Some Thoughts on Diversity
Ralph G. Leverett, Ph.D., Director of the M.Ed. Program, Jackson & University Professor of Special Education
October 10, 2002 - Dr. Rosebrough, Dean of the School of Education and Human Studies has explored the topic of “diversity” recently through articles in the Jackson Sun. Public school teachers are reminded daily of just how diverse the current classroom is. We are also reminded through the media of the issues related to this topic and of the groups considered diverse.
Diversity can be discussed from several viewpoints. Some of these overlap. The most common views of diversity group students by gender, race/culture, ability, and language background. We can approach these categories as “realistic” and political. Viewed as realistic, the differences are both obvious and subtle. Those views more political in nature have been both constructive and, in some instances, of concern.
Our views of the obvious gender differences have been expanded by the “politicization of gender.” As a result, we are more aware of the differences in the ways in which teachers generally seem to provide less opportunity to females students. We are told that teachers expect less from female students and that this practice continues throughout their school years. The “politics of gender”, then, has been important in creating awareness of a need to provide equal challenge and equal opportunity for female students.
Failure to meet the basic needs of students with disabilities (or differing abilities) has generated significant legislation relative to their needs since 1973 when the Vocational Rehabilitation Act was passed. Within two years, Public Law 94-142 was passed. Both of these laws brought about awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities and schools began addressing those needs. Although parents and teachers knew what needed to be done, it took the “politicization of disability” to bring necessary change. The real needs had to be confronted by law to be addressed nationally. Although much progress has been accomplished, the laws brought both positive and equivocal results.
Lacking at this time is an effective approach to the needs of students who have language backgrounds other then English. Bilingual education, and its variations, has been fraught with views as diverse as the students who need to be served. Urban and rural areas have seen consistent growth in the number of language-diverse students in the past twenty-five years. The numbers of Spanish-speaking student have been the most dramatic increase, and even small school systems throughout our country are experiencing the challenges of meeting the needs of these students and their families. At this point, no apparent agreement exists on meeting their needs. In some parts of the United States these students constitute a majority. Projections suggest that Spanish-speaking students will be the largest minority for the rest of our nation. Do we need a “politicization of language/culture” to meet their needs? History suggests that we do not respond until we are prodded by law.
The banner of diversity has been enlarged over the years by the proponents of tolerance, sometimes advocating special treatment for students who live alternative lifestyles. As Christians, we are commanded to love all persons, to respect them, to promote acceptance of them as persons, and, of course, to ensure their safety while in the school setting. We need, however, to be alert to the expanding concept of diversity.
Students who have ability and language differences challenge the design of our curricula and our teaching styles. Students with racial/cultural and traditional gender differences remind us of the possibility of different learning styles. These are real issues that have also been addressed politically. They have implications for learning. The issues are both academic and social. As we think of the subtle inclusion of students who live alternative lifestyles to the “politicization of exceptionalities”, we need to ask ourselves whether these issues are academic, social, or strictly political. Insofar as academic and social needs exist, schools must address them. Issues that are strictly political require careful scrutiny. We must ask ourselves whether groups can profit from existing curricula, strategies, materials, and assessment. These are the basis for determining whether students require the services of Special Education and/or some other form of accommodation.