Welcome to the inaugural issue of our quarterly summary of critical current issues in education highlighting the ongoing work in universities, public and private schools, and governmental agencies.
Two major thrusts in the coming years: equity and accountability. Both are amplified in President Bush's education plan motto...No Child Left Behind.
Equity: Current researchers, now have stronger evidence substantiating the need for America to take better steps to fulfill its cornerstone belief that the poverty/poor achievement link can be eradicated. The Department of Education announced data on 4,500 schools with children who live in poverty and whose academic achievement is above average...equity in achievement is within reach. Models derive from several sources including long-term experience in Texas, new data from North Carolina, and from several research-based organizations.
Accountability: Breaking the cycle of poverty and poor achievement requires determination to measure, and swiftly intervene for, every child beginning to be left behind. Increasing emphasis on defining instructional standards and refining their qualitative and quantitative assessment may revive interest in, and raise new issues regarding, a national curriculum, even a national exam.
The challenge for educators is to put accountability systems in place that produce equity. Principles are being identified and tools being developed for such systems. One component includes criterion-referenced tests...directly measuring what percent of a particular set of standards each student has achieved. Compare this to standardized exams...sampling a few objectives then ranking students in relation to each other.
Another characteristic of criterion-referenced exams...ease with which teachers, parents, students and policy makers can see which objectives are being learned, and which are not Student scores, and school ratings can be easily accessed and understood. Some in Texas say you can ask any cab driver about his child's scores and school rating and he can explain the whole system.
Texas system translates criterion-referenced exams into individual school ratings to encourage equity. Scores are reported by race and class. Schools are rated outstanding only if students in each race/class subset are passing the objectives in each subject, at each grade level, at a 75 percent level. One glance shows teachers which standards they are most and least successful in teaching...professional development can be tailored to each teacher's needs.
So why aren't we getting the results we all say we want?...because we're unskillfully applying critical theories of social justice, clinging to flawed humanistic notions of "helping" poor children with false feel-good approaches, allowing teachers to give high unearned grades and instrumentalizing the classroom experience (teaching to the tests). Definitions of equity and accountability embedded in many popular theories of learning and social justice, and the ways these theories have been implemented, fail to produce just and humane equity in achievement and fall short of accountability to standards that strengthen our nation.
Most contemporary learning theories hold that optimum learning occurs when learners construct new meanings and relate their experiences to what is known. Originally these theories encouraged hands-on experiences that led students to discover independently known truths, like learning about volume and space by playing with liquids in varied shaped glasses. More recently they've adopted a postmodern flare encouraging humanistic relativity to such a degree that learning facts and historical ideas suffer. Both aspects of teaching and learning must be in proper balance...students must actively engage and construct ideas for themselves, as well as learn what is already known.
No tests can measure all the important elements in a learning environment, but it is possible through criterion referenced tests to measure the basic knowledge a person needs to function with a reasonable degree of confidence in today's knowledge age. However, proponents of currently popular learning theories oppose such testing because of their belief that people construct different meanings based on culture, class and other experiences that don't always fit neatly into the well-defined correct responses required by such tests.
Contemporary theories of social justice derive from critical theory...highlighting power, oppression, and change that, when improperly applied, needlessly and unproductively disrupts education, business, and government institutions. Critical theory offers important insights into why so many poor children and children of color underachieve. Its inescapable foundational links to Marxism, socialism, anarchy and post-modernism pose challenges which partially define the debate over what direction American education will take next.
Feeling better while doing worse...students in the U.S. have measurably high self-esteem, measurably low academic achievement compared with most other leading nations. We've worked too hard making students feel good about themselves no matter what they learn or do, and not hard enough helping them develop self-efficacy (confidence based on achievement). Social promotion only requires students to be dependent...academic success requires students to be independent and interdependent.
Teacher education programs need to train teachers so familiar with the standards that they can use them to create engaging learning environments to make sure every student who wants to can learn the objectives...and schools can't just teach to the tests.
