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Advocates push to ensure Minnesota's new education plan supports English Learners

Minnesota Multilingual Equity Network event
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Attendees at the Minnesota Multilingual Equity Network event.

Before Be Vang became an educator, she went through the public school system as an English language learner. So when she speaks today, on behalf of the multilingual families she serves as principal at Mississippi Creative Arts School in St. Paul Public Schools, she’s able to relate to the educational barriers — including low expectations — that English Learners often face.

“I feel like for a very long time, ELs are constantly and persistently being perceived as children with deficits,” she said, adding that their lack of English skills obscures the fact that many actually come with an educational foundation.

Under the state’s expiring federal education accountability plan, English Learner (EL) students who were new to the country within the last 12 months were exempt from taking state tests measuring academic growth and proficiency. That meant that educators had no baseline data on how well these students grasped math and reading skills for an entire year.

At face value, it may seem discouraging to ask a student who still has a weak command of the English language to take a standardized test. But Vang says not collecting this data on them is actually shortsighted. “What we don’t understand is these children have gone through such more horrific things than sitting down and taking a test,” she said.

The key, she continued, is making sure these students feel well-supported. An adult can’t translate the actual test questions, she said. But they can help translate the test instructions, encourage EL students to do their best, and emphasize how their test results will be used to better inform EL programming.

“If we don’t include ELs into some of these conversations and practices, the message we’re really sending is: ‘You don’t matter,’ ” she said.

‘A different era’

Her message was well received by those at the Minnesota Department of Education, which is busy drafting the state’s new federal education accountability plan — the Every Student Succeeds Act, commonly known as ESSA. That plan is due to the U.S. Department of Education for review on Sept. 18, with implementation set for the 2018-19 school year.

Leigh Schleicher, with the state Department of Education, says Vang — along with 17 other school administrators, EL coordinators, parent liaisons and education advocates who served on the Minnesota Multilingual Equity Network — influenced policy decisions made at the state Department of Education by gathering and relaying input from the wider EL community in Minnesota.

“You’ll see it reflected in [our] ESSA plan — that the focus needs to be on growth and not just proficiency,” she said at the group’s policy brief launch event at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul Wednesday evening. “Without this partnering with the community, that message would not have come across as it did.”

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of CAAL
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of CAAL, tweeting about the release of the policy brief.

EL advocates are largely applauding the new accountability system as an opportunity to reframe EL students as a core part of the student body, rather than a tangential group. That’s because English language proficiency scores for this student group will now be included in the state’s general accountability system — alongside proficiency and growth on standardized tests, graduation rates, and one other indicator of student success or school quality — as opposed to being captured in a separate evaluation system. But even with this paradigm shift, local advocates say there’s room to build in even more assurances that ELs are being given access to an equitable education.  

“When the federal government redrafted the ESSA, it placed strong EL — I prefer ‘Emerging Multilinguals’ — but EL and DLL [Dual Language Learner] accountability measures smack dab in the middle of the federal accountability system,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who serves as the executive director of the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership (MnEEP). “When it comes to a legal statutory federal law framework, we are in a different era, relative to EL students. And it’s up to us to be able to seize that opportunity so that we create really powerful experiences and outcomes for these students.”

Empowering families

In an effort to ensure the needs of EL students are best captured in the state’s new ESSA plan, MnEEP partnered with the Coalition of Asian American Leaders to draft a policy brief that they formally presented to members of the state Department of Education Wednesday evening.

Over the course of the past year, they’ve been meeting with members of the group’s 18-member advisory board and hosted three community events — in the St. Paul school district, the Minneapolis school district, and the Faribault school district — to gather input from nearly 100 additional parents, educators and community members most attuned to the needs of the EL student population.

“We want to make sure that families of the EL community are empowered to be part of the general education accountability conversation,” said Aara Johnson, the policy fellow for the initiative who took the lead on drafting the policy brief.

Sambath Ouk, EL coordinator at Faribault Public Schools
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Sambath Ouk, EL coordinator at Faribault Public Schools, taking notes at the policy brief event on Wednesday.

Across the state, ELs are the fastest growing segment of the student population. Over the past two decades, this student group has increased by 300 percent. According to the state Department of Education, during the 2015-16 school year, 8.3 percent of studenl in the K-12 public school system were identified as ELs. The Twin Cities districts have the highest concentration of ELs, but a number of suburban and rural districts, like Rochester, Osseo, Elk River and Wilmar, are seeing an uptick in EL enrollment as well.

Yet state data show these students are testing far below their peers in math, reading and science. They’re also only graduating at a rate of 63 percent, compared to the statewide graduation rate of 82 percent.

While state legislators adopted the Minnesota Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act in 2014, a fairly comprehensive policy geared toward closing these gaps, advocates say more needs to be done. And the opportunity to align these two policies, they say, may bring some much-needed momentum to putting these supports and accountability measures into practice.

The group’s policy brief includes seven key recommendations for inclusion in the state’s ESSA plan. In addition to including baseline standardized testing data on newcomers, members of the group are also asking that the state refine policies and add resources to better support family engagement, access to native language curriculum, and more. They're also asking for the state to standardize the entry and exit criteria used to connect students with EL services, so all EL students are getting the same treatment across the state. 

“Now every school in the state serving ELLs [English Language Learners] are held accountable for their ELLs,” said Stephanie Graff, chief accountability office at the state Department of Education. “That shifts our work as educators and community members and advocates to ‘ELLs are not for ELL teachers to deal with. ELLs are all of our kids.' It’s a small shift in law, but a significant shift in opportunity.”

