This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month we interviewed Dr. Lori Erickson, St. Paul Public Schools, and Dr. Alisha Wackerle-Hollman, University of Minnesota, who are developing a screening tool to assess the language and literacy skills of Hmong preschoolers. In this interview blog, we asked Lori and Alisha to discuss the motivation for their collaborative work, what they have learned so far, and the importance of conducting research with ethnically and linguistically diverse students and communities.
What motivated your team to study the outcomes of Hmong preschoolers?
Our team is a unique collaboration between practitioners at the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) and researchers at the University of Minnesota IGDILab. We are both deeply committed to supporting children’s full language and early literacy profiles across their languages to better inform instructional decision making and show a commitment to valuing culture through honoring children’s home language. When we started this project, we knew that the Individual Growth and Development (IGDIs) early literacy screening and progress monitoring measures were available in English and Spanish, and we had been implementing with great success. However, given that the district provides pre-K immersion programming in Spanish, French, and Hmong, it became clear that there was also a concentrated need for a valid, reliable tool to measure early literacy development in the Hmong language. The Hmong community, parents, and teachers voiced the need for a deeper understanding of the Hmong language and literacy skills that children acquire prior to and during the preschool period.
Prior to our current work, the IGDILab had significant experience developing the IGDIs Español, during which we refined a community-based approach for understanding language and early literacy development that took into consideration the developmental trajectory of each language, rather than as a translation to English. IGDI users noticed this difference, and SPPS approached our team about using a similar approach to develop the Hmong IGDI measures.
Please tell us about the two projects you have worked on together to address the early learning needs of Hmong students.
Our partnership has had the good fortune to receive two IES awards. The first award was a 2017 research partnership grant. We invested two years in gathering information from the community about what Hmong IGDI measures should include and developing a deeper understanding of the Hmong language landscape. The success of that program led to an IES measurement award to fully develop the Hmong IGDI measures. Currently in Year 1 of the measurement award, we have learned so much from both projects over the past four years.
- There is tremendous passion around the Hmong language. Stakeholders, including community elders, families, students, and educators, have shown a deep passion for celebrating and honoring the Hmong language. These discussions have focused on nuances of the language including generational differences, dialectical differences, and cultural representation.
- We have learned much about how the language has evolved. The Hmong language is spoken most frequently by elders. Children are often exposed to the language in the presence of elders, creating a cultural and social dynamic that requires inter-generational conversation to support language preservation.
- Although it is important to understand how a child’s native Hmong language can support their academic success in Hmong and English, it is also critically important to support Hmong language development to support social pride and cultural identity.
Throughout our work we have affirmed that studies like ours that focus on minoritized languages in concentrated communities are critical to support children’s success and to promote language preservation.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of studying low incidence populations, including ethnically and linguistically diverse students?
There are over 300,000 Hmong in the United States, and the Hmong population is the fastest growing of the East Asian group (US Census Bureau, 2017). Hmong Americans represent one of the most under-served cultural communities in the US, concentrated in two specific areas: the Midwest—St Paul, MN and Madison, WI—and the Central Valley of California (Pew Research, 2015).
Given the high levels of poverty and the large percentage of students entering the U.S. education system, Hmong Americans represent an important Asian subgroup that may continue on a negative academic and economic trajectory if meaningful intervention is not put into place. The needs of Hmong Americans warrant our attention to bring educational opportunity and equity to a growing but marginalized group of children and to contribute to our broader mandate to conduct research that contributes to the betterment of all children.
Our effort to develop Hmong IGDIs will provide educators with a set of resources that are instructionally relevant—that is, the measures can be used to provide data that have direct implications for instructional practices, such as informing how to modify instruction to maximize Hmong language and early literacy development. In this way, our work aims to demonstrate a deep value of the Hmong language, support educators to understand children’s Hmong language and early literacy skills and improve their academic outcomes through differentiated instruction.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
Volumes of research demonstrate the importance of language and early literacy development during the preschool years. However, this research has provided little attention on low incidence populations, including ethnically and linguistically diverse students (for example, Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Indigenous dialects). These children’s outcomes are just as important as those of majority populations. We must invest in these low-incidence populations to create a more equitable educational experience for our youngest learners.
An omnipresent need in this arena is the need to involve and collaborate with the communities, families, and educators that education research intends to serve. Indeed, the strongest parts of our work involves the feedback we receive from community and family members. Our team includes three Hmong community members as staff, and we continuously engage the community in our process. Our initial interview and focus groups drove the creation of a community level survey to gather input on what features of the language were most important to the community. We then used those data as a catalyst to form a strong partnership between the community, family members, and the research institution, which has resulted in a process that is meaningful to all parties. If we expect our education research to be meaningful in communities of practice, we must improve how we value and collaborate with those communities in partnership.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?
This work has a direct connection to equity and inclusion in education. The Hmong are a low-incidence population, which has contributed to their marginalization. As an example of how this community experiences marginalization and inequities, we share our experience in the IES review process. When we first submitted our application for a measurement goal project the review panel provided a weak score for our application noting that they could not justify the resources of an IES award on such a small population, among other weaknesses. These results illustrate just how inequitable our system has been. When we reapplied the following year, we developed an argument around equity. Fortunately, the reviewers agreed with our rationale and funded this project.
We fully recognize the Hmong community is small and highly concentrated, and we fully believe developing the Hmong IGDI measures will provide a meaningful resource to these communities to support Hmong children’s language and early literacy development. As our nation continues to grow in diversity, we will see more and more languages in our classrooms. We must develop procedures and resources that can support all students, not just those historically centered. As evidence grows, we are learning about how a child’s native language used in community can be an asset to their academic performance in the classroom, even when the instructional language is English. These findings provide evidence of how inclusive practices that include native languages can be beneficial to all students, not just to monolingual English speakers.
Produced by Caroline Ebanks (Caroline.Ebanks@ed.gov), Team Lead for Early Childhood Research and program officer for the National Center for Education Research.