Should Public Schools Address Diversity?

Richard P. Weinstein

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Public schools today must respond to an ever-increasing diverse student population. Should the nation's schools be asked to address the issue of diversity? Where is one to begin this journey other than by attempting to examine a common language or definition of the term diversity? The mere attempt to define diversity is problematic in nature as questions abound on the plausibility of an agreed upon definition. The more one examines the issue of diversity the more complex and more philosophical the discourse becomes. Does diversity refer to ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation? The agreement regarding a definition is a discourse in and of it self. According to Webster’s Universal Dictionary address means "to direct one’s skill or attention to". The word diversity means "the condition or quality of being diverse; unlikeness, a difference, distinction; variety". In an attempt to place the reader on a common ground, this review will explore how the public schools are directing their attention to a student body who is more diverse in terms of a multitude of factors such as race, religion, socio-economic status and gender. The aforementioned factors are not designed to be exhaustive, as further investigation is needed for this matter. Conceptually, this paper will investigate the pros and cons of addressing the issue of diversity in the public schools through a review that will examine school policy, curriculum, staffing, and professional development.

Background of the Controversy

The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Survey (1998) reflects that between the years of 1976 to 1995 the race/ethnicity percentages have shifted within the elementary and secondary schools of the nation. The white non-Hispanic population has

decreased by 11 percent with the total minority population increasing by 11.1 percent. The most significant change is the 7.1 percentage increase in the Hispanic population. The Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence (2000) recognizes that the rapid demographic changes in the nation’s population over the last three decades has impacted more on education than any other American social institution. In the year 2056, the "average" U.S. citizen will trace their decent to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic countries, the Pacific Islands, almost anywhere other than "white Europe" (Wittmer, 1992). Wittmer suggests that the term minority is rapidly losing significance particularly in the nation’s classrooms.

Racial inequality in our schools has been an issue since the founding days of our country. Francis Wayland, President of Brown University, spoke to the National Teachers Association shortly after the civil war, explaining how the battle had been a war of education and patriotism against ignorance and barbarism (Perkinson, 1995). In the late 1800’s fear of the blacks being educated and taking over the white race created concern, as was the fear of retaliation over slavery. Perkinson (1995) also points out that the Supreme Court had declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, however, many "blacks realized that the Brown decision did not go far enough: it did not outlaw racism."

Many African-American parents today still believe that black children are failing in our schools not because they are culturally deprived but because the schools do not know how to teach black children (Perkinson, 1995). In the 1970’s white teachers were angry as they were replaced with black teachers due to quotas calling for racial balance. Politically astute African-American parents claimed that the schools were part of the

problem and often to the point that black children were being socialized into white people by imposing white culture on them.

The Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act of 1972, supported by federal dollars, was designed to address ethnic studies programs that informed children about their own native cultural heritage and contributions, in addition to addressing problems that minority groups faced in the United States. This supported the hiring of minority teachers to provide instruction to students (Perkinson, 1995). Questions still abound on the lack of minority representation in the textbooks and the curricular materials. The federal government continues to support the recruiting of minority teachers through the Title II Eisenhower Math and Science Grant.

Analysis of the Controversy

Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997) offer their framework of an analysis of a controversy by asking if the dispute is fundamental? If the dispute is unavoidable based on either or thinking then selecting one of the options undermines the feasibility of choosing the other. This study will examine whether schools should address diversity. This controversy suggests that there may or may not be a need to address diversity in the schools. Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997) explain that when analyzing a controversy a disputant may have a problem in "understanding and fact", as is the case with the issue of addressing diversity. The review of the controversy will point out that at times the disputants misunderstand each other in addition to not sharing common beliefs as to what the facts of the issue really are. It is also true that for some disputants addressing diversity


is at times an emotional issue pertaining to values which Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997) point out may make the controversy unresolvable.

Rozycki (1993) in "Immigrants in the New America" writes that the US public schools consider "celebrating" diversity and maintaining ethnic diversity desirable. However, Rozycki also points out that traditionally, schools have sought the very conditions that undermine the maintenance of ethnic distinctions. Rozycki suggests that the pursuit of "multiculturalism" is confusing for immigrants who "come here with the full intent to become Americans", which conflicts with the traditional goal of the public schools which is promote democratic society.

Dr. Juan Baughn (1999) of Lehigh University recommends that the public schools promote policies, practices, and decisions that recognize diversity in accordance with core values of a democratic and civil society. Rozycki (2000) writes about the problem of immigration and multiculturalism. Rozycki points out that educators are not in a position to affect policy on immigrants regardless of their high hopes and that they can only react to these situations since legislatures denied educators the funds to do much more than sit and talk and brace for the chaos. Many schools today are addressing diversity issues via sexual harassment and racial intimidation policies. Baughn (1999) would suggest that diversity be woven into the fabric of the institution by its policies and practices.

