Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Cultural Competency - the issue stays alive

The Oregonian today had a letter to the editor signed by the superintendents of the three largest school districts in the Portland metro area supporting cultural competency training for teachers.

The educrats basically said that kids of different cultural backgrounds learn differently, and therefore the teacher must adjust his teaching methods to present instruction in a way that meshes with each student's culture.

There is a lot wrong with this notion. First, they make these sweeping generalizations about various cultures without an iota of evidence that they are true. Do black children learn differently than white children? Show me the evidence.

Second, this idea is inherently racist.

Third - how is this supposed to work? How many cultures are represented in Portland Public Schools? Remember: students from Swedish cultural backgrounds will be offended if they are treated as having the same culture as students from Norway. French kids are of a different culture than German. Japanese culture is distinctly different than Chinese, which is different than Korean.

So, has the cultural competency crowd figured out all the different nuances of kids from all of the cultures in our schools, and how each one learns, special vocabulary to teach them, different methods, etc? Of course not. They basically see the world in binary: white European and minority.

Fourth - the cultural competence crowd has it exactly backward. The underlying idea is that the schools should adjust everything they do in order to better fit whatever culture the students come from.

This is wrong. I have had the very good fortune to spend a good deal of time with one of America's most distinguished researchers on issues of race and the achievement gap, Abigail Thernstrom. Abigail is the Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and wrote a book a couple years ago called "No Excuses - Closing the Racial Gap in Learning."

The book investigated the sources of the achievement gap, and took a hard look at the very few schools in the U.S. that have been successful at eliminating it. She found some very interesting things, all of which fly directly in the face of the philosophy of the cultural competency crowd.

Thernstrom found that when it comes to academic achievement, all cultures are not created equal. Some cultural attitudes toward academic achievement, it turns out, are superior to others. Asian cultures tend to stress academic achievement. Black culture tends not to. White culture is in the middle somewhere.

The good news, found Thernstrom, is that cultural attitudes toward academic achievement are not immutable. They can be changed.

And her research found that the schools that successfully eliminated the achievement gap all had one thing in common: they changed the students' culture as it relates to academic achievement.

In short, the schools created a culture of their own, and demanded that every student, regardless of his or her native culture, become a part of the school culture that values and stresses academic achievement. If the student was from a culture that didn't particularly value achievement, no problem: they instilled attitudes and values about achievement in the student that overrode her native cultural attitudes and values.

Now, contrast this with what the cultural competency crowd believes. They say a student's native culture should determine how the school teaches him - in other words, it is the school that should adjust to the student's culture, not the other way around.

It seems to me that the CC crowd has a pretty thinly veiled disdain for American culture. In fact, it seems as if they want to deny altogether that there IS a unique American culture. To the extent they acknowledge there is an American culture, it is only to denigrate it by always focusing on our deficiencies, and never our virtues.

The fact is, for hundreds of years people have come to America to be Americans. Being an American means something. It means you share the cultural attitudes and ideals upon which our nation was founded and thrived: individual (not group) rights and the rule of law.

America was built by immigrants who came here and embraced the American culture, assimilated and became a part of it. While they certainly did maintain their own cultural traditions in their homes and communities, they never believed that the institutions of our country should change to accomodate their native cultural beliefs.

It was the shared commitment to the American values that united peoples of every cultural background when they came here. Our strength was in this unity, and the amazing thing about America was how people from every imaginable cultural background could thrive, united by these shared values.

The diversity movement doesn't see America in this way. To the cultural competency (or diversity, or multi-culturalism) crowd, assimilation equals tyranny and oppression. They think assimilation implies some kind of American cultural imperialism. It makes sense: if you hated American culture, why would you want people to assimilate into it?

Cultural Competency is all about teaching kids they do not need to assimilate into American culture to succeed here. The schools will teach you in your native language, not require you to learn English, not teach you about the founding principles of American government, and tell you that the school must adjust to you, rather than the other way around.

