Cultural Competence: Coming To a School Near You?

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“Cultural Competence”:
the trendy term is appearing with greater frequency in education
and literature.

Parents would
do well to ask, “What is it, and how could it affect my children’s
education from kindergarten through college?”

“Cultural competence”
arose in connection with health care services, where a
standard definition
is, “services that are respectful of and
responsive to the cultural and linguistic needs of the patient.”

For example,
this means health care providers should be able to communicate with
a non-English-speaking patient, and they should take into account
cultural habits when constructing a health regime.

Recently, the
term has migrated from health care to education; its definition
has shifted in the drift. In theory, “cultural competence” in the
classroom means being able to teach children from diverse backgrounds.

In practice,
the term is the new face of political correctness, which is often
accompanied by the PC concepts of “diversity” or “multiculturalism.”

“Cultural competency”
advances the same basic goals as those buzz words. Certain groups
(such as minorities) and certain ideas (such as gender feminist
interpretations of oppression) are to be promoted by institutionalizing
policies that encourage them. Of course, this means that other groups
and other ideas are de facto penalized or discouraged.

But instead
of being applied directly to students, as with affirmative action
in college entrance, “cultural competency” applies to educators:
their hiring, their firing, their promotion. It is more of a behind-the-scenes
process and, so, less visible to the public. Yet the impact upon
children’s education could be as dramatic.

Norman Levitt,
Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University, explains, “‘Cultural
is…a bureaucratic weapon. ‘Cultural competence,’
or rather, your [an educator’s] 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.”

According to
Levitt, the beliefs that are likely to torpedo an educator’s career

  • affirmative
    action conflicts “with other standards of justice and equity.”
  • feminism’s
    theory of “the social constructedness of gender” is incorrect.

“Cultural competence”
has achieved some momentum. For example, in March 2005, the Corvallis,
Ore., Gazette
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.”

(Oregon is
one of dozens of states exploring and implementing “cultural competency,”
but it seems be on the cutting edge. For example, starting in 2007,
the state’s Teachers Standards and Practices Commission says it
will require new school administrators to demonstrate cultural competency.)

The definition
of the term is all-important.

language surrounding the term is usually vague and bureaucratic.
The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey is typical
in stating
, “Cultural competence requires that organizations…have
the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment,
(3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize
cultural knowledge…”

Piercing the
“Bureaucrat Speak” returns us to Oregon
where, in 2003, the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission
began developing “cultural
standards for certifying teachers and administrators.
The task required a clearer definition.

In May 2004,
the Oregon Department of Education sponsored a summit of “over 100
of the State’s leaders in education…to engage in a dialogue about
cultural competency.” Its purpose was to develop a specific proposal
on how to implement ‘cultural competence’ in education, from kindergarten
to university.

It was the
summit’s definition of ‘cultural competence’ that caused Oregon’s
House to balk at the education bill that ensued – Senate
Bill 50
. The essence of that definition: “Cultural competence
is based on a commitment to social
justice and equity

Some of the
specifics of what constitutes ‘social justice’ and ‘equity’ emerged
from the summit, which was organized into discussion tables. ‘Cultural
competence’ “entails actively challenging the status quo…one 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.”

‘Cultural competence’
would not be a request but a requirement. 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.”

Indeed, SB50
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.

Dave Mowry,
a legislative coordinator for Rep. Linda Flores, noted in The
on May 11, “[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.

21, 2005

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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