On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998

Collaboration in Support of Diversity: A Dean's Reflections

By Eugene E. García

As a typical teacher looks at the students in her classroom, she sees a picture much different from the classroom of her childhood. Today 1 in 3 children nationwide is from an ethnic or racial minority group, 1 in 7 speaks a language other than English at home, and 1 in 15 is born outside the US. The linguistic and culture diversity of America's schools population has increased dramatically during the past decade, and is expected to increase even more in the future. These students are the universities' future consumers. Educating children from diverse families is a major concern of school systems across the country. For many of these children, American education has not been and continues not to be a successful experience. While one-tenth of non-Hispanic White students leave school without a diploma, one-fourth of African-Americans, one-third of Hispanics, one half of Native Americans, and two thirds of immigrant students drop out of school.

Confronted with this dismal reality, administrators, teachers, parents and policy makers urge each other to do something different—change teaching methods, adopt new curricula, allocate more funding. Such actions might be needed, but will not be meaningful unless we begin to think differently about these students. In order to educate them, we must first educate ourselves about who they are and what they need to succeed. Thinking differently involves viewing these students in new ways that may contradict conventional notions, and coming to a new set of realizations.

During my recent assignment in Washington, D.C. as the Director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs in the US Department of Education, I attempted to address the challenge of engaging my professional experience and expertise as an educational researcher and my personal cultural linguistic experiences to the tasks of addressing national educational policy. The professional in me was and continues to be nurtured in some of the best educational institutions of this country and the non-professional in me was and continues to be in a large, rural, Mexican American family—all speaking Spanish as our native language, all born in the United States like our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, one of ten children, five of whom graduated from high school, only one graduating from college. I found bringing these personas (the Spanish term for "persons") together not as difficult as I might have expected and even came to conclude that this intersection was quite helpful to me, my colleagues and the wide variety of audiences that I interacted with in this national role. In fact, I found by bringing together these personas, I was able to communicate to individuals in ways that were not possible if I only spoke with one or separate voices. The present discussion is my attempt to put into writing these intersecting but distinct voices and to help further our understanding of living in a diverse society. I will emphasize the role of educational institutions who strive to serve a diverse population today and will need to serve them better in the future. For the historical pattern of the education of these populations in the U.S. is a continuous story of underachievement. It need not be that way and the research university has a unique role to play in this future.

University outreach efforts have expanded markedly in scope and number over the course of the last 25 years. Although some attempts have been made to coordinate among efforts for a single or unified goal, and some successes have been achieved, the increase in energy and potential impact usually obtained from a focused strategic approach to a problem is lacking on a systemwide or even campus wide basis. Too often, multiple programs, sometimes sponsored by the same campus, operate in individual schools without knowledge of one another and often without coordination of efforts or goals. This fragmentation no doubt leads to some level of duplication of effort and lack of systematic advancement.

To raise the number of diverse students, we must help in developing and increasing the size of this pool of eligible and competitive students among these groups AND we must enroll a considerably larger number of those currently achieving basic eligibility and doing so at competitive levels.

Thus, in order to enroll a diverse population of students, universities must bring the proportion of minority and disadvantaged students closer to the levels achieved by others, must enroll at a high level those achieving, and must assure that more minority and disadvantaged students are competitive, positioning them for possible enrollment in programs and on campuses where competition for admission is high. The differences in achievement patterns among groups must narrow.

Achieving such a goal would require a more ambitious effort than has yet been organized. Rather than selecting out promising individual minority students and providing traditional outreach services such as tutoring, motivation, college preparation advice and counseling, the University must also identify a strategic set of communities and schools where achievement levels and opportunities to learn, as measured on a variety of standards, such as average scores on standardized tests, honors courses offered, college-going rates, etc., fall below average. It must then direct its multiple resources in these domains in ways to achieve and sustain this new, but already developing outreach goal.

The University has a major role to play in supporting K-12 education. It has a significant self-interest in strengthening this role. Like leaders in the private sector, University faculty are concerned about where the next generation of scientists, scholars, technicians, and leaders is coming from. Yet the University is only a partner in this process. Pre/K-12 teachers, the practitioners in the field, are key in dealing directly with the enormity of problems and potentials inherent in the state's increasingly diverse student population. Although teacher preparation programs in the past have on the whole inadequately prepared the teachers for the kinds of classes they will face, many teachers are exemplary in responding to the nations's changing student population. One key role for the University is tapping the existing knowledge and expertise of effective teachers, especially teachers of students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and disseminating their knowledge to others, whether new teachers or more experienced teachers now facing an increasingly complex school environment. Research on effective teachers' practices, on effective teacher-student communication, on involving parents in schools are among the areas where university research in schools offers useful contributions. Also crucial are faculty and staff initiatives, such as UCLA's LAPTAG (Los Angeles Physics Teachers' Alliance Group) and UC Berkeley's Interactive University, working directly with teachers to develop new curricular approaches and inquiry-based instructional strategies.

The University has a broader "outreach" mission as part of its public service role to engage with and assist in the improvement of the quality of the pre/K-12 education generally, particularly in underrepresented communities. The mission of such outreach is not only to improve rates of eligibility and competitiveness for the small number of minority students who may eventually attend the University, but also to help address the systemic problems that create such differences in academic preparation. The traditional, "University-centered" mission of outreach which has supported primarily "student-centered" programs must now recognize the need to expand and integrate outreach efforts to "school-centered" programs. To give importance to "school-centered" programs is not, in the final analysis, a question of strategy, but a question of the fundamental values and goals the University wishes to achieve. The present challenge related to diversity facing us, with or without the use of our past diversification tool, affirmative action, is to address this issue head-on by calling for a broadening of the very mission of University collaboration and outreach.

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© 1998 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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