Monday, March 12, 2007


By Marge Scherer | from Educational Leadership: the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development | March 2007

Affirmative action did not help get me into the University of Michigan, but the student body it formed did benefit me,” a young woman I know wrote, lamenting the recent vote to ban affirmative action policies at her alma mater. Her letter to the editor—one of 10 published in the Detroit Free Press—was the only one to remark on the positive aspects of diversity. The other letter writers angrily denounced admissions policies that attempted to ensure a diverse student body. “It is time to end preferential treatment of women and minorities,” they wrote, blurring the fact that preferential treatment of majorities is exactly what affirmative action was intended to end.

Getting her letter published wasn't the end of the experience for my friend. She also received a hate e-mail that warned her “to keep her failed ideas to herself.” So much for the free expression of ideas in an uncivil society.

Issues about diversity continue to challenge schools, divide the United States, and plague the U.S. court system. Discrimination and reverse discrimination are both hurtful, and, as society gropes toward just solutions, the schools feel the growing pains. This issue of Educational Leadership reminds us why and how schools must continue to embrace diversity.

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS. The population of the United States, the third largest in the world, does not even come close to that of the two countries with larger populations, China and India. Yet it is the country of choice for migration. Historically a destination for immigrants, it is growing in diversity every day (p. 8). Schools that have never before been ethnically mixed are now. It is commonplace for some districts to count languages spoken by their students in the dozens. Other school districts retain their segregated—and isolated—status even as their country and world become more diverse.

As diversity grows, so must we, writes Gary R. Howard (p. 16). He describes some of the ways schools can move beyond “blame and befuddlement” toward a vision of serving all students well. We must base the vision on several new assumptions, he writes. First, “Inequities are not for the most part a function of intentional discrimination.” Second, “Educators of all racial and cultural groups need to develop new competencies to successfully teach changing populations.”

And third, teachers of all races must acknowledge their cultural connections, which are legitimate aspects of school diversity.

BEYOND PROFICIENCY. NCLB proclaims that race matters when it comes to educating all children. The goal is that students in all subgroups—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and whites; and those who have limited English proficiency, who are poor, or who have disabilities—gain proficiency in the basic skills. To give up on attempting to close the persistent achievement gaps is to disobey the law of the land, and (to use the popular rhetoric) “to embrace the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Those of us who embrace a higher goal than proficiency for students might hope that students from all groups might be equally eligible to attend college some day. To become effective citizens and workers, however, they will need more than proficiency. They will need a high quality education, not just a test-oriented basic one, and they will need the wherewithal to pay the cost of sky-high college tuitions.

INCREASED LIFETIME OPPORTUNITIES. A recent survey by Public Agenda reconfirms that students and parents from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds share the same dreams: They value education and look to schools as the key to preparing young people for their futures (p. 23). In a recent editorial about the reasons population growth might cause economic and social backlash, Robert J. Samuelson (2006) writes,

The predominance of poor workers frustrates future assimilation. It's hard to move into the middle class. All this makes immigration seem threatening to millions of Americans, who visualize their country being overrun by an alien underclass. 1

All societies have a compelling interest in building school systems whose graduates are prepared for a diverse global workplace. In a world where thousands of groups speak thousands of languages and where warfare knows no limits, if integration and affirmative action are rejected as failed ideas, what is the better way to build respect for diversity? Shared understanding. I am reminded of a remark a taxi driver made one Thanksgiving on my way to the airport. Did I mind his asking, he said, “Why would you travel so far for a holiday that is all about food and football?” When I tried to explain that it was “cultural tradition,” he wondered in amusement: “America has a culture? America is all cultures.” We both started laughing, not sure about what.

Where can we as educators have the most influence in guiding students to realize the promises of diversity? Seeking understanding is one answer. Changing ourselves is the other.

Endnote: 1 Samuelson, R.J. (2006, October 4). 300 million reasons to worry. The Washington Post, p. A25.

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