State Board Members Must Assert Leadership on Diversity, Group Says

By John Gehring — February 13, 2002 3 min read
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State school boards have a greater responsibility than ever to create school systems that value student diversity and hold all students to high standards, declares a report by a national group representing state boards.

The report, “A More Perfect Union: Building an Education System That Embraces All Children,” challenges state education leaders to create a “culturally competent” education system that raises expectations, respects multicultural perspectives, and protects students from intolerance and hate crimes.

The report, released last week by the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va., notes that 20 percent of the nation’s school-age population speaks a language other than English at home, and more than a third are students of color.

Copies of “A More Perfect Union: Building an Education System that Embraces All Children” are available from NASBE by calling (800) 220-5183

California, Texas, and other states where no ethnic or racial group constitutes a majority reflect how the nation will look in the near future, the report adds.

To make the point that school leaders have often failed to meet the needs brought on by these changes, the report cites the lingering low achievement by students of color. In addition, the 48-page report says that state boards must address the disproportionate number of students of color in special education, and reverse a system that often teams students who are the most in need academically with the least effective teachers.

“We have to challenge the old beliefs and traditions that we are working with when the data says it doesn’t work,” said Claibourne Smith, the chairman of the committee that produced the report and a member of the Delaware state board of education.

Mr. Smith added that in an age of globalization, in which understanding diversity is a business necessity, state school boards must play a critical role in working with policymakers, local education officials, and teachers to make sure that all students have an opportunity to succeed.

“We are wasting human resources,” he said in an interview.

Building Unity

The report recommends that states adopt high-quality academic standards for all students, write school curricula that foster the ability to succeed in a diverse world, acknowledge diverse learning styles, ensure a qualified teacher for all students, and provide extra help to students and schools in need.

Carlos A. Vegas-Matos, the associate executive director of NASBE, acknowledged the difficulty of making the report’s goals a reality, but said that the organization will work hard to make sure the report doesn’t gather dust.

The organization already has agreements to partner with state school boards, starting with Ohio and Illinois, to study how state policies address diversity. For example, do states break out test data by race and ethnicity? Or, how do states handle students who do not speak English?

In addition, the group will look at ways to improve multicultural education— particularly the ways in which teachers are prepared to work with diverse students—and evaluate data for trends in scores by race and gender.

The first state reviews should take about six months.

Mr. Vegas-Matos urges state boards to use the “bully pulpit” to take the lead on diversity issues. “We’re at a critical juncture,” he said. “It’s a matter of preparing teachers for all students coming through the door.”

The report grew out of a NASBE study group made up of state school board members from around the country. They spent eight months examining how race, gender, culture, language, and poverty affect schools and learning.

The report builds on the association’s 1991 report “An American Tapestry: Educating a Nation.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as State Board Members Must Assert Leadership on Diversity, Group Says


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