Differing on Diversity

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These days, a photo essay in the student newspaper of Clearwater, Fla.'s Countryside High School can't be just a photo essay.

When the shots of a student event are spread out before the staff of the monthly Paw Print, the editors may decide what makes the cut for publication based on more than just the pictures' artistic merit.

It may come down to where the black students are. Inevitably, says the paper's editor, Debbi Abbo, "Someone will point out there are no minorities'' in some pictures.

Abbo--who, like the rest of her staff, is white--acknowledges that "a lot of times it doesn't even cross my mind'' that black students--about 6 percent of the student body--and Asian students--another 2 percent--do not appear.

But, she says, "We try and make an effort to include them ... although a lot of people think that's kind of playing favorites.''

Abbo, a senior who is also a representative in the student government, says she wants to do her part to improve race relations in this upper-middle-class school where skin color dictates cafeteria-seating arrangements and whom you hang with on Friday nights.

"I'd rather do it,'' Abbo says of opting for colorful faces in the pages of her paper, and "not make anyone feel uncomfortable.''

In making her own decisions about how to handle issues raised by a diverse student body, Abbo is just one of millions of students, teachers, administrators, and teacher-educators trying to balance competing ideological interests over how to handle diversity and equity issues. In matters from multicultural curricula to athletic-team mascots to equal-treatment issues surrounding gender, sexual orientation, and physical and mental abilities, K-12 education is increasingly a forum for the "political correctness'' debate.

Whether prompted by social justice, political agendas, or just common sense, a more inclusive, more tolerant way of thinking, acting, and teaching is altering the face and character of precollegiate education.

Backlash to 'Playing Favorites'

Such a shift in thinking is making itself clear in classrooms, schools, and colleges of education throughout the country. In Portland, Ore., it means that kindergarten teachers make a point of introducing young students to the inventor of the traffic light, Garrett Morgan, an African-American.

In Massachusetts, it means that schools, following a governor's task-force recommendation, are adopting policies to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment and discrimination as well as training teachers, altering the curriculum, and offering library materials in an effort to include gay issues in school.

Nationally, it means that teachers, both in schools of education and in the course of staff development, are being taught how to cope with their own racial biases and to understand cultural differences.

And throughout the education community it means it has become politically correct to denounce tracking or ability grouping and to advocate the "full inclusion,'' or mainstreaming, of students with disabilities into classrooms with their nonhandicapped peers.

Just last week, in reviewing a document on possible standards for what students should know in English, a panel of the National Council of Teachers of English's called for replacing the term "standard English'' with "privileged dialect.'' The N.C.T.E. did not make a decision on the suggestion. (See related story, page 8.)

But if the political-correctness movement has made substantial inroads in precollegiate education, not everyone is happy about it.

In the case of the Paw Print, some student staffers find their inclusive photo decision to be "kind of playing favorites.'' Elsewhere, such judgments and actions have kicked up their share of rancor and angst--a kind of "backlash''--as a school community's more conservative members become worried or angry about what is socially appropriate or educationally valid.

"Pride in one's own group is only to a limited extent the responsibility of the public schools,'' Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, says. "It is very much ... the responsibility of the family, community, church, the Polish-American Club.''

Certainly some of the turmoil comes as a result of the nationwide attempt to improve precollegiate education, such as attempts to set learner "outcomes.'' Some of it, too, can be traced to changing demographic and immigration patterns that have led to the fast-growing number of minority and limited-English-proficient students enrolled in districts throughout the country.

But the culture clash also results from broader social changes--some of them bequeathed by the civil-rights and women's movements--meeting more conservative forces, including the political rise of religious fundamentalism.

One proponent of multicultural approaches, James A. Banks, a professor of education and the director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, goes so far as to describe the push for a more inclusive curriculum as "the civil-rights movement ... for the classroom.''

In higher education, the issue of political correctness has over the past several years become an emotional flash point, fanned by the publication of such critical works as Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus in 1991 and the attention of the national media. Under the banner of political correctness, efforts have been launched on campuses nationwide to include the contributions of people other than white European and American males in history and literature courses, to curb "hate speech,'' and to prevent date rape.