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Comments (4)

Not sure I agree

…with Be Vang's quoted conclusion that English Learner's "…don't matter." My experience, especially around the issue (the "soft tyranny") of low expectations leaned more toward a lack of confidence in the child — more toward "We don't think you can do this" than "You don't matter."

Among the more astonishing intellectual transformations I witnessed as a teacher (this was back in the 1980s, so keep that in mind) was a 17-year-old boy in one of my American history classes whose mother had managed to smuggle him out of Iran when the society there was going through an especially repressive period. His command of English at the beginning of the year in September was truly minimal, especially written English. By the end of the year in early June, he spoke and, equally importantly, wrote English better than the majority of his classmates who had grown up in this society.

He is one of those I think of when I get especially tired of criticisms of public education, whether from left or right. Presented with an opportunity for an education, but in a language of which he knew very little, he seized the opportunity, worked his tail off throughout the school year, and had visibly demonstrated success 9 months later. I was very proud of his effort and, in my view, achievement, as were his parents. So was he, and I watched his confidence grow through the year as he increasingly grew comfortable with a new language and a new society.

As a former foreign language professor

I know that there are a lot of variables in acquiring a new language. Aside from differences in talent--and they do exist, although most people fall somewhere in the middle--young students pick up a new language faster than older students, and those who are the only speaker of their native language in a classroom (as Mr. Schoch's Iranian student was) will learn faster than those who are with large numbers of other immigrants from the same country.

For example, if a school is located in a town where most of the students are children of immigrants from Latin America, it will be difficult for them to pick up good English without direct instruction. Meanwhile, they may as well learn other subjects in Spanish. The object of bilingual education (which was first implemented in San Francisco's Chinatown, by the way, not in a Latino area) is not to prevent students from learning English but to make sure that they keep up with their other subjects, such as math and science, while learning English.

So what about the language immersion classes that many school systems have set up for students who are native speakers of English?

Well, those vary tremendously in quality. Canada, an officially bilingual country, began immersion in French for English speakers in the 1960s. They soon found out that if you had a room full of English speaking children and only the teachers spoke French well, you ended up with children who spoke a weird, idiosyncratic variety of French, what language teachers call a "classroom dialect."

To prevent this from happening, they found that they needed to adopt either of two approaches: 1) Including explicit instruction in correct French, instead of just expecting the children to absorb French with limited input, or 2) a critical mass of children who were native speakers of French.

When I was teaching Japanese on the college level, I had encounters with students who had been in Japanese immersion since kindergarten. Note that none of their parents spoke Japanese. Putting one's child in Japanese immersion was just a fashionable thing to do. All the children were native speakers of English, and there were not enough native speakers of Japanese who were certified teachers, so the program hired people who had been short-term missionaries or exchange students.

The results ranged from disappointing to awful. I happened to meet a member of the first class, who had started in kindergarten and was now in tenth grade. I asked her (in Japanese), what she was studying now that she was in high school. Her answer could be translated into English as, "Lots grammar. Because our teacher say our grammar weren't very good."

When you meet a young (child or adolescent) child of immigrants whose English is poor, it is usually for one of two reasons. Either the person is just a poor language learner (and they do exist, although they are rarer than most Americans think) or the he or she was thrown into an English medium classroom full of other speakers of his or her heritage language with no explicit instruction.

Jim Mork

My father immigrated in 1923. He had one advantage, a half brother who was fluent in both English and Norwegian. Also my father had progressed in education to high school in rural Norway. But this article made me think of Jewish refugees. Throughout Europe, Jews were a relatively educated, if persecuted, minority. To me, the real problem in recent immigrants is that they all come from areas where education has only reached a few elite members of society. What the immigrants are making up for is not at all lack of English. The majority probably are starting way behind all industrial countries in every phase of education. To remedy that in one generation is perhaps impossible. They can do unskilled or semiskilled jobs like comparable previous immigrants from rural societies. And their children or grandchildren may go through the same upward mobility of past populations, such as the Irish who fled starvation from rural Ireland. Our education authorities need to see this situation in a realistic context. Even as a farm kid, my father could read at a kindergarten age. I'm just guessing we're getting an illiterate immigrant flow. We need to treat that realistically.

Be Vang assumes testing

Be Vang assumes testing renders an accurate picture of students' ability and points to a major problem with standardized testing.

The only reliable correlation of this kind of testing is with income levels; all across the alphabet of tests, PARCC, SBAC, ACT, SAT, - there is a clear correlation of high income with high scores and of low income with low scores. The fault is not in the kids; it's in the tests.

Signing on to having English language learners submit to this testing will not yield a baseline of their abilities - it will yield a baseline of the parents' income. Subjecting kids to hours of testing in a language they do not understand is an exercise in frustration, a waste of time, and tantamount to abuse. The classroom teacher best knows the student's abilities - tests will not provide any reliable data. These tests have not been demonstrated to be valid or reliable for native English speakers, so a case cannot be made that they are valid or reliable for children who speak another language.

Also, the "gap" between ELL's and native speakers cannot be closed. Once the students gain sufficient fluency to understand and perform well on an English language test, they can no longer be classified as ELL students. By definition, ELL's are students who lack the fluency to perform well on these tests.

The other supports for these students are indeed necessary. ELL's are everybody's responsibility.