Penn GSE’s María Cioè-Peña on equitable access in education

The assistant professor of education joined the Educational Linguistics Division to ensure that bilingual children with dis/abilities get the support needed to thrive; she aims to find a model where all learners get what they need without being labeled.

Assistant professor of education María Cioè-Peña pushes beyond an either-or discussion of which child belongs in one education program versus the other. Instead, she wants to find a model where all learners get what they need without being labeled. She joined the Educational Linguistics Division at Penn GSE to ensure that bilingual children with dis/abilities get the support they need to thrive. These children are often labeled as “disabled” and “English learners” and then shunted into special education programs, while gifted and talented programs serve mostly privileged and enabled white students.

María Cioè-Peña hugs her mother, holding a copy of her book.
María Cioè-Peña hugs her mother, holding a copy of her book, “(M)othering Labeled Children: Biligualism and Disability in the Lives of LatinX Mothers.” (Image: Penn GSE)

A former bilingual special education teacher, Cioè-Peña found that racialized, minoritized, bilingual, immigrant, and differently enabled children and their families have a hard time accessing multilingual and inclusive learning spaces within public schools. She describes her research as “deeply rooted in political economy, raciolinguistic perspectives, and critical dis/ability awareness within schools and families.”

Cioè-Peña is a Black, neurodiverse Latina immigrant who earned her Ph.D. from The Graduate Center–City University of New York  in urban education. As someone whose diagnosis was formalized as “autism spectrum disorder” at age 35, she benefited from growing up “without knowing of or having labels,” and warns that “labels can be presented as support, yet serve as a proxy for ableism/racism.” Her own disability manifested itself in ways that made her better in school, she says. She was quiet and focused and willing to take deep dives into things that interested her. If her disability had manifested another way, say in behavior considered disruptive in traditional classrooms, she suspects that she may have had a far harder time getting the support she needed.

Educational policies, school systems, and educators can serve as gatekeepers that provide or prevent learners from accessing what they need. Cioè-Peña says, “I’m really interested in thinking about systemic and historical structures that determine who belongs versus who does not belong. A lot of children—and families by extension—lose out on services or opt out of services because they’ve encountered a gatekeeper who didn’t feel welcoming.”

In the U.S., an individualized educational plan (IEP) is developed for children who need special services. The IEP is drawn up by representatives of the school system and the child’s teachers and parents. Sometimes, the child’s challenges are easy to identify, medicalize, and diagnose, like blindness or deafness. But other diagnoses and the labels they carry are far more subjective and, Cioè-Peña says, “can be dangerous.” She discusses how interventions intended to help can go awry in her 2021 book, (M)othering Labeled Children: Bilingualism and Disability in the Lives of Latinx Mothers, in which she studied mothers in New York City whose children are dually classified as English learners and as having a disability.

Cioè-Peña considers storytelling an important way to explain how families experience the educational system. Using an approach similar to “narrative medicine,” which introduces literary techniques into medical practice, she says that “for those of us who are qualitative researchers, stories are a tapestry.” Though quantitative research is important, stories weave data together into larger narratives. “For me, the thing that comes forward is the intertwine between racism and ableism. As a nation, we have gotten very comfortable naming ‘racism,’ but no one’s really naming ‘ableism.’” And that is a problem because “both special education and gifted and talented programs are heavily steeped in ableism, which then helps cover up racist and colonial values and ideas.”

Read more at Penn GSE.