Identifying and Supporting Young Latino Students' Academic Assets

Blog Post
(CC) U.S. Department of Education / Flickr
Nov. 6, 2013

It’s taken years, but the community of experts studying students who speak languages other than English is finally “shifting to an asset-based paradigm.” We’re getting better at identifying the unique linguistic, social, and cultural resources these students carry to class, rather than their “limited proficiency” in English.

This is as it should be. But when it comes to considering the policies and politics governing language supports for dual language learners (DLLs), a critical eye makes much more sense. Do existing policies support DLLs’ development and academic growth—or create unnecessary stumbling blocks? Too often, it’s the latter.

To that end, Primeros Pasos: Strengthening Programs that Support Illinois Infants and Toddlers, a just-published working paper from the Latino Policy Forum, challenges policymakers to think of young Latinos—who comprise three-fourths of the nation’s English language learners—as educational and economic resources well worth public investment. (The report builds on another LPF paper from last summer, Shaping our Future: Building a Collective Latino K–12 Education Agenda.)

Why, in a region struggling to come to terms with the increasingly global marketplace, would political leaders allow—let alone encourage—the workers of the future to lose their potential bilingualism?

First of all, Latino children are demographic and economic resources. Primeros Pasos considers policy supports for Latino infants and toddlers in Illinois. Latinos are particularly crucial to the state’s future, as they represent a considerable segment of its population growth over the last decade. From 2000–2010, Illinois lost over 300,000 white and nearly 13,000 African-American residents. Were it not for the more than half-million Latinos (along with 176,000 Asians) that moved to the state during the same decade, Illinois’ population and economy would have collapsed. Latino children now make up over a quarter of Illinois’ children under 5 years old. While it’s tempting to dismiss this demographic situation as unique to Midwestern states facing manufacturing’s collapse in a globalizing era, demographer Dowell Myers has argued that the United States’ falling birth rates and aging population are creating similar challenges at the national level.

Second, Latino children bring considerable linguistic resources to school. Many arrive with burgeoning Spanish language skills; if they are allowed to develop these fully while learning English, they will form the core of a bilingual workforce that states like Illinois sorely need. And yet, many of the state’s early education policies emphasize English acquisition and literacy at the expense of native language development. Why, in a region struggling to come to terms with the increasingly global marketplace, would political leaders allow—let alone encourage—the workers of the future to lose their potential bilingualism?

Third, while it’s sadly common to think of Latino students as “at-risk” or otherwise hamstrung by their cultural or linguistic backgrounds, this isn’t the whole story. The report notes that “Latino children also bring high levels of social and emotional development into their preschool classroom.” And Latino students frequently have strong family supports that could be a foundation for academic growth.

Important as these assets are, though, the report acknowledges that Latino children arrive at school, on average, about six months behind white students. As such, it focuses on the information and program awareness gaps that drive the achievement gap in Latino children’s early years. Parents of Latino infants and toddlers are often unaware of available public services for their children: “Many Latino parents face barriers to accessing information on quality infant and toddler care, such as low literacy levels, poverty, social isolation, and limited English proficiency.” This lack of information depresses Latino enrollment rates in pre-K and other early childhood programs.

Even when these gaps do not exist, funding and facilities can be scarce. In Illinois, “the 10 municipalities with the largest Latino populations accounted for over 31 percent of the total demand [for infant and toddler child care], yet those same municipalities contained 19 percent of the available slots.”

Why hasn’t demand for better, more accessible infant and toddler care translated into expanded supply in the state? In part, it’s because regulations aimed at increasing the credentials of the professionals serving infants and toddlers have decreased the labor pool. In other words, “As credentialing requirements for the various programs increase and bilingual providers are expected to shoulder larger caseloads, professional development opportunities are essential.” The problem here, as is often the case, comes back to money. American early child care educators aren’t usually paid well enough to float the cost of additional training, classes, and degrees themselves. The LPF’s report argues that efforts to increase early childhood credentialing should be paired with efforts to make additional training “affordable and flexible.”

Of course, these sorts of coordinated efforts require thoughtful collaboration between infant and toddler educators, policymakers, higher education faculty, community organizations, and others. It can be difficult to rapidly improve child care policies and facilities, given the decentralized nature of this sector. That’s why the report stresses the importance of communication and collaboration between various stakeholders in the infant and toddler years. There’s no question that better planning is an important part of any attempt to improve the quality of infant and toddler care for Latinos across the country. Primeros Pasos, "First Steps" in English, offers precisely that: policy analysis that lays the groundwork for more comprehensive planning and reform efforts."