Culture and Diversity in Education

Education is a growing national concern of policy makers today. Depending on the domain, K-12 or higher education, the issues in education can range from backing school reform to backing out of affirmative action. For instance, policy makers have focused on how to improve elementary and secondary schools. Many believe that our K-12 schools are failing to prepare students for the future because US students standardized test scores are not measuring up internationally. Thus, some policy makers are considering standardized testing of teachers in K-12.

Decisions on education policy for students are usually based on test scores as “objective” measures. However, test scores are the result of complex social and cultural factors that are incompletely understood. For example, socioeconomic status is one of the best predictors of test scores, but not everyone who is poor has low test scores, nor does everyone who is middle class or higher score above average. Similarly, regardless of the measure, most minority students perform poorly in school. Yet, some do extraordinarily well. What accounts for these differences? In what ways do race and ethnicity made a difference? How should schools adjust to different kinds of students? Should they adopt different teaching techniques or treat everyone as if they were the same?

The “culture” of schools may help to explain some of the differences between successful and less successful schools, with “success” being measured by the students’ academic achievement, future goals, cooperation, and high morale. Policy makers have recognized success of private schools and have encouraged growth of voucher programs and charter schools as methods of creating non-traditional school environments. Some have backed the adoption of school uniforms in public schools as one means of changing school culture. However, school culture is more complex than an observable set of traits, like what students’ wear to school.

The recent spate of violence in K-12 schools, like the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, is a good example of this social and cultural complexity. Not only have these tragedies brought intense scrutiny to the social context of schools but also policy makers are interested increasingly in a broad spectrum of social research on violence in TV, films, video games, among others that may help explain this increased violence in schools.

The influx of immigrants into the US since the 1960s created a demographic shift that is dramatically affecting our schools. The regional growth of legal and illegal foreign nationals produced difficult and rancorous policy debates that revolve more frequently around stereotypes and fear than scientific data. What special needs do immigrant students have? Are all immigrants the same? Are immigrant students similar to domestic ethnic minorities? Do immigrant students affect inter-ethnic relations within schools? Will immigrant students diminish resources and displace educational opportunities for the majority of students?

An apparent national fear associated with illegal immigration has brought bilingual education in the U.S. under greater attack politically than ever before. Despite the fact that most European nations are successful with multilingual instruction for all students, researchers in the US are still divided on whether or not bilingual education works. What are the different kinds of bilingual education, and how do they affect English and first language literacy? Are children in bilingual education programs keeping up in other school subjects? How does community involvement affect the success of bilingual education programs?

Affirmative action programs, also understudied, are under attack. What evidence is there that they make a difference? Does diversity produced by affirmative action improve the education of everyone? Do the beneficiaries of affirmative action feel inferior to others? Does the curtailment of affirmative action limit access to education for some? What is the social and cultural effect of legally restricting affirmative action initiatives?

The White House is currently pushing learning technology as a cure-all for what ails our schools and colleges. What are the benefits to different groups of students of having the Internet, word-processing software, or programming classes available in school? Does technology take away from other school funding needs? Is there a growing technology gap dividing even more the so-called “haves” and “have nots”?

With advances in information technology, some policy makers want to ensure that colleges and universities properly prepare students for work and careers of the 21st Century. Rapid technological change, for instance, requires up to date knowledge of and facility with computers and other technologies to compete successfully for jobs. Some policy makers, like many academics, view the current development of learning technology as a double-edged sword. On one side is a new distant education paradigm for teaching, learning and research. On the other side is a technological change, “cyber schools,” that has raised concerns of eroding educational standards and academic values. Are these perceptions accurate or based on unsubstantiated fears?

Because anthropologists focus on process and what is really occurring on a day-to-day basis, they are especially well positioned to contribute to the debates on these and other issues that relate to the culture of our educational systems.

The goals of the Committee on Public Policy are threefold: (1) to identify anthropologists who are studying culture and diversity in education; (2) to determine the state of knowledge and to identify gaps in knowledge that need to be filled; and (3) to assist policy makers and those engaged in related research in understanding the social and cultural factors affecting education policies.