Equity & Diversity Letter to the Editor

Gates ‘Principles’ Neglect Cultural Sensitivity

January 19, 2016 1 min read

To the Editor:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has now pledged to make another huge donation, this time to teacher-training programs that best meet its four criteria for best practices (“Gates Foundation Turns Attention to Teacher-Prep ‘Transformation’”).

Once again, however, none of these driving principles addresses a central problem of instruction: a lack of cultural literacy and sensitivity.

As long as teachers themselves are largely ignorant of the powerful impact that cultural norms have on the behavior of students, too many students will continue to fall further and further behind their peers because of learned behaviors that might be acceptable and productive within their home communities but not in school. These students will continue to be seen as problem students, underperform, and, on occasion, interfere with the performance of other students because of their alienation and resentment.

In my 30 years in urban public schools, most recently coaching math teachers, I’ve seen good teachers flounder again and again when confronted by culturally learned behaviors that from kindergarten onward impede students learning in typical classroom situations.

Teachers are uniquely positioned to model the informed and sensitive behaviors that contemporary diverse societies require of their citizens if they are to live in peace and prosperity. But first, teachers must learn more about how acceptable behavior is defined across various cultures, and how to work with their schools’ specific student populationsto help all their students succeed. Being a caring person, as most teachers are, is not enough.

In my experience, teachers have been eager to learn about cultural differences. Where is the attention to this knowledge, which should be taught in teacher-training programs and encouraged in professional development?

Cathy Wilkerson

New York, N.Y.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Gates ‘Principles’ Neglect Cultural Sensitivity


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