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Published in Print: April 24, 1991, as Issues in Supporting School Diversity:Academics, Social Relations, and the Arts


Issues in Supporting School Diversity: Academics, Social Relations, and the Arts

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Supporting diversity in the schools is a shibboleth in education and even a mandate in some states. But while such support is invaluable, the odyssey to achieve it is often fraught with danger.

Because the arts are a particularly vibrant means of entering a culture, offering at once valuable information about their creators, producers, and audiences, I have been interested in my career in gauging the impact and potential of multicultural arts education. Exposure to various esthetics and their sociocultural contexts and history, I have found, allows a person to see and understand more than his or her own footsteps. Diverse cultures may have unique and meaningful ways of expressing universal themes.

Experiencing similarities and differences in these modes of expression often helps an individual become more skillful and comfortable interacting with members of diverse groups at work and at play. Learning about one's own culture usually provides a sense of identity, roots, and self-understanding; learning about other cultures stretches the mind and can help dissolve prejudice.

A key problem in this and other approaches to multicultural education, however, is intracultural variation--diversity within diversity. Society often puts homogeneous labels on groups that differentiate themselves. And a cultural designation, in this context, may become a false or damaging stereotype behind which an individual is submerged.

Members of a "group" may disagree on what aspects of the group's or subgroup's culture should be reflected in school, and how. The group's disagreement may in turn create school-community friction. Given the richness and abundance of cultural diversity, along with limited time in school, putting priorities on what receives attention is unavoidable. When a group lacks a specific, easily identified form of cultural expression that other groups may have--a dance, for example--who decides what is appropriate to create and designate as such, and how?

African-Americans often recognize divisions based on social class, skin color, region or country of origin, amount of time lived in an area, gender, age, religion, and kind of racist oppression experienced. Yet, policymakers often regard them as a homogeneous, unified group because they are a minority with African roots.

Some African-Americans even view aspects of African-American culture, such as gospel music, "feeling the spirit" through kinetic manifestation, and traditional dance genres as esthetically inferior. In a Philadelphia school, for example, officials banned children's spontaneous playground dancing, "doin' steps," as "lewd, fresh, inappropriate for school, disrespectful, and too sexual." Officials in a Dallas school, on the other hand, had no objection to this kind of dancing.

The "Hispanic" and "Caribbean" communities of New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles include both recent immigrants and established families of Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Puerto Ricans. This diversity, compounded by generational and life-cycle divisions, reflects a plethora of diverse music and dance.

A second problem is that, although there is a worthy panoply of rationales for multicultural education and multicultural arts education, there is little evidence that specific programs and approaches do what they are supposed to do. Rationales are based on such transformations as helping minority students succeed in school, improving social relations among groups, assisting all students in reaching their potential, developing respect for diverse but equally valid forms of expression, avoiding the causes of oppression, and dispelling stereotypes.

But at least one evaluation has demonstrated the gap between such program goals and outcomes. Raymond Giles, who coordinated the New York City African-American Institute's in-service courses on Africa, later interviewed 15 classes of predominantly African-American students in grades 4, 5, and 6 in Central Harlem. The students had nine months of once- or twice-a-week hourly study of African culture and history aimed at improving their self-image and engendering an appreciation of the African heritage. In his talks with the students, however, Mr. Giles found that most expressed the same hostile beliefs and negative stereotypes about Africa held by the uninformed or misinformed.

It is even possible that exposure to symbols of a cultural group might evoke a new negativity toward that group--if, for example, the symbol, perhaps a dance, is disliked, or the previously held negative associations remain unchallenged.

A third problem is the sometimes antithetical relationship between preserving symbols of a cultural group, such as the arts, and socioeconomic mobility. The arts can reflect what is, as well as suggest what might be. For migrants or immigrants to a new place, their own group's arts often provide an anchor in a sea of uncertainty, catharsis, and an emotional ballast for life's travails. Nonetheless, if the arts are embedded in a low-status, culturally conservative group, they may ultimately hamper the performers' integration into a new setting and their socioeconomic mobility. Some researchers, in fact, criticize multicultural education as a palliative to keep minorities from rebelling against oppressive systems.

At times, upwardly mobile groups eschew their own cultural esthetic expression and take on the art forms of the group they wish to emulate on the next rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Mexicans in Texas incorporated beats and patterns of the music and dance of the German and Polish farmers into their own cross-pollinated Tex-Mex music and dance. It is often only when people have improved their socioeconomic situation that they rediscover their earlier cultural heritage.

Because the arts often reflect a group identity and are viewed as property, a fourth problem in supporting diversity is that an outsider's appropriation of a cultural group's art form may be resented, even considered a form of theft or offense. The religious beliefs among some American Indians, for example, preclude a secularization of sacred art. Some other groups do not want their culture to be presented in schools because they want the schools to "Americanize" their children.

