Diversity: Education’s Greatest Challenge? – by Altha Manning

In my last article for American Diversity Report, “Embrace Diversity, Embrace the Future”, I used the example of Zanzibar and how the people there appeared to deal with diversity by accepting differences of other cultures including religion without co-mingling or requiring others to bend to the will of any one group.  However, since my visit there and writing that article, I have discovered that more recently, Muslim youth riding on motorcycles threw acid on the faces and bodies of three American young females who were walking through the streets of Zanzibar on their last evening in the city.  The girls were at the end of their mission to help out in the area and were going to celebrate their stay there.  They will forever be scarred both emotionally and physically by this experience.  This example simply shows how fragile our cultural stability is as mobility of the world’s people increases at a rapid pace and the introduction of new ideas, ways and cultures are seen as a threat to the old established ways.

The rapid pace of change disorients those who wish to maintain the status quo.   They feel threatened by the introduction of new ways and new people who champion or introduce that change. This same level of cultural disconnect is evident in our public schools.  In any city, students from very diverse backgrounds and cultures attend the same schools.  On the one hand, this mingling of diverse groups is a peak expression of American ideals.

Conversely, it presents a critical challenge to our schools, teachers and students:  how to deal with these differences in the same classroom and school at the same time and how to ensure maximum learning for all of the students no matter their level of readiness, state of hunger or comfort, ethnicity or even language.

Mobility of families and students, unsafe neighborhoods, extremes of wealth and poverty and the multitude of problems stemming from those at the bottom of the wealth chain further exacerbates the challenge to schooling and learning.    The nature of this diversity is rooted in ethnicity, socio-economic status and the attendant cultural norms.  Even students from the wealthiest families may at times experience a lack of guidance and discipline, as well as emotional traumas caused by unstable home environments.  However, students who come from homes at the bottom of the wealth chain often cannot triumph over them.

Of course, there are those who do escape their circumstances and do exceptionally well.  They are the outliers.  Most, however, are overwhelmed by the strength of the barriers and challenges and do not make it out of their circumstances.

These challenges, make it extremely difficult for a one-size-fits-all system to work effectively for all students.   These ever growing challenges in both number and complexity require that we rethink our approach to educating our children.  Meanwhile, we have begun the process of diversifying through Early Childhood Education programs, Alternative and Charter Schools, schools within schools, after school programs, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and other special programming.

However, the majority of students who need different or non-traditional strategies and support to facilitate their educational achievement are left without remedies and frequently doomed to failure.  The challenges faced by our schools, do not yield to a system simply based on passing a single standardized test for all.  Any system that does not address the student’s point of entry and that does not willingly take each student as far as he/she can go within the prescribed period (presumably a school year—this too needs fixing), will doom some to failure.

Too often, these are the ones who need the promise of education the most.  The following example illustrates only one facet of the issue.  If Isabella comes to school not knowing her alphabets and numbers, does not recognize either and has not had broadening or informal life experiences, (like trips to the zoo, discussions with parents or older informal teachers, observations and discussions of these experiences in a wide variety of formal and informal settings)  to assist in being where the school is going to start, then Isabella is likely to fail because she probably cannot master all of the background necessary to read and do other academic work as she is also expected to keep up with those who don’t have to do the foundational work to “catch up while keeping up”.

Expanding on one of those informal experiences, a visit to the “zoo”, will further illustrate this phenomenon while over simplifying a multifaceted challenge.  It happens to so many children in school who through no actions of their own become “failures” and later dropouts and juvenile delinquents who are more likely to be the ones to populate our prisons.  When the teacher mentions the “zoo” to her kindergarten class the children who have been to the zoo immediately conjure up images of giraffes, lions, elephants, etc., and the setting in which these exist.  They also recall the discussions with their parents or others about the zoo in general. Therefore, the spelling, recognition and most importantly the concept of “zoo” are easily understood and mastered.

These children can go on to write about the zoo, do research, develop illustrations and author books on the topic and their experiences. So, as the experienced child moves forward and builds on that conceptual understanding, the inexperienced child has to work on developing foundational knowledge.

This will occur on many fronts for each of the children each day and throughout each grading period.  One moves ahead while the other tries to catch up and at the same time, master the same material as the experienced child.  But somewhere along the way, the latter is more likely to become disenchanted and frustrated with school because things don’t make sense and he/she just can’t keep up.  Teachers too will wring their hands because they have no viable way of helping the masses of children who need their individual attention or different strategies and more time.  The ultimate expectation is that the inexperienced child will be at the same place as the experienced child at the end of the year—an impossibility for most.

In most states, students are expected to meet standards as measured by standardized tests.  They are based on what students are expected to know and do at each of the grade levels (or some other grouping).  These tests, unless they are criterion referenced, do not necessarily take into consideration where students began and generally do not measure and track their progress.  Teachers and schools in a rush to meet the standards, attempt to rush all students through the paces of the test requirements in an effort to have them all pass the test.

This is not a teacher problem nor in most cases, a school or administrative problem.  Most of these are policies or legislation handed down by legislatures or other policy making bodies far removed from education. Perhaps the current “Big Test” can become a criterion referenced test used to assess starting points, monitor progress of each child, class, teacher and school.  Then, the real measure of success becomes, how far does each progress in each subject/area, year, etc.  Is each student making “adequate progress”?

For some it will take a year to complete the established listing of competencies and knowledge while others may take 8 months or 18 months.  Educators generally have the research and “answers” or proven strategies before them to do what is necessary to teach each child and “leave no child behind”.  What they don’t have are the resources, time, support and general climate within which to do it.

There are many barriers within the system to accomplishing what we need to accomplish:  time (school day, school year, etc.)  school and classroom structure, inadequate planning time, overloaded classes, mandates to increase overall test performance, constantly changing legislative and administrative mandates, lack of parental and family support, family stresses, passive community support, inadequate informal education that serves as the foundation and enhances formal education and a myriad of other barriers to positive developmental experiences.

It will take leaders who have the will and intestinal fortitude to remove or erode these barriers and to stay the course.  If they lead with a clear shared vision and a student centered plan of action, educators, parents and the citizenry in general will support them. Then, the challenges of diversity can be minimized and positive outcomes successfully met.

This is an adapted version of an opinion article, “In educating children, a trip to the zoo tells the tale” the Tallahassee Democrat, March 13, 2008.

Altha Manning

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