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The Need for New Model Builders for Learning


Recently, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans held a forum in St. Paul to discuss its new report on Asian Pacific Students in Minnesota.

There are many efforts to identify and explain the causes, but at the end of the day we can be certain of one thing: As far as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test goes, refugee students in Minnesota are scoring much lower in math and reading than all Asian Pacific students in Minnesota. For Lao American parents and families, we need to be concerned. Actually, we need to be outraged.

The figures indicate that Lao students have a reading score of 56.9%. You might as well flip a coin to guess if a Lao student understands what they just read. The Lao student math score is 39.7%. Less than 4 out of 10 Lao students are getting math. In a world so focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education to prepare us for the next-generation economy, I don’t have to tell you why this is bad news.

White students have an average of an 80% reading proficiency, while South Asian students have almost 86.9% In theory, a 90% reading proficiency is within reach for them. For us, if we were going to project ourselves ahead 5 years, I can see Lao reaching 60%. But that shouldn’t be ‘good enough.’ We can and we must reach for more. But what are the systems and approaches that can meaningfully help us bridge that gap?

Based on the Council’s report, we’re 4.7% of the Minnesota Asian American community, or #7 on the list. So, I wouldn’t hold my breath that support for Lao services is going to magically come like the cavalry from the system any time soon.

Tough, honest talk necessitates us being honest that many of the programs and services which could and should be serving us, especially our youth, are in a state of disarray. Many of us can relate stories of dysfunctional families who are just absolutely floundering in Minnesota schools, even with children who were born here, and whose parents were born here, too.

As far as education goes, Lao are in the center of a perfect storm.

As you go through that report, nationally, 3 in 10 Lao have less than high school diploma. Is that honestly going to change in 10 years?


While I’m grateful Lao figures are included in this report, no strategies were specifically suggested to help us. We must instead take comfort in their four recommendations for policy makers:

  1. Standardize the practice of collecting and reporting disaggregated student data.
  2. Streamline efforts that monitor and address the additional challenges faced by refugee  experienced students as well as by students who are low-income, English Learners, and/or  highly mobile.
  3. Increase the cultural competency and awareness among educational professionals of the different groups of Asian Pacific students. Understanding the strengths, interests, and needs of  students is crucial in moving away from a deficit view of diverse student populations and in  implementing strategies to increase the academic growth of students.
  4. Policy makers and education leaders should solicit the input and involvement of refugee experienced and socioeconomically disadvantaged Asian Pacific communities in the vision of educational equity.

In other words, the brilliant solution is the same thing we’ve been advocating for over 30 years. But even if they were seriously implemented, would those recommendations honestly get us anywhere close to the exceptional results we really want as a community?

As a writer, I admit, my longest nightmare has been to come home one day and discover my niece can’t read a thing I’ve written. And I’d be even more afraid she couldn’t express herself in her own words, on her own terms to change her world for the better.

Recently, the Next Generation Learning Challenge, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and the William and Flora Hewlett foundations wanted to identify technology-enabled approaches to college readiness and completion. They announced grants totaling $5.4 million in support of new learning models at the secondary and postsecondary level. In their press release, their deputy director, Andrew Calkins, said “NGLC’s thirty ‘wave-three’ grantees are the new-model builders. They are designing schools and college-level learning pathways that encourage access, persistence, and completion in learning environments that marry technology and close attention to students’ individual needs. They are striving to accelerate and deepen learning for today’s students, who have high expectations for engagement and personalization.”

Where are our new-model builders? How can we encourage access, persistence and completion?

In a time when everyone’s complaining we’re in a budget crunch, allocating more resources just for Lao Minnesotans isn’t going to happen unless we get more vocal. Even if we get those resources, are we committed to using them wisely? We recently established Lao Minnesotan Artists Heritage Month in August, in part to show our youth that the Lao story is entwined with the story of Minnesota.

But now, as a community, we need all of our leaders to get their acts together and to effectively advocate both within and beyond our families for effective learning strategies. If we seriously dream of a community of 12,000+ Lao being engaged in civics and building Laotown, or being a positive voice during immigration, education, and health care reform, we need to be there for our kids.

Or else the next report is going to make this last one look like a scene from “Pollyanna.”


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