We need a new vision in the university...reach out toward all that is good in our social institutions...expose oppressive elements within those institutions...address power inequities in the classroom without diminishing students' ability to learn or schools' accountability for measuring learning...offer viable alternatives to achieve the desirable goals of a scholastic revolution without the unproductive side effects of historical anarchist, Marxist or communist driven revolution. This will not be easy, requires active patience. Universities don't easily change, faculty aren't easily replaced. The university must address the pride it takes in the outrageous, rebellious, and unusual, and the consequences it produces as these naturally filter down to influence graduating teachers.
We must appropriately use what is good from the radical, liberal, and ultra-right contributions to develop teachers who can encourage student uniqueness while helping all learners achieve the highest standard of learning.
Beyond equity and accountability...Another major thrust with relatively untapped potential for improving educational achievement...teaching values and character . Many conservatives support this but most universities and schools resist conservative definitions and are uncertain about how to balance them with the humanistic relativism of post-modern culture. Though resistance lost ground after September 11th, a common misconception remains that values and desirable character traits differ too widely between cultural and economic groups to make a values curriculum practical.
A study funded by the John W. Kluge Foundation showed that parents held similar values across racial and economic lines. In fact, poorer parents are often the most disturbed that basic values are not being taught in schools. Subsequent research confirms this finding. Obviously, value education must emphasize democratic values, rather than exclude them for particularistic cultural norms or expressions. It appears this can be accomplished because cultures differ primarily in how they rank and/or express core values, not in what those values are.
The best social justice program a nation can offer is an excellent education. This opportunity begins in the home and includes the classroom, work place and larger society. What is an excellent education? We've been trying to grab this brass ring for over a hundred years, while results continue to decline.
We need to clarify our national vision...correct past misconceptions and mistakes...draw a line in the sand saying we will only embrace methods that leave no child behind.
But whose vision? Thomas Jefferson asserted that a just and free democratic republic depends on well-educated, personally-responsible and responsive citizens who have opportunities to fulfill their purpose in life, including raising healthy productive families. We now have the tools and determination to act with integrity, holding ourselves more accountable to the high standards of teaching and learning necessary to pursue a social justice fueled by an educational system in which every child achieves at his or her highest potential.
The vision of Claremont Graduate University's newly-revised teacher education program sees ways to work simultaneously toward equity and accountability, without sacrificing social justice, excellence, and integrity. We envision a system, beginning with the basics in kindergarten and progressing more and more broadly to graduate school, that better educates all students, rich and poor, to fulfill their unique purposes and contribute to the total well being of their families, communities, nation and world, within the context of the ideals expressed in our nation's founding concepts, principles, and values.
This requires teachers deeply committed to academic excellence, equity, and integrity; who work diligently to develop skills and attitudes necessary to teach every child as they would their own, who collaborate successfully with parents, and who use technology and all other appropriate resources to maximize achievement for themselves and their students. Encouraging evidence points to the possibility for developing such teachers and achieving greater equity and accountability in our schools.
What we need most in an inspiring and productive revolution...not just change for the sake of change, but change firmly based in core principles of a just freedom from pre-school through graduate school. We invite you to join our intensified effort to develop accountability for academic excellence and character rooted in values and ideals that will open the door for every one of America's students to fulfill his or her highest academic and civic potential.
We have enclosed a reply card (postage paid) so you can indicate your interest in receiving future copies of The Claremont Education Letter. We are also interested in your feedback about this and future issues.
John Rivera, Ph.D. Director of Academic Programs, Policy and Faculty Development
Mary Poplin, Ph.D. Director of Teacher Education
The Challenge: Diversity and Education
January 21, 2003
Dear Educational Leader and Interested Parties:
This second quarterly issue focuses on the challenge of diversity and education. We are living in an increasingly diverse nation...our strength and productivity depend on nurturing and training leaders and productive citizens from all sectors of our diversity...key changes in education can help us develop a more informed and beneficial approach to diversity.
America's vision of "E pluribus unum," "out of many, one," has charted us on a unique course in the world of nations. We revere the abstract vision enunciated in our Declaration of Independence, but like our nation's founders we ignore contradictions which keep its practical achievement out of reach. Residential, economic, educational and other kinds of inequality and injustice are increasing here in the 21st century.
