The American School/The Cultural Diversity of our Society and the Implications for Education
More immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1990s than in any other decade on record. As a result of this increase in immigration a great many students with limited backgrounds in English are entering American classrooms (Eggen, Kauchak, 2007; Gray & Fleischman, 2005). According to Eggen and Kauchak (2007) experts estimate that by the year 2020 two thirds of the school population will be African American, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American. This means there will be great cultural diversity in our society and in our schools. In order for us to have a better understanding of this we must first examine the specific definition of diversity related to this report.
The terms diversity and diverse learners focus primarily on differences related to social class, ethnicity, culture, and language (Zeichner, 1992). Each of these topics is important to our understanding of diversity and diverse learners. Culture, which refers to the knowledge, attitudes, values, and customs that characterize a social group can influence school success dramatically (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007). For instance, culture can influence what foods we eat, how we eat them, and with whom we eat them with. Different cultures have different ways of learning and interacting with society, and when these different cultures are all mixed into one classroom it makes the education process even more difficult. Eggen and Kauchak (2007) define ethnicity as a person’s ancestry and the way individuals identify with the nation from which they or their ancestors came, an important part of culture. Members of an ethnic group have a common history, language, value system, and set of customs (Eggen and Kauchak 2007). For example, a student with English as a second language may be required to speak English in school, but go home and be required to speak their family’s language. With all these differences within our society, there are going to be many problems in the way that teachers will help educate, communicate, and interact with our culturally diverse schools.
Problems with Teaching a Diverse Society
The problem will be to educate teachers to teach for diversity, in most instances; “will continue to be one of educating white, monolingual, and mostly female teacher education students during pre-service teacher education in college and university settings to teach diverse learners effectively” (Zeichner, 1992, p. 2). According to Zeichner (1992) much of the literature discussing how institutions prepare teachers for diversity isn’t as available to the general teacher education community and shows the low status of this issue in the “official” agenda for teacher education reform. The main problem is the growing difference between the teaching force, and those students in public schools “Urban schools contain the most diversity, and most teachers don’t want to teach in these schools which need the most time and work” (Zeichner, 1992, p. 4). Several recent studies have shown that “teacher education students are overwhelmingly white, female, and monolingual, from a rural or suburban community and that they come to their teacher education programs with very limited interracial and intercultural experience” (Zeichner, 1992, p. 4). Teachers then need to have knowledge of these different cultures before they come into the classroom.
What Teachers Need to Know and Be Able to Teach
Teachers need to be aware of differences within minority groups, different ethnic groups and attitudes. They also need to believe that all students can succeed regardless of diversity and they need to show this belief to the students. Teachers need to provide challenging work instead of mechanical curricula which is usually the norm for many ethnic and language minority students. These are all behaviors that Zeichner (1992) said teachers must have in order to effectively teach a diverse classroom. Teachers are responsible for helping members of cultural minorities to adapt to the dominant culture (including schools) with out causing the minority to lose their cultural identity, a process called “accommodation without assimilation,” other terms are alternation; the ability to comfortably function in both cultures, and code switching; the ability to use nonstandard dialects in social situations but standard English in school (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007, p.106). People code switch all the time, fact is you probably did it today when you answered a question in class it was most likely not the way you would speak to your peers. Zeichner (1992) believes that explicit teaching of the codes and customs of the school is necessary so that students will be able to participate fully in the main stream. In order to teach diverse learners, one needs to have knowledge about child and adolescent development; second-language acquisition; and know about the ways that socioeconomic circumstances, language, and culture shape school performance and educational achievement as well as specific knowledge about the languages, cultures, and circumstances of the particular students in their classrooms and then use this knowledge in the organization of curriculum and instruction to stimulate learning (Zeichner, 1992, p.3). A main point that is repeated over and over again is that teachers need to have knowledge of their particular students, and not just generalize. This, among other things, needs to be taught to potential educators in order for classroom success.