However, he also recognizes that a school’s dedication to diversity has limits and that it "cannot acknowledge every conceivable shade of difference".

Baughn (1999) also suggest that teachers have a wide array of perspectives and backgrounds, in addition to ongoing professional development which is designed to help

them deal with the issues of diversity. Teachers and administrators do not always accept or tolerate people who are different from them. The majority of Americans support a five year moratorium on all immigration according to a 1996 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (Ling-Ling, 1997). There is currently no single source that offers a comprehensive description of the types of programs that exist to prepare teachers to teach linguistically and culturally diverse students (Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence, 2000). The Report states that as the population of students has become more diverse, the composition of the teaching force has become increasingly homogenous and comprised of primarily white females. However, if we are to examine the racial make-up of the teachers in this nation we must also examine the make-up of our students. A controversy still exists as to whether such categories as Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Middle-class, Underclass, homosexual, straight, special, or regular are real or mythological constructs that serve the political arena (Rozycki, 1998).

Spring (1998) defines multicultural education as the effort to teach children about a variety of cultures in order to maintain social harmony and integrating immigrant groups into American Society. Multicultural education is rooted in a concern for the integration of American Society and the social problems created by a growing immigrant population. During the 1950s and 1960s, the purpose was to maintain equality of opportunity in the economic system by reducing racial and cultural prejudice (Spring, 1998). Baughn (1999) recommends that the curriculum expose students to a rich array of viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences. A full treatment of diversity should include resources that reflect a commitment to inclusion. Another perspective addressing multi-

cultural education is that it pays little or no attention to teaching people "how to recognize when culturally and racially different groups are being victimized by racist or biased attitudes of the larger society"(U.S. Department of Education, 1991). Research in multicultural education indicates that mainstream values of independence and competition can actually impede learning, especially among black and Hispanic students whose cultures place a high value on cooperation and relationships (Jaap, 1999).

Feinberg and Soltis (1992) point out that those that accept the historical impediment theory believe that minorities are not lacking in skills but have suffered long periods of economic and cultural deprivation, i.e., such as slavery and social prejudice. Feinberg and Soltis point out that those who accept the historical impediment theory would want equal opportunity equating to educational opportunities for minorities. Would these proponents of equity argue for programs such as addressing diversity through multicultural educational initiatives?

In Strike, Haller and Soltis, (1998) we learn about a case study regarding a teacher who is a member of an Aryan Brotherhood and who has maintained anonymity in this organization until a recent reference of his membership is covered by a local newspaper. Should the school censure this teacher or require him to resign?

In a second case study in Strike, Haller and Soltis, (1998) we learn about the creation of two charter schools, which may be construed as a school for African American girls and a second school for African American religious oriented children. In the case study, the African American Assistant Superintendent does not agree with the premise of the charter schools. The authors pose four questions about the case study,

which are applicable to the public schools of our nation. The first is the alienation and identity of minority students in the schools. The minority students reported that the school is not their school, as it does not represent their beliefs. Second, is the issue of truth in our schools and who controls it? Many would claim that white European males control the schools. Third is the issue of dialogue. Schools are places for children to learn and discuss ideas about a variety of cultures. Is it appropriate to learn one cultural heritage? Finally, should the school work to create a shared American culture? What will be the dominant culture we are to share? Does this mean that addressing diversity is a needed initiative in the nations’ schools? Does the white middle class control what is taught, when we will learn it, and who will be the privileged class?

Using Clabaugh and Rozycki’s (2000) seven questions for problem analysis, we examine how the one representative school district addressed diversity concerns. The community concern was a perceived lack of sensitivity by the school administrators, to acts of racial intimidation by students (Scott, 2000). The racial issue involved the school community and the general community. Dr. Scott, an instructor at Penn State University, posed questions to the district and community members through a focus group format designed to seek feedback from the participants on three specific questions. The first question addressed how acts of intimidation affected the social and learning environment? The second question addressed how has or should the changing demographics of the district influence recruitment or training efforts? The third question addressed the educational benefits to the students, staff, teachers, parents and community in developing an inclusive diversity initiative. The minority parents and minority

community had different perceptions of the controversy. Initially, the minority community felt that the district had not adequately communicated a racial incident occurring within the school district. After participating in the focus groups the district learned that the students and parents were angry with the district for not sharing information about the racial incident. Additionally, students felt that a double standard existed for students and teachers in regard to mutual respect for one another. Some teachers participating in the focus groups perceived the issue of diversity as unfair pressure on them to understand every student’s cultural heritage. Hiring of minority staff was recommended to increase the diversity within the teaching ranks (Scott, 2000).

