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Saturday Solutions: Embrace Diversity

September 18, 2010

When I say “diversity” here, I don’t mean it in the shallow, “let’s designate one day a year for kids who aren’t White to bring in food from their culture or wear clothes from different countries” sense. (That mess is offensive! If that’s your only conception of diversity, I have some books for you to read.)

No, what I’m talking about is embracing difference, instead of trying to make schools, teachers, and students identical to one another through the imposition of standardized curricula and tests. As I’ve said elsewhere, in addition to being a lost cause (all people will never fit into just one way of being), creating a monoculture of skills and ideas is dangerous– we can’t know what the future will bring, so we need people to be prepared for a wide variety of possible situations.

Likewise, students are all different, and teachers are all different. Couldn’t the time we spend privileging one way of doing things– and demonizing everyone who doesn’t “measure up”– be better spent trying to connect parents and students to the types of schools and teachers who will best fit their needs and values?

For instance, some parents desperately hate Everyday Math, because they feel their children aren’t getting enough of the quick, useful calculation skills they need to understand it. They end up spending lots of money on outside tutors to compensate for what that program lacks. Likewise, some parents like the program, because their kids do well with a structured yet relatively more constructivist (compared to more traditional, algorithm-based programs) approach to learning math. Many teachers echo both sides of that divide. Instead of forcing all of the teachers in a building to  learn and teach Everyday Math, why not allow those who like it to use it, and those who don’t to develop a sensible alternative, and then let parents and students make a choice about where they’d like to be placed? Sure, logistically it will be messier than having everyone follow the same program, but one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to learning. Why should some kids automatically be condemned to failure because their learning styles don’t fit into whatever paradigm happens to dominate at the current moment?

The same argument can be made for other aspects of the curriculum, and kinds of schools (some parents might like a more strict, traditional environment; others may appreciate a school without grades or competition; etc). While charters are theoretically supposed to allow for this kind of diversity within the public school system, the majority of charters are operated by corporate management operations that impose their proprietary way of doing things on all of their schools (and show dissident teachers, parents, and students the door if they disagree with it). Regardless, why should charter schools be the only ones with this flexibility? Charter advocates often blame unions, but there’s nothing in the union contract that prevents teachers and administrators from articulating a school mission, or defining an alternative view of what education should be. It’s state and federal law that requires public schools to adopt the same curriculum, take the same tests, and act more or less the same way. That doesn’t have to be.

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