The Teaching of Potential Teachers for Diverse Learners
There are a number of ways that potential teachers can be educated to manage a diverse classroom. Zeichner (1992) thinks that one way to educate potential teachers for this is to have whole programs that focus on preparing teachers to work with ethnic-and-language-minority students; this can target general minorities or specific groups. The problem with educating teachers on this matter is that most of the courses that deal with diversity are optional rather than compulsory. Many universities are entering into partnerships with low-performing public schools to strengthen their students’ ability to succeed in college (Office for Civil Rights, n.d.). Teachers tend to have low expectations for cultural minorities. Extensive field work with minorities and a development of one’s own cultural identity is necessary to cross-cultural understanding (Zeichner, 1992, p. 7). Many low expectations for cultural minorities are related directly to the generally lower socioeconomic status of these minorities. Socioeconomic status has a significant impact on the learning process.
Socioeconomic status (SES) is the combination of parent’s income, occupation, and level of education that describes relative standing in society. It is one of the most powerful factors influencing student achievement (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007). According to Eggen and Kauchak (2007) socioeconomic status consistently predicts intelligence and achievement test scores, grades, truancy, and dropout and suspension rates. Students from families in the highest income quartile are two and a half times more likely to enroll in college and eight times more likely to graduate than their low SES peers. SES influences learning in at least three ways:
- Basic Needs and Experiences
- Low-SES children lack medical and dental care and live in substandard housing on inadequate diets.
- Poor nutrition can affect attention and memory and lead to lower IQ scores,
- Number of homeless children is higher than any time since Great Depression.
- Economic problems can also lead to family and marital conflicts which result in less stable homes, these children come to school without a personal sense of security that equips them to tackle school-related tasks.
- High-SES parents are more likely to provide their children with educational activities, such as travel and visits to art galleries and science museums. They also have more computers, reference books, and other learning materials in the home, and they provide more formal training outside of school, like music and dance lessons, activities that complement classroom learning.
- Parental Involvement
- Higher SES parents also tend to be more involved in their children’s schooling and other activities.
- Time spent working, often at two jobs or more, is a major obstacle to school involvement for low-SES parents.
- In general, high-SES parents talk to their children more and differently than do those who are low-SES; they ask more questions, explain the causes of events, and provide reasons for rules.
- Sometimes called “the curriculum of the house,” these rich interaction patterns together with the background experiences already described, provide a strong foundation for future learning.
- Attitudes and Values
- The impact of SES is also transmitted through parental attitudes and values.
- Many high-SES parents encourage autonomy, individual responsibility, and self control; low-SES parents are more likely to emphasize conformity and obedience.
- Values are also communicated by example:
- Children who see their parents reading and studying learn that reading is valuable and more likely to read themselves.
- Students who read at home show higher reading achievement than those who don’t.
- High-SES parents also have positive expectations for their children and encourage them to graduate from high-school and attend college (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007, p.104).
All of this described above shows that coming from disadvantaged homes can make learning and high achievement a challenge for students. For instance, a lack of parental involvement, a lack of basic needs such as pour nutrition, and a negative environment with negative attitudes all increase this challenge. Attitudes and values are also demonstrated not only through socioeconomic status, but through culture.
Attitudes and Values Based on Culture
When culture was defined, it was said to include attitudes and values that characterize a social group. These aspects of culture sometimes help school learning and other times they can have negative impacts on it. A positive example written by Eggen and Kauchak (2007) states that Asian-American parents typically have high expectations for their children, encouraging them not only to attend college, but also to attain a graduate or professional degree. However, some minorities, because of a long history of separatism and low status sometimes defend themselves through cultural inversion. This inversion is the tendency of members of cultural minorities to reject certain attitudes, values, and forms of behavior because they conflict with their own cultural values (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007). This can be seen when students don’t do well in school. To become a high achiever is to “become White,” and students who want to succeed and are involved in school can lose the respect and friendship of other classmates. One solution to this is minority role models who can provide learners with evidence that they can both succeed and retain their cultural identity (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007). Many cultural minority students also have different ways of acting and interacting with the traditional teacher-as-authority-figure role. I think that if teachers interacted with some of these students with a more supportive rather than structural manner, the students might respond in a more positive way.
