Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Challenge of Diversity

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Challenge of Diversity

Article excerpt

It is essential for educators to understand the nature of the problems faced by children at risk of school failure and to design educational solutions that take into account the importance of the social context in which learning takes place, Ms. Bowman asserts.

One of the inescapable requirements for the future well-being of the United States is a highly educated work force. Our new national imperative, therefore, is to educate all children to the highest possible level. At present, schools are not successfully educating many of our students. Children from low-income families and those from some minority groups -- primarily African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and some Asians -- have higher rates of dropping out, retention in grade, and special education placements than do other children. If current trends in educational achievement continue, these students will not obtain the skills necessary for full participation in the economic and civic life of the country. Further, the inequality that results from differences in educational achievement among children is likely to make the social stability of the country increasingly questionable.

Comprehensive education for young children and support for them and their families appear to facilitate school-related cognitive, linguistic, and social learning.(1) While early childhood programs cannot serve as vaccinations against later failure, they have demonstrated that they can make a difference in how children develop and learn. The first of the national goals for education -- by the year 2000, all children will start school ready to learn -- reflects our appreciation of the connection between early childhood and later school achievement. Unfortunately, the way the goal is formulated suggests that early school success is exclusively a function of children's development before school. In fact, the schools children attend -- including their preschools -- also facilitate or impede learning. Failure begins early, and by the third grade educational trajectories are often fixed.(2)

While few educators deny the necessity of changing school programs, there is disagreement about what to do to improve outcomes for children. In this article I suggest that it is essential for educators to understand the nature of the problems faced by children at risk of school failure and to design educational solutions that take into account not only how children learn but the importance of the social context in which learning takes place.

Understanding Risk

"At risk" is the term applied to children whose personal or family characteristics are associated with school difficulties, and socioeconomic markers are robust correlates of school performance. In some instances, the assaults on a child's physical, social, intellectual, and emotional development that are the inevitable consequences of poverty result in developmental injury. Most poor and minority children, however, are not at risk for developmental failure; they are able to exercise the full range of human talents and abilities as they interact with their environments. The risk for these children ties in the dissonance between the schools and the economically and culturally diverse students, families, and communities they serve. There is a mismatch between what these children know and can do and what is expected of them by schools that are organized to accommodate and reinforce white, middle-class values, beliefs, and behavior. The social world of the school operates by different rules from the ones these children and their families know and use.

Two Approaches to Diversity

Two models of school practice have dominated American educational theory during this century. Each is based on somewhat different goals and conceptions of the teaching and learning process. One, labeled by Lawrence Kohlberg as a "cultural transmission" approach, stresses socializing children into a uniform culture.(3) This approach has been associated with traditional school policies and practices and emphasizes standardized and lockstep curricula. …

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