But even the terms used in the debate can rile: Many who support efforts to be more sensitive about educational equity for all groups bridle at the term "political correctness,'' viewing it as a right-wing silencing technique.

Struggle for Power

As might be expected, the debate appears more diffuse in the K-12 arena, occurring here and there across the nation's more than 15,000 school districts, than it is in the insular and self-reflective world of higher education.

But that does not mean those who feel passionately about these issues--regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum--are not making themselves heard.

In its annual report "Attacks on the Freedom to Learn,'' People for the American Way, a liberal constitutional-rights watchdog group, found in the 1992-93 school year the largest number ever--395 incidents in 44 states--of censorship and other challenges to school materials and practices in its 11-year history of conducting the study.

Emotions may be even more intense in precollegiate circles because the minds and morals of young, impressionable children in a compulsory, taxpayer-funded education system are at stake.

But there are other reasons, too.

"I think the debate is more contentious now because there is a real danger of [the traditionally powerful] losing power over the curriculum,'' says Sonia Nieto, an associate professor of education in the cultural-diversity and curriculum-reform program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "And when you lose power over the curriculum, you lose power over what children are taught and what they get to believe is the truth.''

Banks of the University of Washington says the debate about reshaping the look and content of public education indicates the success of the multicultural movement.

"The real issue is America will be reimagined, reinvented,'' he says. "The struggle is over who is going to reinvent it, reimagine it.''

But he takes issue with the idea that negative reactions to inclusion and equity are becoming commonplace.

"All of this work [in multicultural education] is going on very quietly,'' Banks says. "The elite has constructed the notion'' that there is a backlash against efforts to promote cultural diversity and equity.

"What you see in the pages of The New York Times does not reflect the heartland,'' he says.

In many cases, Banks may be correct--that changes in attitudes, curricular materials, and extracurricular activities are expected and accepted. After all, he and others point out, there is consensus in most communities that the needs of a diverse group of students demand attention.

Presentations and training on gender-equity issues, for example, including the prevention of sexual harassment, have met receptive and even eager audiences of school staff members and students. Experts say that receptivity stems, at least in part, from the fact that the issue so plainly needs addressing--as in the case of pornographic magazine photos decorating school lockers, for example. The fear of lawsuits also works wonders.

Nonetheless, there are still some eyebrows cocked at the activism on behalf of schoolgirls by the American Association of University Women or members of Congress, where bills to combat gender bias in education have been introduced this year.

Merits Seen, to a Point

Some aspects of the cultural shift to pluralism or political correctness are more controversial than others.

Certainly, most students and educators support the idea that the contributions of many groups and individuals be incorporated into literature or history curricula.

"Multicultural education is about democracy, is about freedom, is about equity,'' Banks says. "It's the right thing to do.''

Alicia Jones, a sophomore who heads the Black Culture Club at Countryside High, where Abbo edits the paper, agrees.

She says it seems that students only know notable African-Americans from the 20th century, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or poet Maya Angelou. "There have been other achievements by other African-Americans that no one knows about,'' she notes.

But some see the merits of that only up to a point.

Such an inclusive approach, Finn says, "gets rapidly carried to excess ... where minor events and words are given equal status with very important ones just because of who they are about or who created them.''

Some districts that have attempted to counter past omissions and boost achievement by focusing a curriculum or program on one gender or ethnicity, such as Afro-centrism, have met with strong criticism that they're being exclusionary. In New York City, for example, a civil-rights complaint prompted the board of education to delay the opening of a high school centered on Hispanic culture.

Sex and Self-Esteem

Sex education, sexual orientation, and attempts to foster students' self-esteem are even more likely to incur the wrath of parents and community.

Self-esteem programs, designed to teach decisionmaking skills and individual responsibility, were the top targets of complaints against school materials in the 1992-93 school year, according to People for the American Way. Grievances, often from conservative religious groups, charged that such programs "hypnotized'' students and promoted "secular humanism,'' "Hinduism,'' and "New Age religion.''

