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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Cultural Competence and Your Child

New Teaching Standard Threatens to Homogenize Public Education

A buzz term is appearing with increased frequency in the literature and programs surrounding education at both the public-school and university levels: cultural competence. Parents would do well to ask, “What is it, and how could it affect my children?”

The term “cultural competence” first arose in connection with health care, where a standard definition is: “services that are respectful of and responsive to the cultural and linguistic needs of the patient.” This means, for example, health-care providers should be able to communicate with a non-English-speaking patient. They should take other cultural differences into account as well; for example, a clinic might arrange for a female doctor to perform a pelvic exam on a Muslim woman.

The term has migrated from health care to education, however, where its definition has shifted. In theory, cultural competence in the classroom can involve nothing more than training teachers to be more effective with children from diverse backgrounds. For example, a teacher may take a student’s race into account when assigning readings in history that are most likely to interest him.

But the term is notoriously vague and elastic in its application. This is not surprising. After all, its two component words, “culture” and “competence,” are themselves difficult to define.

Little is clarified by most of the formal definitions offered in policy statements. The one from the National Association of School Psychologists is typical: “Cultural competence is defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.”

The best way to slice through such obscure jargon and arrive at an understanding of cultural competence is to examine how it functions as a policy in the school system. In practice, the term often looks like political correctness applied in a new manner.

Political correctness (PC) is a term used by the New Left to refer to policies that aim at achieving “social justice” and respect for minorities. (Minorities are defined in various ways, including racially and sexually.) PC policies encourage speech or behavior that promotes these goals and discourage speech or behavior deemed to be counterproductive. Thus political correctness is a powerful tool through which schools can impose a social agenda. In this context, cultural competence acts as a filtering mechanism by which only those who agree or at least comply with the specific agenda can expect to be licensed, hired, or advanced within the system.

An example of how political correctness and cultural competence function in the public schools occurred in 2005. A Lexington, Massachusetts , school sent kindergarten students home with a “diversity school bag.” It included a book with drawings of different families, including a gay couple, in order to indicate that all family arrangements are equally valid.

A father, David Parker, objected. He insisted that teaching attitudes toward sexuality was his jurisdiction as a parent. This is a common objection: namely, that the teaching of any social or sexual values to children is properly the jurisdiction of parents, not the government.

Parker was arrested when he refused to leave the principal’s office without the school’s promise to notify him if homosexuality was going to be discussed with his son in class. He co-filed a lawsuit to challenge the school’s policy. Late last February the suit was dismissed from federal court. In his decision, Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf stated that parents have no right of input into public-school curriculum. Families that don’t agree with the curriculum can send their children to private schools or home-school.

The content of the controversial curriculum expresses political correctness: the goal of teaching children to accept the “proper” social value of homosexuality and heterosexuality being equally valid family choices. In Lexington , that expression includes arresting a parent who strenuously but peacefully objects.

Cultural competence has the same goal, but its methodology is different. It is a policy applied to educators that requires them to conform to standards of political correctness as a prerequisite of their licensing, hiring, or promotion. The policy is a filtering process by which public schools attempt to ensure that administrators and teachers will express the “proper” values to children. It directly targets teachers rather than students. As such, it tends to function more behind the scenes and so is less visible to parents and the public. Yet the impact on children’s education is dramatic. By homogenizing the values of those who educate, other values tend to be filtered out of the information and discussion in a classroom.

Norman Levitt, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, explains, “‘Cultural competence’ is, in essence, a bureaucratic weapon. ‘Cultural competence,’ or rather, your presumed lack thereof, is what you will be clobbered with if you are imprudent enough to challenge or merely to have qualms about ‘affirmative action,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism,’ as those principles are now espoused by their most fervent academic advocates.”

In terms of the public-school system, the clobbering of teachers who might disagree is often preemptive.

Consider the case of Ed Swan. In fall 2005 Swan was a student at the Washington State University (WSU) College of Education when he was threatened with “termination” from the program because of his conservative religious and political views. Without graduating he could not obtain teaching credentials. The specific barrier to his graduation was the college’s ten-point “professional dispositions evaluation” form that rated a student’s “understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation, and privilege in American society.” The government of Washington state requires the WSU College of Education to attest to each student’s good character before graduation; indeed, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education has urged that teachers in all states be evaluated on their “dispositions,” that is, on their moral stance and sense of social justice—as well as on their knowledge and skill. (Disposition evaluation is one of the main tools through which cultural competence in teachers is assured.)

Swan failed the evaluation four times. His grades were A-level but his views were unacceptable. For example, he was critical of affirmative-action programs because he believed the law should treat everyone the same. One evaluator wrote on the form, “[Mr. Swan has] revealed opinions that have caused me great concern in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation, and privilege.”

