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by Mark F. Goldberg
Table of Contents
The United States is a country where concerns about discrimination, racism, and poverty are pervasive. When I interviewed Seymour Papert at MIT (Goldberg, 1991a), I expected our conversation to be primarily about computers and LOGO, the program he devised for elementary students. Yet Papert was more eager to talk about the “activist streak” that had developed in him as a boy in his native South Africa, where he opposed apartheid. For Papert, the driving force in all his work was including minorities in every possible educational opportunity, and his belief that computers may help level the playing field.
In another interview, with E. D. Hirsch Jr. (Goldberg, 1997), Hirsch stated how deeply he had been affected as a young man by Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 book on race in the United States, An American Dilemma. For all his adult life, Hirsch has felt that the “avoidable injustice” of not providing minority children with a proper education must be eradicated, and he is convinced that the Core Knowledge curriculum that grew out of his best-selling book Cultural Literacy helps to correct this injustice. The basis for Hirsch's conviction is that lack of “prior knowledge” is responsible for the below-average performance of many poor and minority children on standardized tests.
An enormous and growing population in the United States is composed of non—English-speaking people and people of color. Demographer Harold Hodgkinson notes that early in the 21st century, 68 percent of the students in California will come from homes where English is not the dominant language. At some point in this century, the majority of U.S. residents may be African American, Hispanic, Asian, or one of three or four other minority groups (Goldberg, 2000b). Poverty is another major concern and not necessarily related to one's racial background or language of commerce.
The diversity of cultures and economic status in the United States is a universal concern that affects every educator. Although far fewer minority and indigent residents live in Maine or North Dakota than in Florida, Texas, New York, or California, children who grow up in Maine or North Dakota will often go to college in other states and frequently end up residing in other states. Every citizen needs to know how to live and work with people from different backgrounds. Every educational leader has a stake in seeing that all children are well educated and that color, ethnicity, religious background, and economic status never bar a child from a good education.
The recommendations in this chapter are intended to apply to any group that Shirley Brice Heath calls a “subordinated population” (Goldberg, 1992). These people are not typically treated as well in schools as they deserve to be. They may be poor whites in Appalachia; African Americans in a large city; or Hispanics, Asians, or others who do not fit the stereotype of middle America that seems to linger from Norman Rockwell portraits. Increasingly, as the late Ernie Boyer said, “It is the gap between the haves and have-nots” (Goldberg, 1995) that creates the rift in American culture; and this division crosses racial and ethnic lines. The Cuban daughter of two well-educated parents in Miami or the son of two well-educated African American parents in Philadelphia may not be in great difficulty, but their cousins a few blocks away may face school problems that threaten to overwhelm them.
Sadly and unfairly, all people of color are more suspect of crimes or imminent violence in our society, without regard to socioeconomic status, observable indicators, or realistic evidence. The New Jersey state trooper case on racial profiling in 2000—which revealed highly suspect federal guidelines for approaching members of minority groups—has publicized the extent to which African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Italian Americans are the targets of law enforcement officers. Too often, their treatment in school has many of the same characteristics. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University lamented that she “watched a whole group of my middle child's friends ‘tracked’ down [to lower levels of classroom groupings] in middle school, primarily African-American children who had been in a gifted and talented program in elementary school” (Goldberg, 2001).
Prejudice is such a complex topic that even simple discussions about it are difficult. Prejudices against poor people of every color and background are obvious, as are the prejudices of minority groups who have bad feelings about other minority groups, as well as minority groups who harbor prejudice toward the perceived majority culture. Other prejudices include stereotyping, discriminating against, and even attacking, people based on their sexual orientation. Anti-Semitism and pervasive xenophobia are other forms of prejudice. The overarching point here is that all forms of discrimination must be placed under a bright light, defeated in every way possible, and represented as intolerable in all settings, and certainly in our schools. (See box, p. 86, for ways to work toward defeating prejudice in the school environment—all addressed in this chapter.)
How to Fight Discrimination, Racism, and Poverty
Safety, Then Antidiscrimination. After ensuring the physical safety of students and staff, defeating every form of prejudice must be the highest priority in school districts. Of course, schools have a serious mission to educate every student to a high standard. Explaining why a student failed a test, however, does not present the same challenge to a school administrator as does explaining why a student was badly injured or subjected to unceasing taunts—racial, sexual, or religious. Everyone involved in the education profession is obligated to work hard on curriculum and preparing for each day of administering or teaching, but when a student is in physical danger or is subjected to any serious form of prejudice, schoolbooks and budgetary issues take a back seat. Think about the following example of how one superintendent dealt with racism.