In a Chester County, Pa., school district outside Philadelphia, a controversy arose recently after a school board proposed to ban classroom discussion of a wide range of topics, including "open-ended discussions of moral issues,'' "sensitivity training,'' "sexual deviancy,'' "hypnotic techniques,'' self-esteem curricula, and political affiliations.

The proposal before the Octorara Area school board went through several revisions, but not before it drew the ire of the community and teachers, who went on a four-week strike after academic freedom became a contract issue.

In October, board members decided to drop the proposal, though they said then that it could still be resurrected.

'Heather' and Her Two Mommies

Perhaps the most famous illustration of the sexuality debate--the one that first trips off people's tongues when you ask them their views on moves to be more inclusive in schools--is the highly emotional row over the multicultural-curriculum guide "Children of the Rainbow'' in New York City.

A subsection of the 433-page guide advised 1st-grade teachers to be sensitive to family structures that might include gay or lesbian parents and to teach "the positive aspects of each type of household.'' It won praise from the gay community.

Children's stories about couples of the same sex made the guide's list of books for personal or classroom use by teachers, including the now-infamous Heather Has Two Mommies, which was later deleted from the 1993 version of the bibliography.

Local school boards in the city system balked at using the guide, and parents said it usurped their right to be their children's primary teacher of religious and sexual mores.

Ultimately, the ill feeling contributed to the ouster of Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez earlier this year.

Also in the past year, at about the same time as "Children of the Rainbow'' was making waves in New York, three high school teachers in a suburb of Boise, Idaho, were suspended for allowing lesbian parents to speak to a group of students as part of their sociology and American-character classes.

The incident polarized the community of Meridian last winter and its 16,000-student school district. In June, local elections resulted in the strengthening of a conservative bloc on the school board.

But Deanna Duby, the deputy legal director for People for the American Way argues: "You don't indoctrinate kids into homosexuality simply by acknowledging that the parents of some of their friends might be gay or lesbian.''

Outcomes and Mascots

Such attitudes don't sit well with groups like the California-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, a conservative Christian group, and the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.

More than 20 percent of all censorship and other challenges to public education, according to People for the American Way, were the work of right-wing political groups or individuals, at either the local or national level.

C.E.E. members have been involved in both the controversy over the lesbian teachers in Meridian, Idaho, and the controversy over learner outcomes in Pennsylvania in which opponents argued that the outcomes promoted values that ran counter to the kinds of mores parents wanted instilled in their children.

The list of outcomes has been cut and reworked.

But conservatives and the Christian right are not the only ones who raise challenges to the public schools. Seven percent of the reported incidents come from the "left,'' most involving allegations of racist portrayals of blacks or Native Americans in library books or classroom texts ranging from Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie.

It is often pressure from like-minded interests that comes to bear on the use of Native Americans as high school athletic-team mascots.

Despite requests to remove what is seen as a racist stereotype, some schools using the "Indians'' as a team name have elected to keep it.

Late last year, however, the Minnesota board of education strengthened its policy against such stereotyping, calling on schools to take broader measures to promote "accurate, respectful treatment of American Indians and their culture.''

And the mascot issue took yet another twist this fall when the Idaho Alliance for the Mentally Ill asked a school board in Lewiston, Idaho, to change its longstanding sports team name: "The Maniacs.''

The group said the name is particularly offensive since the high school is located next to a state psychiatric facility.

Such wranglings over social diversity in public education are hardly new. As David B. Tyack, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, writes in this fall's Teachers College Record, "Policy talk about questions of diversity in education today often ignores a long history of the social and political constructions of difference in American society and public schools.''

It was during the 1930's, Tyack writes, that educators in the "intercultural education'' movement differed on whether each ethnic group should be studied separately in an effort to help children of immigrants and minorities acquire a "positive self-conception.''

And, he continues, it has been a generation since some black activists, unhappy with desegregation's slow pace, began pushing for community-controlled schools in which black staff would predominate and their children would study black culture.

With education's role in social diversity so long caught in heavy ideological traffic, a quick exit seems nowhere in sight.

Vol. 13, Issue 13

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