co-organized by Nelson Flores, associate professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

The meeting, “Centering Black Students in Language Education,” included a dozen speakers and panelists and was attended by about 30 educators from across the country. Flores, an expert in bilingual education, organized the conference with Uju Anya, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Tia Madkins, assistant professor at University of Texas at Austin. 

The participants worked to understand racial inequities, specifically the manifestations of anti-Blackness, in language education. Based on what they learned, they plan to create a policy brief and a comprehensive research agenda.

Language education often is siloed, says Flores: English as a second language (ESL), bilingual education, and world language education. “There hasn’t been, to our knowledge, any serious attempt to think across these models with the needs of Black students at the center and the challenges that Black students confront in language education, anti-Blackness in particular,” he says. 

Flores was born and raised in the Olney section of Philadelphia in a bilingual home, his mother from Puerto Rico and his father from Ecuador. He attended Philadelphia public schools, graduating from Central High School. He went on to Swarthmore College for his bachelor’s degree in political science and education, Lehman College for his master’s degree in teaching ESL, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for his Ph.D. in urban education. He began his career as an ESL teacher in Philadelphia and New York City public schools. 

Penn Today spoke with Flores about his research, the conference, and his hopes for the future.

professor standing in front of Graduate School of Education building
Flores was a co-organizer of a conference at Penn examining equity for Black students in language education. 

How is your research related to the conference topic?

At the broadest level, my research is looking at the intersections of race and language in bilingual education. I do that through historical analysis, understanding the origins of contemporary policies and the racial inequities in those policies, and analyzing teacher interactions in classrooms to see how these histories play out on a daily basis.

At the core of my research is a concept that the language practices of racialized people are oftentimes perceived to be deficient even when what they’re saying would be considered completely normal, or certainly not remarkable, if they were uttered by a white person, for example, use of the word ‘yeah’ instead of ‘yes.’ I am interested in the ways that the social status of a speaker shapes how those language practices are perceived. In the context of this conference, my work is related to how the language practices of Black students are perceived and the implications for thinking through how to promote racial equity more effectively across the language-education models.

How is the topic important to your research?

Bilingual education has always been committed to equity, right? That’s part of why bilingual education was created as a policy, to challenge inequities in education. But there has not been much work done specifically on the needs of Black students in bilingual education, and by Black students I mean African Americans, Afro-Latinxs, African immigrants, among others. The limited amount of research and experience that does exist seems to suggest that they are being marginalized in these programs. But there haven’t been systematic conversations about this in the field, so bilingual education has inherited the anti-Black ideologies and practices that have oftentimes informed other areas of education practice. This is even true with dual-language education programs, where I do most of my research.

What is dual-language education?

In dual-language education programs the students are doing at least half of their instruction in the language other than English, starting in kindergarten. The programs are designed to develop both languages. These schools often include a mix of students who are coming from homes where English is a primary language and homes where the partner language is the primary language. In my work, that language is Spanish. The goal is that by the end of elementary school students will be able to read, write, and speak in both and English and Spanish.

What themes emerged at the conference?

One of the themes that came up very clearly through all of the conversations is the very different contexts that Black students find themselves in when getting access to language education. One of the schools that participated in the conference is in a gentrifying neighborhood where the dual-language program was at least partially created as a way to market the school towards middle class and affluent parents who are primarily, but not exclusively, white. The barriers that Black students face with this program, like with others in similar contexts, are often an issue of access. Their parents may not have the same resources or the same ability to navigate the system to get them into the program, and they may not be getting outreach in the same way.

Another school that participated in the conference is in a primarily Latinx neighborhood where many of the students are growing up in bilingual households. The challenge here is how to ensure that Black students who do not come from bilingual homes feel like their linguistic and cultural practices are also valued in the school. In addition, schools like this one often confront ideologies that frame the Spanish language practices of Afro-Latinxs as deficient because of anti-Black ideologies that permeate Latin America that parallel those that exist in the United States. Another participating dual-language school serves a primarily Black population that includes some students who come from homes where languages other than English are spoken but none where Spanish is spoken. What we’re hoping to do moving forward is to develop a comprehensive database of the different contexts that Black students find themselves in related to dual-language education.

What are some of the relevant equity issues in dual-language education that led you to co-organize this conference?

Dual-language schools have become very attractive to affluent parents who see the value of having their children learn a language other than English at an early age. Issues of equity inevitably emerge when you bring communities with very different social statuses together into one program: English-speaking students coming from more affluent backgrounds and Spanish-speaking or other-language students coming oftentimes from more immigrant and low-income backgrounds. I think the challenge becomes how do we ensure that other communities also have equal access to those programs? This certainly includes challenging inequities between children coming from monolingual English-speaking homes and children coming from bilingual homes. But it must also include an explicit focus on challenging anti-Blackness.

Oftentimes the native English speaker is assumed to be powerful and to be affluent, but that’s not actually the case for many African American students, especially in Philadelphia where I do my work, and because of that they are marginalized or denied access to these programs. The image that many people in the U.S. have of a Latinx person is somebody who is non-Black even though there are Black people throughout Latin America. Unfortunately, this erasure of Blackness is often reflected in English-Spanish dual-language programs as well. As I began to have conversations with Dr. Anya and Dr. Madkins about this through their experiences with world language and ESL education we decided to convene a conference to delve further into these issues.

Why focus on this research now?

You could call it a racial reckoning that is happening within the field of educational linguistics, coming out of the political uprisings last year. One of the challenges is that there is a lack of diversity in the field. My hypothesis is that we haven’t created a space to ask questions that are focused on Black students, which could appeal to Black scholars. I’m hoping that we can use this conference as a platform to bring in more perspectives. I want to make sure that the gates are open to allow more diverse voices to come into the field. I think we do that by centering issues of racial equity within the work that we do.

What do you hope will result from the conference?

This semester we will develop a policy brief that lays out some of the issues. The longer-term vision is to develop a comprehensive overview that could be used as a guide for researchers. If we create policies to promote equity in language education that are really centering the needs and experiences of Black students, that's going to make language education more inclusive and better for everybody.