Minnesota's Linguistic Diversity and Dual Language Learner Policies

Blog Post
Feb. 24, 2016

Policy issues related to dual language learners (DLLs) are almost always seen in terms of students who are native Spanish speakers. There’s good reason for this: nearly 3.8 million of the United States’ 4.9 million DLLs are native Spanish speakers. The next most common native languages are Arabic and Chinese, at 100,461 and 99,943, respectively.

But this national picture isn’t representative of various states’ and districts’ linguistic profiles. That is, while native Spanish speakers make up nearly 80 percent of American DLLs, that ratio is much lower in many states. For instance, just 44 percent of Minnesota’s DLLs speak Spanish (p. 48 here). Almost 20 percent spoke Hmong — over half of the country’s Hmong-speaking DLLs are enrolled in Minnesota schools (p. 48 here and p. 1 here).

A new MinnCAN report, “Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Achievement in Minnesota,” provides a good example of why this sort of state (and even local) focus is so critical as far as DLL policies are concerned. The report suggests that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) DLLs can face unique challenges that current policies do not acknowledge or incorporate — let alone address. For instance:

[A]ll AAPI students in Minnesota are grouped together and tracked under the category “Asian.” This means that we are measuring, for example, third-generation Chinese-American students and new-to-country Laotian learners all under one catchall umbrella.

Asian-American students are often stereotyped together as representatives of a so-called “model minority.” Data policies that group students from very different backgrounds together can obscure key differences in student achievement. Even the blunt, aggregated data currently available suggest more complicated achievement patterns with the Minnesotan AAPI community. The report notes that, on the one hand, 42.7 percent of Minnesota’s AAPI residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to the statewide average of just 31.6 percent. However, 19.6 percent of Minnesota AAPI students have less than a high school diploma, which is more than double the statewide average of 8.5 percent.

The report also shared data from a 2012 effort to disaggregate AAPI achievement and compare it with statewide reading performance.

Note that while some groups (South Asian students, Asians who do not qualify for federal free or reduced price lunch subsidies, and others) outperform white Minnesotan students, others (Burmese, Hmong, and others) performed well below their white peers. Of course, since these data are not actually broken out this way by districts or the state’s department of education, the effort had to rely on a “method [that] was admittedly imperfect.”

In addition to policy recommendations (which also include a discussion of ”Total English Learner” policies), MinnCAN’s report also dives into several MN schools that are making progress at driving achievement gains for AAPI students. It uses particular evidence from various campuses to draw out key levers that educators and administrators can use to improve AAPI achievement. Rather than simply touting “family engagement” as a Very Good Thing for AAPI students (and/or all students), the report traces out specific family engagement practices — “creating a feedback loop with families,” “meeting families where they are,” and so forth — with illustrative examples from each school. It includes similar discussions of strong practices related to accountability systems, supports for DLLs’ language development in multiple languages, culturally-sensitive pedagogy, effective ways of combining “high expectations” with “high supports,” and more.

This level of granularity is rare in DLL policy research — but it’s desperately needed. Because DLLs don’t often get the attention they deserve in education debates, it’s tempting to avoid breaking them into smaller subgroups. In other words, spotlighting only first-generation immigrant children or only native Spanish-speaking DLLs (or etc) seems to run the risk of shrinking an already-small political coalition.

While there are perhaps legitimate political reasons for thinking that way, it’s an unproductive way to think about DLL policymaking. This is particularly true in states like Minnesota, which have robust linguistic diversity in their DLL populations. These differences matter in substantive ways. For example, “radical awareness” as a key early literacy skill for DLLs whose native language is Mandarin Chinese. This is fundamentally different from the “phonological awareness” necessary for developing strong early literacy skills in English or Spanish. How does that influence Mandarin-speaking DLLs’ linguistic development? Surely DLL policies should be targeted and/or flexible enough to take these sorts of critical differences into account.

As it happens, projections suggest that the linguistic profiles of future U.S. immigrants are likely to be different than the linguistic profiles of immigrants in the recent past. Immigrants from Asian countries are expected to make up an increasing share of new Americans. So Minnesota’s current situation might actually provide some insight into how to respond to these national trends. Fortunately, we have this policy report to kickstart some policy thinking for Minnesota’s multilingual present — and an increasingly multilingual American future.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"