A fifth issue is that good intentions in the use of the arts in multicultural education may go astray because people are not sufficiently aware of each other's point of view. Sometimes an art form may be unrealistically romanticized, symbolize a low-status group, or have a ritual status. Because people may feel uncomfortable discussing cultural differences, they may inadvertently offend or hurt each other.

Recognition of ethnically related artistic diversity itself may cause problems. Some children do not want to be singled out for what they are. Recognition for any reason--cultural-group esthetic expression or academic achievement--may subject them to ridicule and humiliation. For children in general, fear of being humiliated ranks high among their concerns.

There are at least three approaches to dealing with these problems:

Investigating sensitivities and complexities. It is critical to develop an awareness among educators that cultures are not only internally diverse but ever-changing. Besides receiving multicultural training, educators can benefit from learning how to discover the views and problems of the groups they serve. Moreover, there should be encouragement for parents, teachers, and students to speak forthrightly in settings free from incrimination and penalty.

Listening to children's voices about their social world, their peer-group priorities and pressures, their family and community life, and the arts is also necessary in order to know how best to help them.

Balancing assimilation with diversity. It may be wise to provide all individuals with the opportunity for choice by teaching the skills, knowledge, and culture that allow a person access to socioeconomic mobility with the possibility of code switching (being able to operate in one or another culture at will). In addition, recognizing the cultural entity that defines what is an American helps avoid enforced divisiveness.

Evaluation. It is important not only to discover whether programs intended to support diversity in schools validate their goals, but also to assess the often surprisingly unintended effects caused by well-meaning programs.

Research can reveal students' felt and reflective experiences in response to exposure to different cultures' expressions. Cultural expressions such as the arts are symbols and, as such, they are a shorthand and susceptible to distortion. Moreover, symbols and their meanings change over time in response to environmental forces.

American culture is integrative, incorporative, cross-pollinating, and amalgamating. Americans have many identities: separate personal identities, separate cultural identities, and common identities. Recognition of difference need not become an immutable stone wall to our country's strength.

Judith Lynne Hanna is an education program specialist in the U.S. Education Department and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland. Her books include Disruptive School Behavior; To Dance is Human; The Performer-Audience Connection; Dance and Stress; and Dance, Sex, and Gender. She is the co-author of Urban Dynamics in Black America.

Do We Need a National Achievement Exam?
Yes: To Measure Progress Toward National Goals

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 31, April 24, 1991, pp 36, 28

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Do We Need a National Achievement Exam?
Yes: To Measure Progress Toward National Goals

By Thomas H. Kean

Keith Geiger, head of the National Education Association, is against it. Joe Nathan of the University of Minnesota Center for School Change opposes it. Even Gregory Anrig of the Educational Testing Service doesn't like it. With so many clamoring against a national achievement examination for high-school seniors, why do I support it?

Because we need a reliable way to measure our progress toward the national goals set by President Bush and the governors. Because employers need a lot more than the high-school diploma to tell them what their applicants have learned. And because even as most indicators tell us that our schools are failing, America continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually on an enterprise that has little or no means of accounting for results.

It's time to develop a national achievement exam, required for all students. Some educators may not agree, but three out of four Americans do. In a 1989 Gallup poll, 77 percent of respondents strongly supported requiring schools to use standardized national testing programs to measure what their students are learning.

Educate America, a group I chair, recently proposed a national achievement examination for all high-school seniors in public and nonpublic schools. The exam would measure outcomes in six areas: reading, writing, math, science, American and world history, and geography. Individual scores (on a 0-200 scale in each area) would be mailed to students and their parents, as well as colleges and potential employers designated by the students. School-by-school and state-by-state averages would be published, allowing educators and policymakers to focus attention on clear, unambiguous, easy-to-understand results.

At least five reasons compel us to pursue a national exam:

Accountability for students. Students not bound for college have little incentive to work hard in school. They know that prospective employers are likely to ask only for a diploma, and in many schools, that sheepskin is more a proof of attendance than a mark of achievement. But what if students were told that Employer K would be looking at how much math they have learned, or Employer L how well they can construct a paragraph?

A national exam with clear, easily understandable results would have a much more direct impact on job opportunities. It would create an effort-oriented system with a clear message that hard work pays dividends and that tough courses are the path to success. A large part of our efforts nationwide must be to bring that kind of challenging curriculum to all students, particularly those now tracked into dull and watered-down courses.

Accountability for schools and states. With results of the test made public, the $230 billion nationwide education enterprise at long last would be accountable for results. For the first time in history, a reliable, commonly accepted indicator of accountability would be available for every high school in America. Because the results could be compared across schools and states, decisionmakers at all levels could pinpoint where changes were necessary. Depending on the results of these objective indicators, schools could either celebrate success or focus resources where most needed.

