Minnesota: Language as asset

/ 22 April 2014 / eunice

Pioneer Press Editorial, April 22, 2014 – The growing numbers of multilingual students — often otherwise known as “English language learners” — in Minnesota schools are getting attention from educators and lawmakers.

It’s the result of thoughtful public policy about the students’ future — and Minnesota’s.

“We need every one of our English language learners to do well if we’re going to do well as a state,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul Democrat whose work this legislative session is reflective of a shift in thinking about how multilingual students are taught.

It’s a shift that considers students’ home languages an asset as they pursue their educations, even as they learn English.

But last year, just 59 percent of English language learners graduated from high school statewide, and those students had significantly lower scores on state proficiency tests, the Pioneer Press has reported. In the St. Paul district, where students speak some 100 languages and dialects, about 33 percent of students are English language learners.

To get this right, Mariani believes, “we need to stop thinking of the fact that they speak another language as a problem — a deficit.” Yes, they need to learn English. But in today’s global marketplace, knowledge of other languages and cultures is a competitive advantage.

The new approach to helping children learn English looks at a student as often having a firm foundation of language arts skills “that you can capitalize on and use to build strong English academic skills,” a philosophy supported by years of educational research, Mariani told us. “The non-English-language skills a student brings are, in fact, skills — good skills, powerful skills. We should be using those as the foundation from which to develop English skills and get these kids graduating in much larger numbers.”

The legislation, included in an education policy bill passed by the House — with a companion awaiting consideration in the Senate — has at its core, he said, an expectation that as we deliver education, “we take the home language as an asset and build off that.”

The drive for strong English language academic skills remains, he said, along with an effort to make sure students don’t fall behind in such other important areas as math and science.

The changes also focus on preparing teachers today and in the future to work effectively with students learning English, with implications for teacher preparation programs, as well as licensure and ongoing professional development.

We all have a stake in the students’ success. Bruce Corrie, an economist and associate vice president at Concordia University-St. Paul, has studied the human capital they and their communities represent.

“If we plan well now, with the best information we have and look at how we can tap the assets these communities offer,” he said, “we’ll be much ahead of the game with other states” in building our future workforce.