By some counts, the Midwest has been in one or the other version of “decline” for decades. From Pittsburgh to the plains, the region’s mettle has corroded in the face of various global trends and macroeconomic shifts. Worst of all, in many places, the Rust Belt’s economic struggles have led to lagging population growth — and even declines — as struggling families leave the region in search of opportunity. Shrinking labor pools mean fewer taxpayers, which only contributes further to the Midwest’s flagging economic fortunes.
To reverse that spiral and reinvent its economy, the Midwest needs people. That’s why immigrant attraction, integration, education, and retention efforts have become so critical for states across the region.
Minnesota is uniquely blessed in this regard. The state is growing faster than the rest of the Midwest, largely because it has been able to attract immigrants: this century, nearly one-third of the state’s population growth is due to new foreign-born residents. This is an outstanding demographic and economic advantage, provided that the state recognizes it as such. Even more encouraging: these new Minnesotans are establishing their own families. Twenty percent of the state’s kids (under five years old) are children of immigrants.
In a paper published today, Pluralism on the Prairie: Helping Minnesota’s Learners Leap Forward, I explore Minnesota’s recent efforts to make the most of the considerable energy and abilities of their state’s new racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse student body.
These trends are driving new racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic pluralism in Minnesota’s schools. Around 15 percent of students speak a language other than English at home and 7 percent are formally classified as DLLs. The state reports that its DLL population is three times larger than it was in the mid-1990s. Nearly one-quarter of Minneapolis Public Schools students and one-third of St. Paul Public Schools students are DLLs…Minnesota’s immigration demographics lead to unique linguistic diversity. In the 2013–14 school year, one in three Hmong-speaking DLLs in American schools was enrolled in Minnesota. The state also boasted approximately one in three of the Somali-speaking DLLs in the U.S. In sum, Minnesota’s demographic patterns are not just changing how the state’s schools look—they are changing how they sound.
In 2014, Minnesota’s state legislature passed the Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success Act, or LEAPS. The law established a series of state DLL mandates. It required districts to begin monitoring DLLs’ native language abilities, the state’s teacher licensure board to establish new DLL-related criteria for licensure applicants, teacher training programs to include DLLs’ linguistic development as a discrete part of their curricula, and much more.
The law’s co-authors, Representative Carlos Mariani Rosa and Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, describe LEAPS’ passage as the result of political opportunism, luck, and grassroots outreach. But if LEAPS was a political breakthrough codifying important state priorities for Minnesota DLLs, it is also just the first of many steps towards changing how these students are educated in the state. In Pluralism on the Prairie, I explore the current state of — and apparent prospects for — LEAPS implementation.
As is often the case in policymaking, there is considerable distance between LEAPS’ priorities and the ensuing series of steps (and resources) it takes to make those priorities matter for children in classrooms. For instance, the LEAPS Act asks the board to require that teachers renewing their licenses have “further preparation in English language development and specially designed content instruction in English for English learners.” Nearly a year after LEAPS became law, the Minnesota Board of Teaching published their version of the new requirement, noting that, since the state’s “electronic reporting system” for tracking teachers’ in-service training was not set up to track professional development related to DLLs, renewing candidates would be required to provide “their own assessment of professional growth” in these areas. It will not be clear for some years whether this approach will be sufficiently consequential to ensure that teachers continue to grow new expertise for helping DLLs succeed.
While Minnesota policymakers and educators have much to learn from their own experience with LEAPS, their example is also instructive for leaders in other states. In Pluralism on the Prairie, I identify key lessons for states eager to follow Minnesota’s path — while also avoiding some of its pitfalls.
Minnesota’s new immigrants and their children will play a key role in the state’s future. Minnesota’s schools have only a short window in the present to help make their prospects as bright as possible. The state is fortunate to have the LEAPS Act on the books, but laws are only as good as their implementation. If LEAPS is going to shift how schools, communities, and the state treat DLLs, a host of education leaders will need to take further steps to put the law fully into place.
This post was written by Conor P. Williams, founder of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group. You can find him on Twitter at @ConorPWilliams. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”