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Minnesota To Mandate 'Multicultural and Gender-Fair' Curricula

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As part of a nationwide trend toward curbing what educators see as a "bias of omission" in school instruction, Minnesota this week is expected to join a handful of states that require districts to develop "multicultural and gender-fair" curricula.

The proposal has drawn fire from some local districts, which consider it costly and burdensome, and from some scholars, who warn that it could distort the curriculum.

But Ted Suss, administrator of the state board of education, said officials consider it necessary to fill gaps in many schools' instructional programs.

"There is a feeling on the board, shared by a wide variety of folks," he said, "that schools generally do not do an adequate job of fully presenting the contributions of women and minorities to students."

"The hope of the board," Mr. Suss added, "is that students who finish a public-school education in Minnesota in the next decade will have greater understanding and respect for other people."

The state would not mandate a particular type of curriculum, he noted, but would require districts to develop plans to "move the program in the direction of eliminating bias."

While many districts in Minnesota and elsewhere already provide such instruction, few states require it, according to Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

But other states may follow Minnesota's lead, Mr. Cawelti said, as they search for ways to reduce the high dropout rate among minority students. Developing multicultural curricula, he noted, is increasingly seen as a way of offering such students a sense of "ownership" in the schools.

"Many minority students have had difficulty feeling a sense of affiliation in a school system dominated by Anglos," Mr. Cawelti said.

In recent months such concerns have led several districts and colleges to introduce or propose new requirements for multicultural instruction. For example:

In Camden City, N.J., where the student body is only 1 percent white, the school board last summer included in its goals for this year a proposal to shift from a curriculum that stresses European culture to an "Afro-centric" curriculum.

At the University of California at Berkeley, the faculty is considering a proposal to require all undergraduates to take a course on minority-group members in American culture.

In Reading, Pa., the Pennsylvania State University, as part of a foundation-funded project to encourage minority youths to graduate from high school and go to college, has teamed up with local schools to conduct teacher workshops on multicultural diversity.

Earlier this year, a decision by the faculty senate at Stanford University to replace its undergraduate course on Western culture with a new course entitled "Cultures, Ideas, and Values," sparked an acrimonious nationwide debate.

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called the decision "an unfortunate capitulation to a campaign of pressure politics and intimidation."

But the senate defended its vote as a way of "broadening [students'] understanding of ideas and values drawn from different strands of their own culture, and increas[ing] their understanding of cultural diversity and the process of cultural interaction."

Not Just 'Blackened-In Face'

The movement to diversify schools' curricula to allow students to learn more about minorities and women began in the late 1960's, in the wake of the civil-rights movement.

The Detroit Public Schools was one of the early leaders in the effort. "As a district that is 89 percent black," said Stewart Rankin, Detroit's assistant superintendent of educational services, "we have been very much concerned about having the curriculum reflect the contributions of Africans and Afro-Americans."

Under Detroit's policy, which has had a strong influence on textbook publishers, the district's textbook reviewers consider, as part of their reviews, the extent to which the texts portray women and minorities.

In addition, the district submits textbooks it is considering purchasing to its school community-relations department for a similar review.

"We're looking for more than a blackened-in face," said Mr. Rankin. "We're interested in whether, in the stories and pictures, not only are minorities present, but they are in authority positions, not always subordinate positions."

Textbook publishers have at times overreacted to Detroit's strictures, according to some. Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, the author of A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco, has pointed out, for example, that some texts feature only black cowboys.

State Mandates

Nevertheless, a few states in the late 1970's began to mandate similar curricular requirements. In California, for example, the state's history-social-science curriculum must reflect a multicultural perspective, according to Francie Alexander, associate state superintendent for curriculum.

Iowa, in 1979, became the first state to mandate such instruction throughout the curriculum. Under legislation adopted that year, which is similar to the proposal under consideration in Minnesota, districts8must develop plans to incorporate "multicultural and nonsexist" approaches in all curricular and program areas, including special- and gifted-education placements.

"Iowa is a monocultural environment," said Cyndy Reed-Stewart, a race-equity consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. "There is a need for students to explore the realities of other people."

Since the program has been in place, Ms. Reed-Stewart said, "we do have teachers, administrators, and students who are beginning to recognize the issues of racism and sexism in society."

'Positive Contributions'

Minnesota officials say statewide action is necessary to ensure similar results there.

"There is a feeling that there is bias" in schools, said Mr. Suss of the state board, adding that "it is a bias of omission, rather than mean-spiritedness."

"I doubt textbooks refer to Indians as 'savages,"' he said. "But a bigger issue is not finding any references to any positive contributions black people made in this country, beyond the obligatory picture of George Washington Carver and discussion of the Dred Scott decision.''

"You can go through books," Mr. Suss said, "and never know there are many active, vibrant cultures in society."

Local officials commend the proposal's goal of broadening the curriculum, but warn that it would impose costly new mandates on financially strapped districts.

"We are supportive of the thrust and goal" of the policy, said Richard J. Anderson, executive director-elect of the Minnesota School Boards Association. "But implementing this activity will require funding. There is no funding with it."

Mr. Anderson said districts must review lesson plans, buy new textbooks, and train their staffs in the new requirements, as well as include minority members on committees set up to develop plans to implement the policy. Such activities would cost considerably more than the $100,000 the board has estimated the policy would cost, he said.

'A Short Subject'

In addition to the concerns about funding, some nationally prominent educators have warned that multicultural and gender-fair curricula could distort the teaching of history.

"You can't include stories where there weren't any," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the former assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement. "Turning a short subject into a feature film isn't fair to kids."

Mr. Finn added that the state mandate could turn out to be meaningless or "disruptive" when it is implemented at the district level.

"They may end up with something very different from what the promoters thought they were doing," he said.

Rather than impose a policy from above, offered Mr. Anderson, state officials should encourage districts to develop policies they consider appropriate.

"We've encouraged people, as part of educational improvement, to strive toward the goal of equity in the system," he said. "Districts need to adopt goals because they believe in the goals. It should be something you want to have happen, not something that happens because nine folks in Capitol Square think it's important, and hold you accountable."

Mr. Suss denied that implementing the rule would be costly, and noted that the state board two years ago rejected a similar proposal because members considered it overly prescriptive.

But the state board has a right, he said, to ensure that its goals are incorporated throughout the state.

"The best way to cause change to take place is to tell people they have to do something," he said.

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