A New Look at Student ‘Diversity’

September 29, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on September 29, 2010.

For years, there has been an insistent demand for “diversity” — equal access by race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc. — in education, employment, health care and other lifelong definitions of being an American.

These battles for equal opportunity continue in the courts and legislatures. However, in the accelerating, contentious emphasis on education reform, there is a growing discovery of another crucial meaning of “diversity.”

After all these years of writing about schools from kindergarten on, I am now indebted to Bobby Ann Starnes, chair of the educational studies department at Berea College, Berea, Ky., for what should be at the very root of all projects and debates on how we can engage students of all backgrounds to become lifelong learners and informed citizens.

In “Rethinking Diversity,” an article in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, she tells of her intense discussions with her classes of candidates for teacher certification about how they themselves can redefine “diversity” and thereby learn much more about each student.

This begins with how much each student learns: “learning quickly, requiring more time,” etc. Then, “how we understand and how we perceive.” That includes critical thinking. There are other diversities that she, of course, acknowledges (race, gender, culture, etc.) but — and this is her unusually clear focal point — “In our classroom (at Berea College) and in every classroom everywhere, there could be as many combinations of these individual diversities as there are students, and we have to teach in ways that support each individual learner.”

As I have reported, there are individual classrooms, schools and even some school districts across the nation where teachers keep learning who each student actually is. A sure way for teachers not to focus on “rethinking diversity” is the still largely mandated standardized collective testing of entire classes and schools.

A concisely cogent question about such testing was raised by Janice Koch, professor emerita, department of Curriculum and Teaching, Hofstra University.

She asks in the New York Times’ Letters section “what we really want to know about our children. Can they think? Can they reason? Do they read? Can they apply what they know?”

Another very important point to keep in mind about standardized testing was raised by the widely read author of books and articles about education, Alfie Kohn, also in the Letters section: “What we’ve learned [about standardized testing] is that passing rates (and difficulty of the questions) can be raised or lowered at will to produce whatever results are politically useful.”

I often learn more from letters writers than from staff reporters. I used to hear of members of Congress who had associates keep careful watch on letters to hometown papers to get a better understanding of the concerns of the constituents.

Also vital to “rethinking diversity” are certain daily newspapers that truly care about the quality of their education coverage. In New York City, The New York Times, which used to set national standards for covering schools, seldom gets inside a classroom these days. But the tabloids (the New York Daily News and the New York Post) keep doing in‐​school investigative reporting prized by parents and irritating “education mayor” Michael Bloomberg and school chancellor Joel Klein.

Here is a valuable Sept. 20 story in South Florida’s Sun‐​Sentinel newspaper about seeing how well individual students learn: “Letter grades vanishing from some Palm Beach County report cards.”

For six straight years, this Palm Beach County District “touts its ‘A’ rating from the state … as proof that it is ‘the top performing urban school district in Florida.’ ”

Some have cited this as ironic, as the district is “reviving a controversial plan” that is also being tried at 13 schools in the county: Removing letter grades (A, B, C, D and F) from report cards.

“We’ve pulled the plug on this many times,” says Superintendent Art Johnson.

To learn how well each student is understanding how to master reading, math, social studies and science, each will be given “performance codes.”

As reported by Marc Freeman of the Sun Sentinel, these results (or grades, as we used to call them), will be marked: “exemplary” (the student exceeds grade‐​level standards), “proficient,” or “approaching or needs development.”

These letterless report cards will be used in elementary schools and next year may be extended once again to more of the district’s 107 elementary schools. However, some parents object, fearing this measurement will be too subjective.

“But,” explains the Sun‐​Sentinel, the letter grades don’t “tell a true picture, because a student can get Bs and still be below grade‐​level standards (of) what children are expected to learn in each subject at each grade level.”

One of the new criteria, “approaching or needs development,” tells a parent more than a letter grade; and I think I am safe in assuming that each individual student with that designation will immediately be getting individualized attention on how well he or she understands what they’re being taught and how to apply it.

Another factor in this change, says Superintendent Art Johnson, is the psychological impact of giving a child an F or other lowly descending marks.

As Johnson says, “If you say to a student, ‘You’re failing,’ they start to wear that internally. They become that.”

Dr. Kenneth Clark (instrumental in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling on the requirement of integrating public schools), and former head of several education institutions, said to me: “In too many schools, by the second grade, too many children learn only that they’re dumb.”

That’s grimly different from approaching or needs development. For example, Andrea Sandrin, a Palm Beach mother of a daughter with a learning disability, says “she would have been looking at F’s. That would have changed how she thought of herself.”

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