Classroom Culture and Organization
As Eggen and Kauchak (2007) state, in most classrooms, teachers emphasize individual performance, which they can reinforce by test scores and grades. This can lead to competition, which requires successes and failures; and the success of one student may be tied to the failure of another often detracting from the motivation of those who are not succeeding. One example in Eggen and Kauchak (2007) talks about the Hmong, a mountain tribe from Laos who immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War: Hmong culture emphasizes cooperation, and Hmong students constantly monitor the learning progress of their peers, offering help and assistance. Hmong culture also de-emphasizes individual achievement in favor of group success. Now think about how well these students would learn when involved in the highly competitive instruction and fewer opportunities for student help and teamwork of most schools.
In order to teach a culturally diverse society effectively, educators must take many things into account. Different cultures have different sets of values and attitudes that can reflect on learning in both positive and negative ways. Teachers must know their subjects personally and not generalize; stereotyping can lead to lower expectations and unjust treatment of individuals. Just because in general a specific culture has tendencies in one area, no education can prepare you for the students you will actually encounter. Eggen and Kauchak (2007) claim that it is virtually certain that you will teach students who are members of cultural minorities, and it is highly likely that English will not be the first language for some of them. The following principles can help guide efforts by teachers as they work with these students.
- Communicate that you respect all cultures and value the contributions that cultural differences make to learning.
- Involve all students in learning activities.
- Use concrete experiences as reference points for language development.
- Target important vocabulary terms.
- Provide opportunities for all students to practice language.
And finally, teachers should emphasize that learning is the goal of every discussion and should help students understand that wrong answers are an integral and important part of the learning process (Eggen and Kauchak, 2007). All these factors contribute to the learner diversity and all must be carefully examined before any potential educator steps foot into the classroom. In order to be an educator prepared for learner diversity, it is shown over and over again that there are many differences in our society and that we need to be aware of all these differences to teach effectively. Teachers need to be sensitive to certain aspects of their student’s culture, but for heavens sake “don’t stereotype” is the contrasting message that is being relayed to the prospective teaching community. It is up to the individual educator and the professors that taught them to teach (along with extensive fieldwork), to really effectively teach a culturally diverse classroom. Educators can have all the knowledge in the world of different cultures, and not be able to relate to them. In the future there will be more and more diversity in the school system and it is up to the teacher to make sure that high expectations are relayed to all students no matter what ethnicity and culture, so that no matter the general stereotypes, students know that they have the opportunity for success.
- Why is it only white monolingual teachers that are more prominent?
- How important is it for the community to be involved in a diverse education?
- Is group schooling better than individual education?
- Should diversity training be more of a focus for teachers?
- Does socioeconomic status really affect diversity?
- Will teachers really be ready for a more diverse classroom?
- What are differences between rural and urban/suburban schools?
- What is the culture that has the highest percentage of graduates?
- How can educators utilize differences in culture to teach diversity in classrooms to give all students a better understanding of the diverse world in which we live?
- How are teachers to help the minority students? What activities could they do? How are they to help them adapt to a system they are not equipped for?
- How do students from a lower socioeconomic background can be expected to compete academically with those from a more privileged background?
- In what ways can diversity strengthen a community as opposed to dividing it?
- Eggen, P., Kauchak, D. (2007). Group and Individual Differences. In J.W. Johnston & K.M. Davis (Eds.), Educational Psychology: Windows on Classrooms, (7th ed., pp. 103-116). Pearson: Merrill Prentice Hall.
- Office for Civil Rights. (n.d.). Achieving Diversity: Race-Neutral Alternatives in American Education. Retrieved September 21, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/raceneutral.html
- Zeichner, K. (1992, September). NCRTL Special Report: Educating Teachers for Cultural Diversity. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from Michigan State University, National Center for Research on Teacher Learning Web site: http://ncrtl.msu.edu/http/sreports/sr293.pdf