WSU’s threat of expelling Swan came with a loophole. If he signed a contract with the college to attend diversity training and agreed to their continuing scrutiny of his “disposition,” then he could continue through the program. Instead, Swan contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is renowned for taking legal action on behalf of students whose constitutional rights are being violated by the educational system. The contract demand was dropped. Swan was allowed to graduate.

Ideological Imbalance

WSU’s “disposition evaluation” is not uncommon. Robert K. C. Johnson, professor of history at Boston College, commented in an article in Inside Higher Education (May 23, 2005) on the impact that political correctness has had on teacher-training programs. Johnson wrote, “The faculty’s ideological imbalance has allowed three factors—a new accreditation policy, changes in how students are evaluated and curricular orientation around a theme of ‘social justice’—to impose a de facto political litmus test on the next cohort of public school teachers.”

Johnson offered several examples of how specific universities have embedded “social justice” requirements into their teacher-training programs; he could have offered many more. In 2002 the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education changed its accreditation requirements to require dozens of teacher-training programs to measure each student’s disposition on “social justice.” The revised accreditation requirement read, in part, “Unit assessments must also reflect the dispositions identified in its conceptual framework and in professional and state standards. . . . For example, if the unit has described its vision for teacher preparation as ‘Teachers as agents of change’ and has indicated that a commitment to social justice is one disposition it expects of teachers who can become agents of change, then it is expected that unit assessments include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice.”

Most university teacher-training programs now include some form of official commitment to “social justice.” (A partial list is available at Three of the examples offered by Johnson provide a sense of the ideological substance of these program commitments.

• The University of Kansas program states that students should be “more global than national and concerned with ideals such as world peace, social justice, respect for diversity and preservation of the environment.”

•  Marquette ‘s program is committed “to social justice in schools and society” and to producing teachers who “transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture.”

• The University of Toledo states, “Education is our prime vehicle for creating the ‘just’ society,” since “we are preparing citizens to lead productive lives in a democratic society characterized by social justice.”

These “social justice” commitments and requirements function as a form of ideological prior restraint on which views will be expressed in a classroom.

In recent years, “cultural competence” has achieved some legislative momentum. For example, in its 2005 session, the Oregon Senate considered SB50, which would have authorized the establishment of “standards for cultural competency and require an applicant for a teaching license to meet those standards.” In short, teachers would be required to advocate a specific vision of social justice to be licensed. (Although Oregon is only one of dozens of states exploring and implementing “cultural competency,” it seems to be on the cutting edge.)

Defining “Cultural Competence”

Some of the specifics of what constitute “social justice” and “equity” emerged from a May 2004 summit sponsored by the Oregon Department of Education. The summit’s purpose was to develop a specific proposal on how to implement “cultural competence” in education, from kindergarten to university.

Attended by “over 100 of the State’s leaders in education,” the summit split into various discussion tables that evolved definitions and specifics. One table reported that “cultural competence” “entails actively challenging the status quo. . . . [O]ne table noted the need to incorporate institutionalized notions of power, privilege, and oppression into the definition. . . . Thus, for many, cultural competence is transformative and political.” In practical terms, a “culturally competent” teacher “advocates for social justice”; the teacher “exhibits awareness of key concepts” such as “privilege, affirmative action”; he or she must not only “apply cultural competencies” but also “believe it.”

In its five-year projection the summit proposed to “revise rules to achieve high cultural standards including possible revocation of licensure for culturally incompetent behavior” and “to require cultural competence for license renewal.” In short, even teachers who were licensed might have to toe an ideological line in order to retain their licenses.

In March 2005 the (Oregon) Gazette Times reported, “A quiet effort by state officials to require that all newly certified Oregon teachers be ‘culturally competent’ looks to be dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled House, despite firm support from education advocates.” The House stumbled over the definition of “cultural competence” from the summit, which was almost certainly the standard that would have been applied under law.

The words “quiet effort” in the news story are all-important. Parents are generally unaware of the policies under which their children’s teachers are trained or licensed. When the specifics of those policies become known, there is often a backlash such as that expressed by Dave Mowry, a legislative coordinator for Rep. Linda Flores. On May 11, 2005, Mowry wrote in the Oregonian, “[T]he Teachers Standards and Practices Commission and the Oregon Department of Education are backtracking, saying they really didn’t mean it. . . . Then why is it in the definition and the five-year plan and on the commission’s Web site?”

Oregon may be an extreme example, but PC policies have a tendency to become extreme . . . and quickly so.

The best protection for children against political correctness is for parents to be aware. Happily this seems to be happening more and more. As it does, strange ironies can arise. On January 22 the Ironwood Daily Globe reported that parents in the small school district of Ontonagon, Michigan, were taking Judge Wolf’s advice and homeschooling their children. The result? The newspaper continued, “Board of Education President Dean Juntunen made an appeal Monday for homeschoolers to enroll their children in the Ontonagon Area School District . Juntunen explained that due to a loss of student population this year and inadequate state funding, ‘we will be using up our financial cushion.’”

Cultural competence is an argument for homeschooling.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.