Changes occurred within the district as part of the adoption of the new strategic plan, which included the focus group recommendations. A school and community diversity committee was created at the district level and building level within the school district. This is an example of one school district’s response to a community who vocalized its need to address the issues of diversity in the schools.

Further examination of the diversity issue brings about other aspects worthy of discussion. Diversity of the student body within a school can influence the environment in which learning takes place. For example, the educational level of the parents who have at least a high school diploma or GED has risen in the nation from 62 to 83 percent from 1972 to 1997 (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). Even with the rise in the parents’ educational level, parents with problematic behavior can negatively influence a child’s behavior in school. Robert Chase, President of the National Education Association, asked his constituents, "Are You Ready? Celebrating diversity must be more than happy talk."

(NEA Today, 2000). He suggests that "Celebrating Diversity" must be more than a slogan and that it is a way of life. He recognizes that dealing with issues of diversity can be very demanding work and can bring adversity as when a handicapped child suffers a medical emergency in the classroom or when a racially oriented fight breaks out in the hallway. Chase suggests that when schools address diversity, when the students and teachers grasp diversity as a strength, the school transforms into a "superior real world" learning environment.

Pluralism is a term that is not traditionally recognized by the general population as a word associated with diversity or multicultural issues and concerns. However, schools are rapidly implementing the concepts of pluralism through activities, workshops, courses, and small groups (England, 1992). Pluralism is a term that means that members of a diverse society including racial, religious, and social groups maintain participation in and the development of their tradition while working on the interdependence needed for a nation’s unity. England writes that elementary school teachers can help "celebrate diversity" and foster group respect for their students. England provides the reader with other questions in her article asking, how promoting diversity can splinter as well as enlarge moral communities? Does this suggest that England recognizes that celebrating diversity is needed yet understands the complexities including potential dangers of the initiative?

Marguerite Wright (1999) emphasizes "human sensitivity" suggesting that schools foster an atmosphere of treating all people with courtesy and civility instead of the attention to cultural sensitivity. She stresses the importance of providing clear rules of

behavior in the student handbook so students understand that respectful behavior among students and staff is expected. Promoting the concept that respect is critical to the supportive learning environment will reduce focus on racism.

Charles Haynes (1998) in his article on "Schools must deal with the diversity of the nation’s faiths" as he believes that just telling people to celebrate our cultural and religious differences doesn’t work, suggesting that we are uncomfortable when familiar is replaced with unfamiliar. He warns the schools that the worse solution is to ignore our differences and offers the idea that we include religion accurately and fairly in history, literature, and other subjects.

Schools have introduced multicultural educational programs and activities in part to recognize the achievements of various ethnic groups in a belief that this will prepare students for life in a diverse society. In Michael Webb’s (1990) article on multicultural education in the elementary and secondary schools, Webb offers four goals of multicultural education. One is to remedy ethnocentrism in the traditional curriculum.

The second is to build understanding among racial and cultural groups and appreciation of different cultures. Third is to defuse intergroup tensions and conflicts. The final goal is to make curricula relevant to the experiences, cultural traditions, and historical contributions of the nation’s diverse population. Webb points out that in a study of three elementary programs for Hispanic children not proficient in English, that math, reading, and language scores of students in bilingual and multi-culturally integrated ESL programs were significantly superior to scores of students enrolled in bilingual ESL without the multi-cultural integration. Webb further depicts how in 1994, the School

Board in Lake County, Florida voted and implemented policy to permit teachers to provide instruction to children about other cultures but only as a way of teaching them that American culture was superior.


Addressing the controversy of diversity in the schools was of particular interest to me, as I am currently co-chairing a diversity committee within our school district. In the late stages of my committee work, I realized how diversity is tied to many political implications for school administrators. Although, I have not addressed this side of the political nature of the issue in my research, it is an area that needs further attention.

As Burnett (1994) points out, multicultural education is broadly defined, takes many forms and has an impact on every aspect of the school’s operation including: staffing, curriculum, tracking, testing, pedagogy, disciplinary policies, student, parent, and community involvement. Burnett’s comments reflect the far-reaching implications of addressing diversity in the public schools of this nation. I believe people may still be frightened of this topic as it often brings about the fear of accusations of racial problems. Anxiety about addressing diversity may also depend on the comfort level of the administration and school board and the relationship with the parents and the community.

It appears that the controversy over whether schools should address diversity is still open to debate. I have found from my own personal experience and recent research that it is a complicated matter with very few guidelines. The research cautions us from examining the issue in a superficial manner. Diversity issues can as stated above reach into every aspect of the school district’s services and programs. Diversity is not merely a

black-white issue but is a multi-dimensional issue that examines us as individuals in the same way we examine our students. We are therefore, reminded to examine the intent of our actions and the importance of monitoring who is making the recommendation to address the diversity issue and why is the decision being asked and made?




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