2012 Texas Tech Integrated Scholar
Associate Professor of Bilingual Education and Diversity,
Department of Curriculum and Instruction,
College of Education
The plight of the immigrant child is a foremost concern in the integrated scholarship of bilingual education Professor Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz. The daughter of immigrants herself, Muñoz noticed while growing up that she was singular among friends to be on track for a college education. A desire to work with students that had backgrounds similar to hers led Muñoz, while an undergraduate, to rewarding work and volunteer opportunities that laid the foundation for her research into children's educational experiences. She ultimately earned a doctorate, and through her own teaching and research, Muñoz has impacted the pedagogy of many educators and the learning experiences of many more students. Additionally, Muñoz's expertise has enabled her to serve with numerous organizations, committees, and advisory panels at the state and national levels, however, her contributions within the local community—thanks to Muñoz's emphasis on relationships with area teachers, administrators, and districts—have been the most valuable to her work.
Learn more about Integrated Scholar Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz in this question-and-answer session.
What are your research objectives and interests?
As a teenager, I often wondered why so many of my peers appeared to be so disengaged from classroom activity. We grew up in the same poor neighborhood, had equally demanding immigrant parents and comparable intellectual capabilities. It was incomprehensible to me at the time why I was on the college track and many of my friends were not. The curiosity of the plight of the poor immigrant child remained with me in college. I sought jobs and volunteer work working with bilingual children in schools. By the end of my undergraduate study, I realized that I would better serve children growing up in similar circumstances by studying the issue more closely. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a research opportunity as an undergraduate that enabled me to conduct an ethnographic study in Mexico examining school-aged children living in poverty in Queretaro, Mexico. I felt that this would give me a better understanding of the psyche of the Mexican immigrant child that would explain the different motivational profiles of this group of students. The project left me with more questions than answers, but it laid the foundation for my evolving research agenda.
I began my graduate work studying motivation theory. When I realized that a child's engagement and persistence in school work was largely shaped by their educational experiences, I refocused my work to include assessment practices that impact programmatic decisions of school-aged children who are learning English. Equity issues emerged in my work given that assessment scores for English learners do not mean the same as their English-dominant peers. Yet, their scores were being used for the same purposes despite the threats to validity due to the negative influence of their English proficiency on test scores. Asking a child to take a math test in a language she does not speak very well, is not going to give you the best information about her math knowledge.
In addition to the language bias in assessments, it became exceedingly clear that test scores were also influenced by the quality of their learning opportunities. Excessive tracking of English learners into classrooms that narrowed the curriculum also help explain their under achievement. This compelled me to frame my work around opportunity to learn. You can't expect kids to do well on assessments that target knowledge they never had an opportunity to learn.
In short, my current research agenda allows me to identify assessment and instructional approaches that afford English learners meaningful access to learning opportunities, particularly the impact of opportunity to learn (OTL) on student achievement and assessment performance.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
Opportunity to learn is a global issue, particularly in developing countries where the distribution of wealth and opportunity is much more polarized than in the US. I've worked with the Guatemalan government to develop national Opportunity to Learn Standards and helped them roll out an implementation plan to ensure a more equitable educational experience across gender, ethnic, racial, and socio-economic groups. This work is going to be featured in an international journal and is being used as a framework for neighboring Latin-American countries.
What types of service projects have you been involved with?
My service is long, varied, and intricately connected with my research interests. I want to improve the educational experiences of English learners. Establishing strong working relationships with teachers, schools and districts is essential to achieve this kind of impact. Locally, I have founded bilingual teacher support networks, helped organize teacher conferences through the Lubbock Area Bilingual Education Association, as well as served on school district committees. This sustained and focused involvement has strengthened the department's relationship with local school districts. As the program coordinator for the Bilingual Education and Diversity Studies Program, I have led the bilingual teacher certification reform with active engagement from local school district leadership.
At the state level, I have participated in sensitivity review panels for state accountability systems as well as the Texas Education Certification Committee for the Bilingual Target Language Proficiency Test and the advisory board for the Project IDEAL: Informing & Designing Education for All Learners.
At the national level, I am very active in professional organizations. I served as Chair of the Committee on Scholars and Advocates on Gender Equity (SAGE) and the Program Chair of Literacy and Language Arts Section of American Education Research Association, as well as a member of the Social Justice Action Committee (SJAC). I also served on the Common Core Academic Language Expectations for English Language Learners Steering Committee for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). I am currently a consultant for the California chapter of the Campaign for High School Equity where I will be preparing policy briefs regarding the impact of the Common Core standards on English learners that will be used to inform California legislators. Standards and assessment is at the forefront of modern civil rights activity, so this work has the potential to have significant national impact. I continue to serve on the Guatemalan OTL Technical Board and as a professional expert for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
What are you currently working on?
A couple of research projects I am currently involved in require providing teachers with opportunities to improve their math and science instruction to diverse student groups. This has been very challenging because the teachers are very experienced and started the programs with strong skills in this area, but I think I have grown tremendously in how I approach this topic as a result. Not only have I used more case studies, scenarios, and technological tools to create some cognitive dissonance in the teachers, because some tend to be very set in their ways, the whole experience has informed the theoretical frameworks I use and I have evolved as a researcher.
I have just started a new research project with elementary teachers who serve bilingual students. For this project, I built in a stronger relationship with school district personnel. It has been quite a journey, but I am amazed at the cooperative relationships that my team has been able to achieve. All the teachers involved are amazing and I am confident they will become strong math and science leaders in their districts as well as advocates for their students. In addition to the tough graduate courses they are taking as part of the project, we will be starting a book study group that I can't wait to start. They were all eager to participate in this optional component and I am thrilled to start these focused conversations with them and learn all that I can from their wealth of experience and knowledge of the classroom.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My inspiration comes most definitely from teachers and their students. When a teacher successfully applies what she has learned from a course I teach or recognizes the impact of my work on her students' learning, it is a very powerful motivation to continue in that direction. Recently, one of my master's students has been working to integrate a new approach to writing instruction that I have been developing for some time. Her students have consistently out-performed all other students in her districts on district benchmark assessments and the achievement gap between at-risk student groups in her school is significantly lower than other schools. It is amazing what she has been able to accomplish with just a little direction from me. Seeing the progression of her students writing and the academic conversations that they have been able to engage in gives me a lot of joy as well.
What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research, and service—in their careers?
Find something you are passionate about, think about the kinds of activities that help you integrate teaching, research, and service, and persist, publish, and collaborate with a wide range of people in and out of academe.