If, for instance, New Jersey schools were excelling in science instruction but were at the bottom of the barrel in geography or history, its voters would know. And for the millions of parents who acknowledge that American education needs fixing but think their own school is just fine, this exam would finally reveal that there are problems in Hometown High. Sure, perhaps the mathematics department is top-flight and the "math olympics" team makes local headlines and wins awards, but maybe the English program is unacceptably weak. And what about the sciences? With a national test, at last we would know.

Raised academic rigor. A mandatory national exam could help raise academic rigor and expectations for all students. While not a graduation requirement, it would assess what Andrew C. Porter of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research calls "hard content for all students." That's a sharp contrast with most state graduation tests, which assess ''easy content for all students." And placing the exam at the end of high school gives a resounding answer to the dreaded classroom question, "Will we have to know this for the test?" Yes, you will have to know it, not just for the test but for your life. All 12 years in school matter.

Clear results. The results would be understood by every American. And they would tell us so much more than Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, which are the most common and the most misused measure of our schools' progress. First, not everyone takes the sat, which is especially true of the non-college-bound. Second, the sat is a prospective test, used to assess the ability to perform college work and specifically designed to be unrelated to the curricula in our high schools. Doesn't it make more sense to use a retrospective exam, focusing on achievement and performance,which can clearly assess what schools have taught and students have learned?

Quality assessment. If it's true that testing drives curriculum and teaching, most of today's testing methods are stuck in reverse. They focus on minimums and rely exclusively on simple multiple-choice questions, so it's no wonder they lead to poor teaching practices and irrelevant curricula. It would be a mistake merely to heap one more such test on the pile. But we don't have to settle for that. As the old television show, "The Six Million Dollar Man," proclaimed, "We have the technology ... we can rebuild."

Educate America's proposal would use state-of-the-art assessment practices and performance measures, including multi-step problems, essays to determine writing performance, open-ended questions that require critical thinking, and passages from literature to measure the ability to read, comprehend, and infer. No doubt, this exam would be more expensive than fill-in-the-dot tests, but economies of scale would keep the cost down to $30 per student, or about $90 million nationwide. That's about 4 cents for every $100 being spent on education in America.

America's school system isn't working. I salute President Bush and the governors for pledging to make it work by setting ambitious goals for the decade. But we will wander toward those goals like the ancient Israelites in the desert unless we have milestones to mark our progress and provide direction. Without that 4-cent commitment, without a mandatory national exam of one sort or another, the promised land of American educational excellence could be another 40 years off.

Thomas H. Kean, former Governor of New Jersey, is president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., and chairman of Educate America.

Do We Need a National Achievement Exam?
No: It Would Damage, Not Improve, Education

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 31, April 24, 1991, pp 36, 28

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Do We Need a National Achievement Exam?
No: It Would Damage, Not Improve, Education

By Monty Neill

U.S. policymakers are besieged with proposals for a national test or examination system. The plans range from a national multiple-choice exam to a complex system of exams which are to be calibrated to one another.

While the examination proposals have significant differences, all are based on the false premise that measurement by itself will produce positive change. Recent history shows this is not true: During the 1980's, U.S. schoolchildren became probably the most over-tested students in the world--but the desired educational improvements did not occur. FairTest research indicates that our schools now give more than 200 million standardized exams each year. The typical student must take several dozen before graduating. Adding more testing will no more improve education than taking the temperature of a patient more often will reduce his or her fever.

The proposals also share the assumption that the United States needs a national exam because our education system is failing to produce workers as skilled as those produced by economic competitors such as Japan and Germany. Education in this country does need major improvements, and not just for economic reasons. But neither Germany nor Japan has a national examination system of the sort being proposed for the United States. In fact, Germany does not even have a national curriculum. If these nations provide a better education to more of their children, it cannot be because they have national tests.

In response to the national-testing proposals, FairTest and over two dozen major education, civil-rights, and advocacy groups--including the National Education Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National pta, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the American Association of School Administrators, and the national associations of elementary- and secondary-school principals--released a statement urging "the Bush Administration and the Congress to support education reform by not implementing a national exam at this time." The organizations agree that mandating a national exam is premature at best and could lead to deepening educational disaster.

The scope of the potential damage is most clear in the Educate America proposal. That group seeks to administer a series of six tests to each high-school senior for $30 per student. It also claims its tests would be "state of the art" and include performance-based components. But the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is entirely multiple-choice, costs $16 for just two tests. At the proposed price, the Educate America plan would have to be a multiple-choice test.

