Newspaper article

LEAPs Act Calls for Sea Change in Thinking about Language Skills and Teaching

Newspaper article

LEAPs Act Calls for Sea Change in Thinking about Language Skills and Teaching

Article excerpt

Right now, the fate of Minnesota children who are learning English depends on where and how they end up in school. The least fortunate languish, falling years behind in classrooms where lessons are spooled out in a language they can't understand.

Because conventional wisdom has held that students must learn English before they can conquer academics, others attend school in pull-out classrooms. By the time they are "mainstreamed," they, too, can be years behind.

And it's no small problem. Over the last two decades the number of Minnesota English language learners, or ELLs in education jargon, has grown by more than 300 percent [PDF]. There are now 65,000 enrolled in schools here, 50,000 more than 20 years ago.

Perhaps, then, the most revolutionary piece of legislation expected to emerge from the state Capitol in coming weeks is a long- sought package of reforms laying out strategies proven to bring ELL students to grade level reliably and quickly.

Its provisions merit dissection [PDF], but the most important aspect of the bill is the sea change it calls on educators, policymakers, higher ed and employers to make.

Seeing multilingualism as a big asset

Right now, many perceive the fact that a student is acquiring English as a deficit that needs fixing. ELL advocates, by contrast, insist that Minnesota's prosperity rests on seeing multilingualism as a tremendous asset.

In fact, if the Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success Act or LEAPS Act, is passed into law this year as expected, all Minnesota high schools graduates who are assessed as fluent in more than one language will receive a special seal on their diploma.

"That's a signal to higher ed and to businesses," said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United. "This person can cross cultures."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Minnesota ranks 15th nationwide in terms of the number of languages spoken by its students. A multilingual workforce without an achievement gap would put the state at a major advantage.

"The focus for far too long has been on the wrong indicators," Cecconi added. "We need to understand that our job is to teach them content."

In short: No more waiting for a child to conquer English to begin instruction in math, literacy, science or any other subject. And no longer is the goal acculturation.

A new expectation

"It sets the expectation in state law that ELL services be delivered in a way that looks like the home language of the learner," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, the St. Paul DFLer who has been incubating the policy for years along with Sen. Patricia Torres- Ray, DFL-Minneapolis. "I'm pretty proud of it."

Last year, ELL students lagged 20 percentage points behind the state's 79 percent high school graduation rate. Only 28 percent of ELL students scored proficient in math on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs), vs. 61 percent of all students.

Just 17 recent passed reading tests, vs. 58 percent overall. And 12 percent were deemed proficient in science, vs. 53 percent of all students.

During the special session of 2003 then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature balanced the budget in part by making a series of cuts to education. Some $11 million was pared from the ELL funding stream by reducing the number of years students could receive services from seven to five. …

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