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Diversity in Education: a Need for Reform

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The United States is a melting pot of diverse cultures, a fact that has always instilled much pride in Americans. As more and more varied cultures begin to call America home, the diversity of the American people is flourishing now more than ever. Although this influx is a nod to the greatness of this nation, the ever-increasing cultural differences come with issues that must be addressed, specifically when it comes to education. The reality is that for most students outside of the dominant culture, achievement gaps are present and cultural attachments are dismissed. For far too long, diversity in the classroom has been met with feelings of frustration from educators who do not understand the necessity of being culturally responsive. Diversity within the educational setting is not a negative concept, but it does come with challenges that must be readily addressed by educators and schools as a whole when it comes to ensuring effective education and equal opportunities for all.

With diversity becoming more prevalent in schools across the United States, achievement gaps are continuing to be seen among various student groups due to a number of factors. It has been said that “around the time the 2020 United States Census is conducted, more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group”. Unfortunately, as student populations become more and more diverse, the teacher population continues to narrow. This is clearly seen through the studies of Robinson and Clardy (2011): “The disparity between the cultural and linguistic diversity of the teaching population and the student population continues to grow as teacher education programs enroll and graduate primarily White teacher candidates (83.7%)”. The problem is a glaring one, and the only solution is to educate teachers and school leaders in the art of embracing diversity.

When it comes to diversity in education, it an unfortunate reality that issues such as classism and racism have a profound negative effect on student achievement. Research has shown that “inadequate wages, substandard housing, and poor health care create living conditions that place many poor and racial / ethnic minority students as disadvantaged right from the beginning of their formal education”. Students have no control over their societal circumstances, and the fact that educators have no control over those same circumstances can often make bridging the gap seem impossible. No matter the reason behind the lapse in academic achievement, learning gaps cannot be accepted by educators as a consequence of diversity. Instead, diversity should be celebrated with sincerity, a strategy that can only serve to alleviate gaps in achievement. Given that educators are often ill-equipped to understand different cultures and how to best interact with students in minority groups, a main focus of schools who desire meaningful change should be to educate teachers to appropriately teach diverse groups of students. In fact, the reality is that many teachers strive to give the appearance of embracing other cultures by organizing events which include food, dancers, and guest speakers that reflect diverse cultures. Smith (2016) goes on to call these events “merely the superficial surface of extending and offering a glimpse of appreciation”. Teachers who are part of the dominant culture cannot afford to offer only a superficial understanding of what their students identify with so strongly. Hawley, Irvine, & Landa further emphasize this point: “Culture isn’t just a list of holidays or shared recipes, religious traditions, or language; it is a lived experience unique to each individual”. Educators must move past a surface understanding of diverse cultures in order to truly grasp the concept of cultural responsiveness. It is only when students feel safe, accepted, and validated that they can learn without limits.

As previously mentioned, teachers must be trained to be culturally responsive in order to reach all students and treat them equitably. Acceptance of all students is an enormous responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. A first step toward becoming more culturally responsive is self-reflection: “Learning to teach diverse students requires that teachers examine their beliefs about teaching and explore the effectiveness of their practices in accommodating the various cultures, lifestyles, and learning styles of their students” (Vandeyar, 2017, p.377). No one wants to admit that they have biases when it comes to diverse students, but sometimes educators do not even realize their own prejudices. When an English-speaking teacher deals with a non-English speaking student for the first time, it is easy to let frustration creep in and cloud judgment when it comes to making decisions that are in the best interest of the student. For that reason, it is imperative that educators take a step back and reflect on their own possible misconceptions when it comes to students who hail from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Not only is recognition of one’s biases important, but it is also crucial to make an effort to understand the cultures of minority students, especially when it comes to varying styles of communication. Many students of the dominant culture feel the need to raise their hand quickly or blurt out answers immediately; however, if teachers continually call on the same groups of students without addressing others equally, then students may get the wrong idea that their contributions are not important. While some students are all too eager to participate in class discussions, some students hold a deeply-rooted belief that silence should precede vocal communication. “For instance, introverts and students from some cultural backgrounds are acculturated to the need to allow silence before speaking”. In this article, it is suggested that teachers take this into consideration and allow a brief period of time in which all students take a specified amount of time to reflect before being allowed to speak. By making small changes such as this, educators are taking into consideration the cultures of all students, and reshaping the atmosphere to provide for inclusivity. Furthermore, fostering a clear understanding of different communication styles is crucial in order to avoid violation of cultural values and “to better decipher their intellectual abilities, needs, and competencies; and to teach them style or code-shifting skills so that they can communicate in different ways with different people in different settings for different purposes” (Gay, 2002, p.112). In a global society, it is imperative that students have the capability to understand and communicate effectively. This type of culturally responsive teaching can only take place when educators are well-trained in diversity.

