Putting Dual Language Learners First in Minnesota

It's hard to see the past decade of education policymaking as anything but a protracted, slouching national shrug when it comes to dual language learners. Think for a moment of the ferocious education fights over the past decade. From intense battles over the appropriate use of student achievement data in teacher accountability systems to the development and raising of common academic standards to school choice, tenure battles, and the many fights to expand quality early education access, there's been no shortage of activity — but very little of it has directly addressed DLLs' needs. Insofar as these students have been noticed, it's usually to use them as political pawns in fights to make various states' schools as English-only as possible.

This is starting to change. As the number of DLLs continues to grow, educators and other stakeholders are increasingly open to reworking how our public education system serves them. While recent efforts to change New York's Blueprint for English Language Learners' Success" have attracted a fair amount of attention, to my mind, Minnesota's new DLL reforms are the most exciting in the country.

That's why New America is excited to announce the publication of a new brief analyzing the promise and implementation strategy for Minnesota's Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success Act (LEAPS Act). I co-authored the brief, The Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success Act: Ensuring Faithful and Timely Implementation with Colleen Gross Ebinger, but it really took shape through substantive discussions with Minnesota educators and community members who offered their own feedback and implementation priorities.

The LEAPS Act became law earlier this year without attracting much attention. But it could make a big difference — a big improvement — in how Minnesota's schools serve DLLs. For instance, it requires districts to track DLLs' home language skills in addition to their progress towards proficiency in English. This matches what we know from the research on DLLs' linguistic development. These students’ home languages are a strength that helps them add English more quickly and completely.

But while this is a laudable legislative priority, it’s going to require careful work to implement well. As we write in the brief,

[D]istricts, charters and educators should be careful to distinguish between assessments designed to measure native language proficiency and those that measure progress towards native language proficiency. With this in mind, districts and charters will need to find appropriate assessments of [English learners’] native language proficiency. For instance, assessments such as the WIDA-PODER and the STEP Literacy Assessment have recently been developed and field-tested for native Spanish-speaking ELs. However, it will be more difficult to find reliable and valid assessments for ELs with native languages that are underrepresented nationally, such as Somali or Hmong.

I should note that this brief is, in conjunction with our release of Chaos for Dual Language Learners, part of a concerted New America effort to focus our attention on DLLs and the policies that affect them. So: Stay tuned for more work along these lines.

Click here to read the full brief at the McKnight Foundation's website.

Click here for a post on McKnight's blog explaining the brief. 

Author:

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.