Children's Voice Oct/Nov 2005

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Truly Equal Education Can Be Challenged by Human Diversity

By Sue Stepleton

Diversity in culture, race, and language are threads in the unique fabric of humanity. Unfortunately, the disparity in "equal" education and social opportunities among young children has created an unintentional pitfall in which diversity can simultaneously mean disadvantaged.

The Future of Children's Spring 2005 policy brief, Closing Achievement Gaps, states that test score disparities among racial and ethnic groups are a prominent feature in today's educational landscape, with African American and Hispanic children regularly falling far behind white children. At Parents as Teachers National Center, a nonprofit provider of parent education curriculum and support materials, we've found that school readiness scores at high-poverty schools are typically lower than at schools with low poverty levels.

This disturbing data poses a challenge for us in early childhood fields, because even preschool gaps can signal poor outcomes later in life. Children who score poorly on tests of intellectual skills during preschool do less well in elementary and high school. And, according to the Future of Children's policy brief, they are also more likely to become teen parents, engage in criminal activity, experience unemployment, and become clinically depressed. Early intervention and guidance is essential. So where do we begin to level the   field?

We know it's important to reach parents and children as early as possible to start them on the right path to a bright future. Still, challenges exist when trying to achieve racial equity in preparing a child for school. Programs that address racial and cultural equity are few and far between, and resources for materials rich in cultural diversity are also scarce.

Although teaching antiracism is a start, we need to take the next step and recognize our duty to affirm a child's sense of ethnic identity while highlighting intellectual, social, and developmental concepts that transcend differences. We should start equipping early childhood professionals, teachers, parents, and others who guide children with useful, sensitive multicultural and bilingual curricula that are, at this point, difficult to find.

Parents as Teachers, the largest private parent education program in the nation, is carefully considering the role of identity and culture in delivering child development information to parents and families. This year, Parents as Teachers added a human diversity component to the latest edition of its Born to Learn curriculum for prenatal to 3 years and is focusing on cultural sensitivity in its parent educator training. One-third of the families Parents as Teachers serves are minorities; we must adapt our program to fulfill the needs of the diverse cultures we serve.

Most importantly, the core concepts remain consistent for all participants, so all families are receiving the same research-based information. Our adaptations include:
  • adding to the curriculum "notes from the field"--real-life examples of how Parents as Teachers programs around the world are successfully growing in cultural competency;

  • featuring culturally sensitive discussion topics for personal visits to call attention to issues that could be interpreted

  • differently among cultures;

  • incorporating additional resources, culturally appropriate rhymes, stories, and songs used in visits with parents and families; and

  • suggesting cultural sensitivity when it comes to encouraging families who may need special services, and identifying the most appropriate resources and providing referrals.
This same approach could do wonders for children as they grow--ideally, they'd be receiving information with cultural filters that would allow them to more easily apply it.

For instance, English-language learners face unique challenges when raising young children. Parents must not only acclimate to a new country and culture, but also learn how to navigate the American education, health, and social service systems. To effectively reach and serve these families, we need programs that speak to their unique needs, as well as strengths, and are delivered in a way that connects them with their children, their family, and the greater community. Again, the information is standard, but the delivery is tailored. It will provide tremendous cost savings in the long run, and legislators are beginning to take notice.

In March, U.S. Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) reintroduced the Education Begins at Home Act. The legislation would establish the first dedicated federal funding to support parents with young children through quality home visits. The bill provides $500 million over three years to expand parent education services through quality early childhood home visitation programs, with a special emphasis on families with English language learners. It's this type of far-reaching, cooperative effort that allows us to unequivocally view human diversity as a cohesive strength, rather than a divisive shortcoming.

Sue Stepleton is President and CEO of Parents as Teachers National Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

"Other Voices" provides leaders and experts from national organizations that share CWLA's commitment to the well-being of children, youth, and families a forum to share their views and ideas on cross-cutting issues.

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