The problem is that not enough districts are providing this type of training for educators. In a study conducted by Robinson and Clardy (2011), they found that teacher candidates were often unprepared for teaching students of cultural and linguistic diversity: “…their attitudes and dispositions towards students are key as their thoughts about their current and future students greatly impacts their willingness to learn and employ pedagogies needed to effectively teach CLD students. They display their attitudes towards diversity long before they enter the classrooms as teachers”. This highlights the needs that teacher candidates have for support and training early on when it comes to diversity as their biases can affect their willingness to learn. This particular study features the ignorance of mindsets that embrace the belief that every child should do his or her best to blend in with the dominant culture. This is a gross misrepresentation of what it means to be culturally responsive.

It is also worth noting that diversity is not contained to classism and racism. “Diversity in schools includes sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity/expression”. Teachers must be sensitive to the fact that they could very well be teaching students who struggle to identify with their naturally given gender. Some students will be living in homes with two mother or two fathers. Although this can lead to some confusion for many classroom teachers, the students are the ones who become victimized if not treated equitably no matter their unique backgrounds. Lilienthal et al. (2018) go on to stress that the extent to which teachers choose to support students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning can lend to the level of minority stress that a student experiences (p. 14). It stands to reason that stress can greatly impact student learning. Glickman et al. (2013) further support this statement by expounding on the problems associated with the stress that LGBTQ students can encounter: “frequent absences, less involvement in school activity, worse grades, and a higher dropout rate than heterosexual students”. If the goal is to bridge achievement gaps for minority groups, then teachers must find ways to support students of all backgrounds, even if they do not fully understand or agree with choices concerning sexual identity or orientation.

From a scriptural perspective, the equitable treatment of all students can be seen as a moral obligation for those who have been called to pursue education as a profession. Treating students honorably is not an option, but a duty. Romans 15:5-7 is an inspiring verse geared toward this very topic: “May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (The Holy Bible, New Living Translation). Clearly, Christians are to live in harmony with others. There is no mention of qualifying characteristics in this verse. We also are admonished to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed us. The love of Christ is unconditional. No one has to look a certain way or speak a certain language to be eligible for the love of Christ. Therefore, this should serve as an example of how Christian educators are to welcome students of diversity. Even though it can be a challenge, becoming culturally responsive is an obligation that educators must be willing to embrace even if some of the life choices that students make seem irrational or immoral. From a Christian standpoint, some of the decisions students make are foreign and challenging to the belief system of some educators. This can add to the difficulties of teaching diverse students, but Christians are always expected to speak the truth in love. Teachers can and should responsibly make their own viewpoints known without attempting to impose them on others. I Corinthians 9:22-23, Paul says, “When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings”. These words reflect the importance of building a rapport with others. The idea of finding common ground in order to “save” some is so appropriate for the context of teachers and how they relate to students. No matter their diverse backgrounds, students are worth trying to save. Educators have a responsibility to give their very best to all students regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, linguistic diversity, or sexual orientation. It is imperative that all students are seen as equally able and worth any investment.