The challenge: What are the constructs, policies, and practices that can move us further toward a genuine model in which all Americans have access to equal, equitable, and just opportunities and benefits?
We have enjoyed great successes and suffered disturbing failures on the path toward kneading our diversity into the productive oneness envisioned in and through our Declaration of Independence.
Human nature and humanism: Legal and other efforts to achieve our founding vision have focused on conquering, or at least defusing, the dissipated side of human nature.
In an ecological environment, health depends on the mutually beneficial interaction of diverse forms of life. In some ways, this is similar to a healthy nation which is accountable to its citizens for conforming to a standard of maximum growth and well-being for all...drawing strength from a wide variety of ways to understand challenges and solve problems...maintaining harmony with essential constructs of the life cycle.
From East and West, from North and South, All nations here are joining Their varied gifts, and out of this A higher life is coining. Margaret Peeke, 1882
Addressing diversity has ranged from access to revolution. Approaches include multiculturalism; celebrating diversity; tolerance; anti-racism; ethnic/gender/cultural studies; biculturalism; affirmative action; critical theory; and postmodernism...producing limited positive accomplishments and difficult conundrums.
Racism is highly correlated to education results. Data is conclusive that students of color and the poor are taught less than others in most public schools and universities...quality and availability of human and material/technological resources (including teacher abilities and attitudes) differ widely based on racial and economic school demography.
Diversity movements reveal biases in educational content...traditional history texts erring in the opposite direction of alternative texts...excluding stories of Native peoples and other people of color (both their contributions and their oppression)...romanticizing our nation's founding while failing to mention how we have not lived up to our founding ideals...science texts presenting only materialist views of earth's beginnings...teaching content (e.g., medicine, art, music) from an exclusively western European perspective...alternative texts on the other hand err by...demonizing only the founding fathers...discounting the role of religion...denigrating significant national accomplishments...both approaches exaggerating and misrepresenting history...too often obscuring the standard of pursuing the truth about the subject being studied...inaccurately reflecting known facts.
Typical teacher dialogue and classroom interactions assume student familiarity with a Eurocentric middle class style of thinking and interacting. Teachers unfamiliar with valid linguistic styles in other languages have difficulty understanding and explaining to students how to transition to American English. We have the tools to teach and test all students effectively, and yet we predominantly employ methods such as standardized multiple choice testing even though research has firmly established that such approaches make the testing environment unnecessarily less effective for many.
Diversity raises demanding questions: How will we respond to the undercurrent of growing acceptance of and support for separate and unequal? What are the limits to celebrating or tolerating diversity? In ecological systems, some forms of diversity can be destructive... parasites rob organisms of necessary nutrients...cancer cells can kill.
We need to more clearly identify elements of diversity that will contribute to the standard of maximum growth and well-being for all. Some diversity movements have celebrated the exotic and unusual without being accountable for how those elements might impact the overall health of individuals and our micro and macro cultures. Loving one's neighbor can mean finding additional ways to contribute to achieving this standard.
Celebrating or tolerating diversity can become ridiculous and even dangerous...do we celebrate or tolerate cultural traditions that deny education to women or mutilate them? Do we teach that Hitler was just another abused child, a victim of his circumstances? In the context of true life-giving diversity, the concepts of celebration and tolerance are anemic. Skillful bilingualism, for example, needs to be encouraged for all our citizens, just as it is in schools that serve the wealthy.
Commitment to diversity is the beginning; we also must develop a matrix to determine what diversity elements need to be promoted to strengthen our national health, what elements would not be best to promote, and what elements need to be protected because they do not yet fit neatly into one of those two categories.
Are traditional concepts about race, culture, and discrimination evolving? Some approaches, such as those that teach only about the food, festivals, and fashion of various cultures, minimize diversity issues. Minimizing issues can reduce conversations about real and valid differences to clichιs such as "we're all human," or "we're more alike than we are different." This can inhibit the already challenging work of first identifying, and then learning how to elevate, neglected aspects of diversity that could contribute toward creating a more whole and just society.