It also teaches children that their race or native culture is the single most important factor in their personal identity. I believe this is dangerous. Why would we lead children to believe that something they do not choose and cannot change is the most important determinant of their character, rather than any one of the dozens of personal characteristics that they can choose?

One thing for certain: the vast majority of parents, especially immigrant parents, do not buy in to the cultural competency hogwash. Immigrant parents want their kids to be fluent in English and be a part of American culture. They came here because they want to be a part of the American culture. They reject the warmed over '60's-era identity politics of the cultural competency crowd.

Ironic, but we see it time and again. The cultural competency movement is pushed primarily by white middle class American men and women, most of whom populate universities and educational bureaucracies, as a way to help cultural minorities, the majority of whom reject every element of their agenda.


Thor the Avenger said...

Dr. Kremer,

Vee are so happy you can tell de difference between de dumb Norwegians and de so-smart Swedes. We smart Swedes learn in, how do you say, awesomely different way. And if de teacher dunnot teach us rite, we rape and plunder and cut der heads off. Dat is our, how you say, culture. Ya sure. Uf Da!

tack så mycket

Richard Meinhard said...

Here's PSU's mission statement for their graduate teacher education:

Guiding Principles:
1. We create and sustain educational environments that serve all students and address diverse needs.
2. We encourage and model exemplary programs and practices across the life span.
3. We build our programs on the human and cultural richness of the University's urban setting.
4. We develop collaborative efforts that foster our mission.
5. We challenge assumptions about our practice and accept the risks inherent in following our convictions.
6. We develop our programs to promote social justice, especially for groups that have been historically disenfranchised.
7. We strive to understand the relationships among culture, curriculum, and practice and the long-term implications for ecological sustainability.
8. We model thoughtful inquiry as a basis for sound decision-making.

Patrick Groff said...

The type size on words in your blog are too small to be readabile. Can you remedy this?

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University

J. E. Stone said...

What an excellent analysis of the cultural competency issue. My congratulations. Would you mind if I posted it to the ClearingHouse.

J. E. Stone

Dave Mowry said...

What is cultural competence? We don’t know. What will it accomplish? We don’t know. How much will it cost? We don’t know. As other states work to close the achievement gap by raising expectations and increasing standards, Oregon races toward another flawed initiative.

The Orwellian concept of cultural competence is being promulgated by a small group of people from the education elite led by State Senator Avel Gordly and OSU professor Jean Moule, author of ‘Cultural Competence, A Primer for Educators’.

Cultural competence is an idea that came from the health-care field. The idea is to treat each patient as an individual and understand that a person’s background and current living situation can have an impact on the quality of care that person receives. An example would be a woman who comes in with a burka. To give her the quality of care that she needs it would be best if a female doctor examined her. Or it helps a doctor to know when a patient is homeless. Homelessness will affect whether the patient will come back for a follow-up appointment or if they need prescription samples rather than a prescription that they cannot afford to fill.

This makes sense. But what the education establishment has done in Oregon is try and pick this up from the health-care field, add the political notions of social justice, and put it down in education. They are trying to put a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn’t fit.

The results of the Cultural Competence Summit held in May ’04 were a definition of cultural competence and a five-year action plan to integrate cultural competence in all aspects of education. A key part of this definition, the fact that it is based on social justice and equity and the need to institutionalize and advocate for social justice was determined to be unconstitutional by Legislative Counsel.

After that, the participants of the summit claimed that it was just a group of people getting together to talk about cultural competence and that the definition was only a working definition.

In the mean time, University of Oregon developed a Five Year Diversity Plan. This plan will cost University of Oregon millions of dollars per year to implement. I met with a representative U of O and asked him what the definition of cultural competence is. He said he did not know. This was after the five-year plan was developed!

We are close to spending tens of millions of dollars on two five-year plans for cultural competence, and we have no idea what cultural competence means. Some believe that cultural competence is synonymous with social justice. But when I ask for a definition of social justice I get as many answers as people I ask.

How can we justify spending millions of dollars on an undefined, unproven, notion of cultural competence and social justice when we are challenged to fund K-12, community colleges, and higher education? Quite simply, we can’t!