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Test results show Minnesota’s multilingual students need new approaches in the classroom

Minnesota’s reading gaps for English learners are worse than the national average.

Aara Johnson

More multilingual students than ever before live and learn in Minnesota – the number of English learner students in Minnesota has increased by over 300 percent in the past 25 years. These students are critical to Minnesota’s economic and civic future, and they deserve schools that will nurture their academic, linguistic, and social-emotional development.

But too often multilingual students do not have the support they need to learn and thrive in school. The latest news from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that average fourth-grade reading scores have decreased for English learner students in Minnesota since 2002, while other students’ scores have improved over the same time period. Minnesota’s reading gaps for English learners are worse than the national average.

The good news is that some schools, districts, and community organizations are working to change this unacceptable status quo.

Exploring alternatives

Bonnie O’Keefe

In a traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching model, students are pulled out of normal classes for English instruction, or separated from peers in a classroom with only other English learners. An increasing number of Minnesota schools are exploring alternatives that support native language development alongside English instruction. For example, a growing number of Minnesota schools offer bilingual or dual language immersion instruction, where students are taught their regular classes in both English and another language.

Bilingual models might not be the best solution for schools where you can hear students speaking Hmong, Somali, English, and Spanish in one classroom. At Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul, school leaders designed a co-teaching model which is still primarily English-based, but which allows multilingual students to tap into their language strengths.

A new profile of the school by Bellwether Education Partners shows how Community of Peace Academy integrates supports for English learners into every lesson, instead of adding it on separately or taking students away from their classmates. Importantly, many of the same instructional techniques in reading and spoken language development that help English learners succeed also work well for students from any linguistic background.

Thanks in part to this new instructional model, third-grade reading proficiency among English learners rose by over 20 percentage points in the past five years.

A need for teacher diversification

But new instructional models won’t go far without great teachers — especially diverse, multilingual teachers. Only 4 percent of Minnesota teachers are teachers of color, compared with 28 percent students of color statewide. We don’t know how many Minnesota teachers speak a language other than English, but the state’s most recent teacher supply/demand report suggests it is difficult to find educators prepared to teach immigrant, refugee, and English learner students. Efforts to innovate multilingual instruction should go hand-in-hand with campaigns to diversify Minnesota teachers.

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For example, the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership’s work on the TeachMN2020 campaign aims to increase awareness, outreach, and support of prospective teachers of color and American Indian teachers. Increasing teacher diversity in Minnesota requires action starting when students are first considering career options, through college and training, licensing, recruitment, hiring, and retention.

There aren’t simple solutions when it comes to closing achievement gaps for multilingual students. Minnesota schools struggling with large achievement gaps for English learners should consider the various research-supported instructional models and teacher recruitment strategies that could jumpstart student achievement. Schools, districts, policymakers, teacher preparation programs, researchers, and community groups all need to collaborate to reverse the trends we see in NAEP results. New instructional approaches and new teachers for Minnesota’s multilingual classrooms should be part of the solution.

Aara Johnson is Program Director, Emerging Multilingual Learners Network and Program Associate, Increasing Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers for the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership.

Bonnie O’Keefe is a senior analyst for Bellwether Education Partners and the author of “Supporting Minnesota Educators,” at


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