One of the most detrimental effects of an imprecise diversity agenda is the idea that because people of color or poverty live in economically and socially oppressive conditions they are exempt from standards of excellence. Educators often call this nurturing self-esteem...Grades and egos are inflated...Some teachers and schools justify requiring less of these students...relaxing standards and negotiating dangerous truces..."if you don't cause trouble, I will pass you with few requirements"...subjecting students to generational cycles of increasingly oppressive outcomes...all part of why some new legislation is mandating increased accountability (see last newsletter).
Diversity is a national resource. We can all benefit from learning to steward it more democratically. Schools with diversity agendas that do not contribute to more equity, equality, justice, and healthy freedom in our nation become breeding grounds of mediocrity for the poor and the privileged alike. White students accustomed to school adopting their styles of learning and demonstrating knowledge often become complacent and arrogant...they pass and excel with minimal effort...gifted classes fall into similar traps...valuing creativity (often defined as diversity of opinions even when those opinions are blatantly erroneous) over knowledge based in truth or accuracy...parents are unaware that their child's high grades do not indicate adequate preparation for college and/or the work force. An elementary school gifted class volunteer remarked, " they are very bright but they don't know anything."
Other questions that may open our minds to new methods for promoting productive diversity include: What are the better premises of a new and more effective theory of diversity? What are the preconditions and policies for institutional progress which will improve diversity? What constructs of race, color, and culture will contribute to a thriving integrated 21st century national culture?
Jefferson wrote "All men are created equal," but Jefferson kept slaves and the Constitution made slavery legal .
Providing an education system that moves us toward resolving contradictions that lie at the very root of America's national identity is central to the success of our free nation...all productive resources in our nation must be fully operational to reverse declines in achievement, economics, politics, law, business, and morality.
What can educators, and others, do?
Define fundamental standards of achievement and attitudes that will help everyone live in a state of healthier freedom .
Support a more balanced approach to research on diversity.
Define and encourage multiple paths to achieve those standards.
Develop and employ a wider variety of assessment methods.
Assess at two levels: basic standards needed by everyone, and advanced standards needed by those whose work is in a particular area, for example, the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for everyone in science and mathematics differ from those necessary for engineers and physicists.
Engage in dialog using attitudes such as hope, love, humility, unity, cooperation, faith, and trust. Avoid communication characterized by paternalism, manipulation, exclusivity.
Develop and employ alternatives to privileging particular groups that are violating productive diversity or tolerating unproductive diversity.
Educate teachers to help students transition between valid linguistic styles from other languages, and American English.
Set standards to effectively encourage all families to be actively involved in schools.
Accurately present positive and negative historical truths.
Acknowledge a wide range of safe paths to excellence .
Encourage everyone in America to become fluent and literate in English and at least one other language.
Include more of the inspiring literature and ideas of the many peoples and experiences comprising our nation in school texts.
Do something every day : spiritually, psychologically, physically, and civically to more actively embrace and promote productive diversity.
Human nature is not blank slate, tabula rasa . We can develop and exercise the higher side of our nature and design ways of living that better reflect the light of equity, equality, and justice in our lives and institutional cultures.
Common goals: No matter who we are, most of us want America's children to be well educated, have excellent minds and attitudes, read, write, and calculate, work hard, and enjoy a wealth of opportunities. We may move toward these things and prioritize them differently, but we can agree on the fundamental destinations for maintaining a vibrant, healthy, responsible and free nation. Many routes are unfruitful and dangerous, deterring from the Declaration's standard of growth and well-being for all. But thankfully there are many routes by which we can safely arrive.
Looking to nature for clues: Throughout each day, a nearby tree provides food and shelter for various birds and animals. Some find food on the branches, some from the leaves, some use the tree as a launching pad for catching flying insects, some hang precariously upside down to gather nourishment from under fragile leaves. Like the tree, education in this diverse nation can and must effectively nourish all the future authors, mechanics, builders, musicians and scientists for our nation to thrive.
When all learn and grow according to their unique needs, and in ways that contribute to the balance, health and justice of society, the living organism that is our nation becomes stronger, and we make progress toward our national vision of unity through a more balanced, informed and beneficial approach to diversity.