With this in mind, educators are not the only ones who have a responsibility to serve students impartially. Schools as a whole must be brought on board to foster an atmosphere of equity. This goes beyond the scope of the classroom teacher in certain situations. For example, many schools adopt the attitude that minority students should adapt to the dominant culture. According to Gay (2001), “…to date, U.S. education has not been very culturally responsive to ethnically diverse students. Instead, these students have been expected to divorce themselves from their cultures and learn according to European American cultural norms”. Expecting students to blend into the dominant culture is an outdated and inappropriate approach. Many schools are exploring the idea of implementing dual-language education in order to encourage diversity and learning among student groups. This is a progressive step forward in the fight to eradicate cultural bias and encourage learning for all students. However, it is not an easy solution. A lack of bilingual teachers and necessary resources create obstacles to dual-language education that are difficult to overcome. In addition, public schools are held to accountability standards that take the focus off of addressing diversity and center efforts on meeting high-stakes testing goals: “Instead, professional development time is often dedicated to data analysis and a narrow set of interventions aimed at increasing student achievement on assessments. Dual-language education requires a significant shift away from such practices” (Kotok & DeMatthews, 2018, p. 4). This is likely one of the greatest barriers to creating culturally responsive schools. Until district level administrators realize the importance of implementing programs that train teachers to exhibit culturally responsible behaviors, there is little hope that achievement gaps among minority students will lessen. Smith notes, “This is where the term ‘cultural proficiency’ in the life of a school administrator is just as important as terms such as ‘meeting,’ ‘assessment,’ ‘observation,’ ‘Common Core’ and ‘evaluation’” (p. 18). In addition, curriculum must be diversified on more than just a superficial level in order to truly be effective for all students. With the current emphasis of schools nationwide on high-stakes testing, there is evidence that educational reform is necessary on a national scale.

Clearly there is an issue that must be addressed when it comes to educational reform in regard to diversity in the United States. As long as educational achievement gaps continue to widen for minority students, there is a need for change. Although educators are critical to the implementation of such change, district-level input must be the driving force in order to facilitate transformation needed in order to help minority students achieve success. A mindset shift is also crucial. Rather than offering alternatives in order to meet an expectation, schools and educators must realize that by embracing diverse cultures, they are adding value to the lives of all students.

References:

  1. Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106–116. doi: 10.1177/0022487102053002003
  2. Glickman, C. D., Gordon, S. P., & Ross-Gordon, J. M. (2013). The basic guide to supervision: and instructional leadership (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  3. Hawley, W., Irvine, J. J., & Landa, M. (n.d.). Culture in the Classroom . Retrieved April 23, 2020, from https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/culture-in-the-classroom
  4. Kotok, S., & DeMatthews, D. (2018). Challenging School Segregation in the Twenty-first Century: How Districts can Leverage Dual Language Education to Increase School and Classroom Diversity. Clearing House, 91(1), 1-6. https://doi-org.belhaven.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/00098655.2017.1336405
  5. Lilienthal, L.K., Matyo-Cepero, J.A., Messinger, L., & Mims, M.J. (2018). Creating an Inviting Classroom for All Students: Inviting Teachers to Learn about LGBTQ Diversity. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 85(1), 13-19.
  6. Practicing a Pedagogy That Engages Diversity. (2012). ASHE Higher Education Report, 38(2), 83-101.
  7. Robinson, C. C., & Clardy, P. (2011). It Ain’t What You Say, It’s How You Say It: Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in the Classroom. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 18(3), 101–110.
  8. Smith, L. (2016). Being a Culturally Proficient school leader is not an option, but rather a necessary and welcomed requirement. Leadership, 45(3), 17–19.
  9. Vandeyar, S. (2017). The Teacher as an Agent of Meaningful Education Change. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 17(2), 373-393. https://doi-org.belhaven.idm.oclc.org/10.12738/estp.2017.2.0314

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