Ethnic Minorities and Public Education in the State of Wisconsin

Shortly after arriving in the laid-back student city of Madison, Wisconsin this afternoon, we rushed for our appointment with Gerhard Fischer of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (middle), J.P. Leary of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s American Indian Studies program (left), and Jacqueline Iribarren, education consultant for English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Learners (ELL) programs at Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (right).

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We were interested in hearing about ethnic minorities in the State of Wisconsin and how the educational system takes up the task of dealing with issues of migration and ethnic diversity.

Gerhard Fischer stressed the significance of German immigration, especially from historical European German settlement areas in Eastern Europe, such as Eastern Prussia, Romania, and the Volga river area, for the State of Wisconsin. He pointed out the many German town names in the area and ethnic institutions like turner halls (Turnhalle in German). According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the largest self-identified ancestry groups in the State of Wisconsin were—in decending order—German, Irish, Polish, Norwegian, and English, followed by Mexican at rank 11 and Native American at rank 13. Fischer described how the German population of the Madison area historically had strong socialist leanings, resulting in the election of a socialist mayor during the 1950s, who subsequntly blamed German Americans for moving from the city to the suburbs, eroding the city’s tax base with ramifications for the quality of inner city public schools.

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J.P. Leary talked to us about Native Americans in the State of Wisconsin. 11 tribes are currently federally recognized. The 2000 U.S. Census found 70,000 or 1.29% of the state’s population identified as American Indian. Of those American Indians in Wisconsin, 1/3rd live in urban areas, 1/3rd live on reservations, and 1/3rd live in towns adjacent to reservations. Leary told us how in the last 30 years, the American educational system, which had historically been used as a weapon against tribal cultures, began to foster Native American cultures. Instead of sending American Indian children to boarding schools and Christian churches—despite the separation of church and state—in an attempt to strip them off their native language and spirituality, federal and state governments today encourage schools to preserve Native American cultures.

Cultural preservation is not an easy task for Wisconsin’s American Indian communities, which are—except for three tribes who operate casinos—rather poor. Despite accounting for 1.29% of Wisconsin’s population, American Indians are underrepresented in teaching positions. Roughly 200 of the state’s 60,000 public school teachers are American Indian. In order to put forward the teaching of native languages in American Indian communities, the Department of Public Instruction writes grants that are used to credential people from the communities as official language teachers. Other private initiatives include teaching native languages through both high-tech approaches, such as creating language instruction DVDs and videos, and direct person-to-person initiatives like week-long language learning camps and master-apprentice language learning programs. Funding for these activities derives partly from tribal funds, which get income from American Indian businesses such as casinos, software- , or alternative energy companies.

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Jacqueline Iribarren talked to us about Wisconsin’s English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Learners (ELL) programs. Title 3 of the No Child Left Behind Act compells states to provide bilingual education. In Wisconsin, there is one ESL teacher per 50 students, which means that all other teachers have to help out to further English learning efforts. In the state of Wisconsin these programs are significant as among students in Wisconsin public schools, more than 85 home languages can be found. A notable 8% of students in public schools are Hispanic (in 2008), approximately 23,000 students speak Spanish, and approximately 10,000 students speak Hmong. Iribarren mentioned the achievement gap between white middle-class students and students of color and from poor backgrounds in standardized tests. She highlighted that the City of Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the US. Between 1990 and 2005, the numbers of English Language Learners grew from roughly 2.0 million to 5.0 million, or by 152%. In Wisconsin, students have to take an English test when they enter school. Students are screened by asking the question: Do you speak another language at home? Students have to go through yearly English tests until they have reached adequate language proficiency. Wisconsin has bilingual education programs for English Language Learners. Transitional Bilingual Education programs (TBE) are designed for a three year period and start in the first year with 90% Spanish and 10% English, continue with 70% Spanish and 30% English in the second year, and finish with 40% Spanish and 60% English in the third year. Although the TBE programs are well-meaning, they are troubled by several problems. First, some parents do not want their children to attend bilingual education programs because they feel that English aquisition should happen as fast as possible and that instruction in their mother language hinders this effort. Second, there is the paradox effect of segregating students in TBE programs from the rest of the student body, despite the aim to include them into American society. Both students in TBE programs and TBE teachers feel to a certain degree excluded from the general school culture. Finally, the transition from English Language Learners classes to college rarely goes smoothly as the English requirements for standardized tests are on average much higher than what is achieved in English Language Learners classes.

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Benedikt Schäfer


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