Dealing with Racism: Superintendent Example
In the fall of 1990, David Jackson was in his first months as a school superintendent in a predominately white Long Island, New York, school district (Goldberg, 1990/1991). One day, he heard that someone had scrawled racial epithets on the wall of a boys' rest room in the high school. To his credit, he immediately stopped what he was doing and went to see the writing for himself. That day he convened a group that included the high school principal and the head of the teachers' association. Jackson stated clearly that he wanted everything done to find who had defaced the walls and to let other students know this action was deeply wrong and would not be tolerated.
Jackson informed the school board about this incident and personally followed up for days until he was satisfied that school and district staff took this crime seriously. Jackson kept raising the issue at administrative council meetings and made defeating racism a priority. His approach to the problem demonstrated the inappropriateness of racism in the school setting and that the approach to it reflected the culture of the school system. He made it clear that racism would never be tolerated in that district.
Reaction Plus Action. School leaders can learn several lessons from this superintendent's actions in the wake of the incident:
Get Everyone Behind You in the Fight Against Intolerance. Motivate all leaders in your school and community to involve themselves in the effort to defeat every form of discrimination or offensive behavior. When untoward behavior occurs, proper handling of the situation is apparent when the perpetrators—whether they are ever identified or not—feel isolated and unsupported. School employees and volunteers need to go on record as being against discrimination. School leaders can encourage others to speak out—the mayor and other elected officials, leaders in various religious communities (including immigrant and nontraditional groups), police officials, local union officials, and leaders in neighborhood homeowners' and tenants' associations. Every person in a position of influence should take a clear vocal and written stand against discriminatory behavior. Ideally, all these people will be on record before an incident occurs as opposing any form of prejudice. A side benefit is that community leaders will thus become more involved with the school community.
Learn Some Community Outreach Principles. Consider the following methods of involving the community in the fight against racism (also, note that many of these tactics can help schools dealing with other crises, such as gun violence):
Look at Your Own School or District Placement Policies. Take a careful look at where minority and poor children are placed in school. Are a disproportionately low number of minority children in college-bound, upper-track, gifted, or Advanced Placement (AP) classes? Probably so, and everyone can recite the stock answers to the dilemma: “They're not smart enough,” “Their parents don't care,” “They don't come from a tradition of learning,” “The family is dysfunctional,” and other unthinking responses. What can we do to move more minority and poor children into academically advanced classrooms?
Look at Successful Schools. When people make a concerted effort to start special schools, academies, or programs for disadvantaged students, they seem to succeed despite all the real, exaggerated, or untrue stock responses. Principal Debby Meier has done this in New York with several elementary and secondary public schools populated almost entirely by minority students. Dennis Littky, the former principal of the Thayer Academy (a public school), has had great success with poor and lower-middle-class white youngsters in Winchester, New Hampshire. In Texas, many schools in minority areas that had not been doing well have now achieved the state's highest ranking of “exemplary.” Magnet, charter, and other special schools in Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are experiencing similar results.
Schools leaders can take many actions to help bring disadvantaged and minority children into settings that are more appropriate to advanced academic needs (see box on p. 95).
Begin working with disadvantaged and minority children the moment they enter school to make sure they believe they can learn. When these children are not doing well, find out as quickly as you can the reasons for their performance. Although each child who is not achieving at the local standard can't have an individualized education program (IEP), as is required in special education, providing these children with extra help or other resources can keep them from falling behind.
Stay in close touch with parents or guardians. Perhaps you can conduct parent workshops so the adults can learn how they can help the school or their child. Yale psychiatrist James Comer has made excellent use of parents as resources in his efforts to reform schools. Depending on the individual parent's skills and availability, in the Comer Plan parents and guardians might do anything, from serving on decision-making committees to baking cakes for fund-raisers to tutoring children, including their own. For some of the tasks, workshops are needed to help parents understand how they can play an important role.
One way to step out and take a risk is to place in higher-level classes every minority or disadvantaged student who can possibly succeed. Provide help and support for these students. What budget is available for tutoring? Are older students or community members available to serve as tutors? Can any businesses in the area provide support? Some businesses agree to release an employee for an hour or two each week to tutor a student in need. Is there a retirement community in your area? Is there any way this often-willing constituency can help in school—particularly with tutoring?
