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Cultural Competency Enhances Teacher Effectiveness

Public schools have become increasingly multicultural since 1965 when federal legislation opened the gates to newcomers to these shores. Although some states have felt the change more acutely than others, the presence of these new arrivals in classrooms everywhere continues to pose a challenge at the same time that it enriches the atmosphere.

We tend to associate schools having large numbers of students from different cultures with coastal and border states, but they also exist in the heartland ("Where Education and Assimilation Collide," The New York Times, Mar.15, 2009). For example, the Indianapolis Public Schools' 48 elementary schools are now 16 percent Hispanic, compared with only five percent a decade ago. In 2010, about 85 percent of teachers were white, even though only 23 percent of students were white.

The implications of this change were the subject of an article by Scott Elliott in the Indianapolis Star ("Bridging cultural divide between teachers, students," Nov. 20). The metamorphosis has fueled the debate whether students from different backgrounds should be taught differently. On one side are those teachers who believe, as Elliott wrote, that "teaching is teaching. And children are children." On the other are teachers who understand the importance of tailoring instruction to the cultural background of their students.

Therein lies the essence of the issue. Although there are principles of effective instruction, they need to be modified to meet the needs and interests of students. If teachers are unable or unwilling to do so, they unwittingly set themselves up for failure, and in the process deny their students the opportunity to learn.

So how is cultural competency developed? Even when teachers are open to altering their instruction, it's a daunting task. When I began teaching in the mid-1960s in the Los Angeles Unified School District, my English classes were overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class. But as Los Angeles became a principal point of entry for Third World immigrants, the student population changed as well. The district, however, provided little assistance to teachers.

What teachers did was talk individually or in small groups about ways to maintain their effectiveness. But this scattershot approach was no substitute for a systematic strategy to help teachers who wanted help. They were essentially left to sink or swim. It was not surprising, therefore, that teacher burnout was common. When teachers are frustrated by their inability to reach their students no matter how hard they try, the classroom loses much of its appeal.

Despite the difficulty of the task, it is doable. According to U.S. News & World Report, 30 of the 100 high schools that comprised its Gold Medal List in 2010 have minority populations higher than 95 percent ("Schools Populated with Minorities Are Among Nation's Best High Schools," Jun. 8, 2010). That alone should be enough to buoy the hopes of educators.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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