There can be no doubt that schools would be forced to teach to such a test. Yet organizing schooling around multiple-choice tests has been convincingly shown to do great damage to curriculum and instruction. The harm is greatest for students in the lower tracks whose schooling often is reduced to "drill and kill" to raise test scores. This method of instruction virtually guarantees they will not learn higher-order academic thinking skills.

Examination systems like those proposed by the University of Pittsburgh researcher Lauren Resnick and Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, do have positive features. Unlike Educate America, their plan calls for performance-based exams and would not be one-test-for-all. Its proponents recognize that we must develop educational standards before we implement an exam and they seem aware that assessment reform cannot be implemented without other educational changes, though the actual proposals fail to address this fact.

Indeed, assessment should be part of school reform--not the controlling force that national-testing proposals make it. By focusing on assessment as the solution to our educational problems, we may well fail to address such critical issues as equity, rigid school governance, low-quality textbooks and curricula, inadequate schools of education, and a lack of useful information about school inputs, processes, and outcomes. To make real use of performance-based assessments requires creating performance-based schools, which in turn requires restructuring, staff development, and new educational materials.

Any national exam system should be based on national standards. The best current example is the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Standards for Curriculum and Instruction. Developing these standards took several years and involved substantial grassroots participation. There is no reason to believe standards in other subjects can be developed more quickly.

Then there is the even bigger problem of developing teachers' ability to implement the new standards. Teachers do not automatically know how to teach in a restructured environment, though a great many are willing to learn. We should build on their willingness, not dump a new assessment system on them, fail to provide adequate support, then penalize them and their students for not doing well.

FairTest is also concerned that these examinations could become a national gatekeeper that continues our nation's unfortunate history of unfairly sorting students by race and class. Barring additional changes, it is all too likely that districts will sort students according to their perceptions of how rapidly students will advance toward the "certificate of initial mastery" proposed by Lauren Resnick and Marc Tucker. Such sorting will not spur low-income and minority-group students to improved achievement.

On any exam, some students who fail should have passed. Experience shows that students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds will be disproportionately those who will suffer the negative consequences of false failures.

Exam proponents often say that they don't want to unfairly penalize students and that they support "second chance" systems. But why should we believe that "second chance" programs will be adequately implemented? We know WIC and Head Start work, but our nation does not fund them adequately.

Performance-based assessments can be made reliable, sensitive to potential bias, and even helpful in addressing issues of bias. But work to assure these assessments are bias-free is only just beginning.

The proposals also leave key questions unanswered: Who will set the standards, develop the exams, and establish the scoring criteria? Imposing a national exam could lead, without adequate public discussion, to a national curriculum and an unelected de facto national school board that will erode democratic control of education and local accountability.

We do not even know whether it is feasible to construct such a national system. The whole process, particularly the calibration of possibly hundreds of different exams to each other, could prove to be too expensive and unwieldy to work. When the complexities become clear, the portfolios and projects necessary for performance-based assessment could end up being reduced to very limited exams. There could even be a return to multiple-choice tests, with all their well-known flaws.

Performance-based assessment methods can assess higher-order abilities and encourage good educational practices. However, we can move toward the national use of such assessments without constructing a national examination system. We then gain the advantages of good assessment and avoid the dangers of imposing a national testing system.

Assessment reform should be incorporated into systemic educational reconstruction at all levels. We must begin by defining the kind of education we want our children to have, including both their daily experiences and the outcomes society desires. On that basis, we can determine how to make the changes in curriculum, instruction, school governance and structure, and assessment required to reach educational goals far more comprehensive than those enunciated by the Bush Administration and the governors.

To do that, the pieces of a reform program must be organized into a coherent whole. Only after we have real experience in implementing the changes will we have the information necessary to make a reasoned decision about a national test. Once these reforms have taken hold in classrooms, schools, districts, and states, there may be no real need for the expense and complexity of a national exam system.

In the interim, we do need changes in assessment, as we need reform in all areas of education. For one, states and districts should stop the incessant, numbing, destructive multiple-choice testing most of them now engage in. They should develop and implement performance-based assessments, but do so while changing curricula, instructional methods and materials, ensuring the staff development of teachers and administrators required to make it work, and involving parents and other members of the community in the process.

The federal government should support improvement efforts that include assessment reform and that build consensus and change from the bottom up, with guidance--not dictates--from national organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics or bodies such as the National Goals Panel. Support for systemic educational reform would be a far better use of limited federal resources than imposing a national test or examination system would be.

Education can be dramatically improved over the next decade. Assessment reform is part of the way to make the changes, but it is not the magic key. Just testing without ensuring all the other necessary changes is a prescription for failure, a false short-cut that will actually undermine education reform. Public education in the United States can ill afford such an error.

Monty Neill is the associate director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, located in Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 10, Issue 31, Page 27, 29

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