Booklet Spurs Racism Charges In New York

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A passage in a booklet on dropout prevention prepared by the New York State Board of Regents has been denounced by some educators in the state, who charge that it disparages the learning abilities of black students.

At issue is a section on "learning styles" that suggests that certain groups of students considered at risk of dropping out of school--particularly blacks and those having handicaps or limited English proficiency--have been shown by research to differ from the majority of students in the way they learn.

As an example of such differences, the book lists "qualities noted in African-Americans," including a "preference for inferential reasoning rather than deductive or inductive reasoning"; a "focus on people and their activities rather than objects"; a "tendency to approximate space, number, and time instead of aiming for complete accuracy"; and a "general tendency not to be 'word' dependent but proficient in nonverbal as well as verbal communication."

"I do not believe that describes blacks--some students with these characteristics are certainly white," Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said last week.

"But we have a much more basic point," he continued, "which is that all children can learn, and to label children and classify them by racial characteristics goes against every aspect of effective schooling we know."

"Furthermore," he added, "it is racist" to characterize people by their skin color.

The passage is found on page 15 of the 110-page booklet, "Increasing High School Completion Rates: A Framework for State and Local Action." Some 15,000 copies of the booklet were distributed by the state board as a basis for discussion at a series of 14 meetings on dropout prevention scheduled to be held throughout the state over the next two months.

"We've conceded that if the book is reused, we would change the reference," said Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the board.

The findings cited were taken from the research of Janice E. Hale-Benson, a professor at Cleveland State University, he said, but the source was not noted in the booklet.

That research offers only "one opinion among many," he said, and it "should not have been listed in a kind of laundry-list fashion."

"Our point is that there are differences in learning styles that teachers ought to pay attention to," Mr. Carpenter said.

Mr. Grumet replied: "The issue is not whether the work was correctly cited and described. Even if it were, it still raises problems. Some of it is just dead wrong."

"We believe very strongly," he added, "that to assume that these children have a tendency to approximate space, numbers, and time ... is to assume these children cannot do very well in complex math, so why teach them?"

"We know that different people learn differently," he said. "But we don't think there are any general learning styles common to groups that can be characterized by their race or handicapped status."--ws

Vol. 07, Issue 06

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