Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Cultural competence not a substitute 

A fad in teaching these days is the workshop teaching "cultural competence" in teaching inner city children. What is that?
The idea is that until such teachers "get" their students -- their distinct cultures, their languages, their home lives, their perceptions of the world and their place in it -- urban teachers will never effectively reach these students, whom much of national education reform is aimed at helping.
The Washington Post reports on one such workshop at the University of Maryland.
In a week of seminars, presentations and heartfelt discussions, perhaps the secret to "cultural competence" was really quite simple: to get to know the students and where they come from, and to care.

"Many teachers, especially at the higher levels, are scared of their students," said Jacob Mann, who helps run Community Teachers Institute, the advocacy group that sponsored the seminar. "All they know about their students' culture is what they see on TV, and they're intimidated."

In the end, Thomas, who now teaches government at Forestville Military Academy, a public school in Prince George's, doesn't have to like the rap music his students listen to, but he does need to know about it. And he does need to make sure that the way his classroom looks and the materials that he chooses include people and stories that his students can relate to.
The article dismisses someone who think this is simply coddling students.
Ishmail Conway, a former professor at the University of Virginia who is working with the summer institute, put it this way: "It doesn't change 1+1=2. It doesn't change H 2 O being water. It just possibly changes how you get that message across on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Show me the evidence that we don't need this. There's more evidence that says we need to understand each other better. Because something's not working."
Yes, but just because something isn't working doesn't mean the solution is cultural competence. You can't replace good parents with culturally competent teachers.

UPDATE: (7/31): Just found Michael's comments on this post. Good stuff. Go read.