Do what it takes, within reason, to help minority and disadvantaged students overcome any academic deficiencies that keep them from moving to upper-level classes. Poor and minority students are not in upper-level classes often because they do not have the precise background to take, say, precalculus. Can students enter a summer program at the end of 10th grade to get them ready for 11th-grade precalculus? Can they receive extra help for as long into the school year as it takes until they can do the work on their own? Can they enter into after-school study groups with students who completed precalculus last year and are now doing well in calculus? Can you pay one or two mathematics teachers to run an after- school help course for two hours one or two days each week? What about math-major volunteers from a local college or the community?
Begin talking to youngsters and their parents as early as 5th or 6th grade about what students need to do to prepare for college. Provide opportunities for Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) practice in high school. Poor students generally have considerably less tutoring in how to do well on the SATs than do more advantaged students. Hold meetings to familiarize parents with the test and to show parents what they can do to help their children. Acquaint students and parents with how, exactly, to find the help they need to succeed on these standardized tests. Be sure to publicize these meetings in a way that will reach your audience: church bulletins, district newsletter, local newspapers, homeowners' or tenants' newsletters, or other methods that may be appropriate for your community.
As mentioned earlier, school leaders must make serious efforts to understand the backgrounds and cultures of the learners in their school or district (see box). People from different cultures have their own idiosyncratic values and attitudes toward learning. But here's what they have in common: Virtually every parent or guardian of a minority student wants that student to be well educated. Often parents from minority cultures are the ones who are clamoring for charter schools and vouchers. For the many people who want to see public education thrive, schools need to work for students of different cultures, beliefs, and attitudes. Unless all parents feel comfortable under the umbrella of a well-functioning public school system, a partial alternative system that offers more choice, more home schooling, and more vouchers is inevitable.
Choice within the public school system is a good thing. Many educators, community leaders, and politicians, however, believe that choice outside the system may be a great benefit to a small number of students, but will leave the majority of disadvantaged students in an even weaker and less-robustly supported public school system. Most of the 53 million students in the United States are in schools that function quite well. The several million students who do not attend such schools, however, cannot all be accommodated in private, religious, or special schools; so the schools they are in must be renewed.
When considering the different cultures that make up our society, think about their presence in the school systems:
Gather Information. Often we assume we know everything about a group because we have worked with that group for a long time. We may even be members of the group we inadvertently offend. In the unfortunate case of a cross-cultural faux pas—which can occur in perfectly innocent circumstances—gather information directly and quickly from the best sources you can find in the community:
Include Community Cultures in School. Work as a faculty and a community to include important and excellent features of the minority communities in the curriculum. Care must be taken here not to cross a sensitive line between teaching and proselytizing, or even condescending. Even though in some communities several or many minorities are represented in the school, turning the curriculum upside down to represent a significant portion of each culture is just impossible. Finding some excellent children's books or mature works of literature that can be included in the curriculum, however, is certainly within the appropriate range of educational approaches. Teachers can come to know about important events in the culture and honor them in some reasonable way.
At the end of the Western calendar year, for example, many teachers acquaint students with the traditions Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Chanukah. This curriculum is not intended as religious instruction, but as a cultural-historical acquaintance with three important holidays that occur at roughly the same time in three different cultures. Certainly, too, high-quality literary works from just about every culture on earth with a written language can fit into virtually any school's curriculum. The main limitation here is the teacher's limited knowledge of other cultures. Attempts to find out about other cultures' literature is a fine way to establish relations with members of the local communities.
Many educational leaders are concerned about forms of discrimination in our multicultural nation. Clearly school systems should work to eliminate discrimination to whatever extent possible. After keeping young people physically safe, defeating prejudice must be the second priority in our schools. Actions taken to defeat racist comments and incidents, for instance, need to be thoughtful and swift and must include every element of the school community. All children must feel included in the school and should feel comfortable enough to have the opportunity to receive an excellent education. Teachers and administrators need access from the best possible sources to information on what hurts students and what can be done to help them. The backgrounds of everyone at school (including the teachers') are worthy of respect and honor, and people who wish to act out discriminatory feelings should feel unwanted and unsupported in the school community.
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