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Sobol Seeks Plan That Focuses More on Other Cultures

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New York State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol was expected this week to ask the state Board of Regents to endorse a broad plan to revise the public-school curriculum to focus more attention on minorities and their cultures.

In doing so, however, the commissioner has distanced himself from a controversial report issued last July by a minority task force he had convened--a report that drew national media attention because of rhetoric that many commentators characterized as highly inflammatory.

In the report, "A Curriculum of Inclusion," the Commissioner's Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence charged that blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans have been the victims of "intellectual and educational oppression" perpetuated in the state through curricular materials that, though improved recently, show "a systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives."

"The task force's report is purely advisory," Mr. Sobol said last week in a letter addressed to newspaper editors. "I have not recommended, nor will I recommend, that the Board of Regents adopt the task force report. Nor have I recommended the adoption of a new curriculum."

In a Feb. 2 letter to the Board of Regents, Mr. Sobol said, "Unfortunately, the report's language has offended some who, I think, would be inclined to agree with many of its recommendations, taken dispassionately."

Despite his reservations about the report's language, Mr. Sobol closely followed its nine recommendations for reform in drafting his own plans for curriculum revision, and he praised the 17-member task force for calling attention to "a legitimate need" to strengthen student awareness of other cultures.

Detailed Plan Sought

The commissioner said he is asking the Board of Regents to direct him and his staff to develop and submit for their review a detailed plan to increase student awareness of the history of culture in America, of its diverse ethnic groups, and of "other peoples throughout the world."

Such an undertaking is necessary, Mr. Sobol said, because New York is becoming increasingly diverse and its children need an education that will enable them to coexist with each other, compete in a global economy, and feel good about themselves.

Following the recommendations of the task force, Mr. Sobol has proposed that the education department:

Begin a program of curriculum revision with the assistance of an ethnically diverse group of nationally recognized scholars.

Require boards of education to develop policies to ensure that local outcomes are consistent with state multicultural education goals.

Encourage publishers to produce textbooks, software, and other materials that reflect a diverse population and assist school and district staff members in selecting multicultural curriculum materials.

Require that teacher-education programs in the state prepare teachers to work with diverse populations.

Work with school districts and institutions of higher education to help them recruit more diverse faculties and staffs.

Mr. Sobol rejected a task-force recommendation that he establish a "special assistant for cultural equity,"opting instead to propose the creation of an ethnically diverse advisory council to review new curricula and monitor the education department's actions relative to multicultural education.

Diane Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College who was a consultant to Mr. Sobol in his review of the task force report, questioned the need for the commissioner to bring his recommendation before the regents at all.

The steps that Mr. Sobol outlines, Ms. Ravitch said, could be implemented without board approval. Moreover, she added, such steps may be unnecessary, especially since New York already adopted an advanced multicultural curriculum program in 1986.

A Political Compromise?

"I don't see any grounds for saying the curriculum is biased," said Ms. Ravitch, who has advised other efforts to develop multicultural curricula. Describing the task-force report as "offensive," Ms. Ravitch said its authors "have only very harsh things to say about people who happen to have a white skin color. This is a very poor basis for a revision of curriculum."

Members of the task force said Mr. Sobol's decision to distance himself from the style of their report represents a political compromise designed to gain board approval for the report's substance as embodied in its recommendations.

"I would not have expected him to accept all of the recommendations precisely as we stated them," said Luis Alvarez, a task-force member and president of National Urban Fellows, Inc., and chairman of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"What Commissioner Sobol has done is open up and put on the table a discussion that is necessary for the 21st century," observed Hazel N.Dukes, president of the New York State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who said her organization would be lobbying to ensure "that the essence of the task-force recommendations be carried out."

The principal author of "A Curriculum of Inclusion" was Harry L. Hamilton, a task-force member and associate chairman of the department of atmospheric science at the State University of New York at Albany.

Mr. Hamilton was assisted in the initial stages of his writing by a consultant, Leonard Jeffries, a professor of African Studies at the City College of New York. At a conference on Afrocentric curriculum last summer in Atlanta, Mr. Jeffries advocated moving the nation's educational system away from what he termed the Eurocentric concepts of elitism and property and toward an African value system that, he said, stresses community and cooperation.

In its 42-page report, the task force said its review of the state's curriculum showed recent attempts to include non-European achievements in the curriculum "to be appendages rather than integral to the main body of information."

The report said negative, stereotypical characterizations of non-European peoples in schools and elsewhere "have contributed to intellectual victimization and miseducation of Americans of all cultures."

"Members of minority cultures are alienated and devalued," the report stated. "Members of the majority culture are exclusionary and over-valued. Because of the depth of the problem and the tenacity of its hold on the mind, only the most stringent measures can have significant impact."

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