Program Goal III: Diverse Learners

The United States has always been an ethnically-diverse nation, and results of the 2010 Census show that it is becoming even more diverse. The U.S. population increased by a little more than 27-million during the first decade of this century, and about 13-million, or nearly one-half, of these new residents are immigrants (Migration News, 2011). Additionally, more than one-half of this growth was due to the increase in Hispanics, who now number more than 50-million and make up about 16% of all U.S. residents (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). The percentage of Asians in the U.S. population is also growing rapidly, and Asians now make up roughly five percent of the population compared to less than one-percent in 1960 (U.S. Census Bureau,1999, 2010B.) Nowhere are these demographic changes being felt more than in our nation's schools. Immigrant children and youth (those under 18 who are foreign-born or reside with one or more foreign-born parent) "now account for one-fourth of the nation's 75-million children" (Passel, 2011, p. 19), and  almost 11-million children residing in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, including nearly eight-million who speak Spanish (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). If current trends continue, by 2030 non-Hispanic Caucasians will account for only one-half of all school-age children "and fewer still in the years that follow" (Hernandez, Denton, and Mccartney, 2010, p. 8).

Ethnicity and language are certainly not the only types of diversity present in our nation's schools. Teachers must also be knowledgeable about disabilities; giftedness; economic diversity; religious diversity; and the needs of gay, lesbian, and transgender students. Not only do teachers need to be aware of the various aspects of diversity, but they must have knowledge of appropriate classroom strategies for meeting the needs of diverse learners as well as resources for helping them when their needs are such that they cannot be entirely met in the regular classroom. The following paragraphs provide an overview of the knowledge and skills related to diversity that we believe are essential for beginning teachers.

Multicultural Education: Our department strongly believes in the concept of multicultural education, which is an educational philosophy "built on the ideals of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity . . . that values cultural differences and affirms the pluralism that students, their communities, and teachers reflect.  It challenges all forms of discrimination in schools and society through the promotion of democratic principles of social justice" (National Association for Multicultural Education, 2003). James Banks (1981) was among the first to call for systematic school changes to promote multiculturalism and educational equity for all learners. More recent frameworks have called for school and learning to be built on a foundation of social justice and equal opportunity (Gorski, 2000). The shared goals of these frameworks include ensuring educational equity for all students in order to prepare them to effectively participate in our increasingly diverse nation (Gorski, 2000).

Approaches to multicultural education such as those described by Vasquez (1990) which seek to match instruction to the learning preferences of specific minority groups provide interesting ideas for consideration. However, adopting such approaches ignores student individuality and runs the risk of stereotyping students based on ethnicity. Therefore, our department favors more comprehensive ideas for school and curricular revision such as those offered by James and Cherry Banks (1993). These writers identified four levels of or approaches to multicultural education, each of which requires a different degree of integration of cultural content. These four levels are the Contributions Approach, which focuses on heroes, holidays, and the contributions of cultural groups; the Additive Approach, which emphasizes the addition of content, concepts, themes, and perspectives from diverse cultures without changing the overall structure of the curriculum; the Transformation Approach, which changes the structure of the curriculum to enable students to view concepts, issues, events, and themes from the perspectives of multiple ethnic and cultural groups; and the Social Action Approach, which requires students to make decisions on important social issues and take actions to deal with them. It is our belief that schools and curricula must move beyond the contributions and additive approaches and emphasize transformation and social action.

Ideas provided by Peggy McIntosh (1990) have also influenced our thinking. She has outlined five phases of curricular and personal revision with regard to race and gender that in many ways parallel Banks' levels. We agree with McIntosh that schools should strive to reach her fifth and highest phase of curricular reform, which "involves a reconstruction of consciousness, perception, and behavior" (p. 8) that redefines and restructures the curriculum to include all cultures and ethnicities.

Language: As noted earlier in this chapter, approximately one-fourth of children in the U.S. are foreign-born or live with at least one foreign-born parent. However, since only about 11% of children in U.S. schools need English language instruction (Calderon, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011), it is obvious that not all immigrant children have limited English proficiency (LEP). It is also important to note that not all limited English proficient (LEP) students are foreign born. In fact, data from the 2000Census showed that only 24% of LEP students in grades prekindergarten to five were foreign born, and about 44% of LEP students in later grades were foreign born. Most of the remainder (59% of prekindergarten to grade five and 27% of those in grades six to twelve) were second generation (Capps, et al, 2005). Surprisingly, about 22% of LEP students are third generation or later, suggesting that "many children of natives who were LEP when they began school remain LEP through secondary school" (Capps, et al, 2005, p. 18). Though the primary language of about three-fourths of LEP students is Spanish, the remaining one-fourth speaks an incredibly wide variety of languages (Capps, et al, 2005). For instance, children who attend our local school district (the Saint Cloud, Minnesota Public Schools) speak 38 different languages in their homes, most frequently Somali (Aeikins, 2011).

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002, reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replaced the Bilingual Education Act (first passed in 1968). NCLB "requires states to identify LEP students, assess them properly, and ensure LEP students gain English proficiency" (Kihuen, 2009, p. 131). As Gandara & Baca (2008) noted, "NCLB was the instrument that . . . finally removed all references within the Department of Education to Bilingual Education. The Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA) became under NCLB, the Office of Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students, popularly known as OELA" (p. 205).

Though NCLB uses the phrase "scientifically based research" more than 100 times, it clearly ignores important research findings related to the education of LEP students.  For instance, research has consistently shown that unlike interpersonal language skills, which may be acquired relatively quickly, it often takes much longer to become proficient in cognitive academic English, the sort of English-language skills required to master complex academic tasks and succeed on English-language achievement tests. In a frequently cited research study, James Cummins (1981) found that it typically takes five to seven years for students to acquire cognitive academic language proficiency. Similarly, Virginia Collier (1987) found that, depending on age of arrival, it may take "LEP students anywhere from 4 to 8 years or more to reach the 50th NCE (normal curve equivalent) on standardized tests across all the subject areas" (p. 637), and it may take even longer for them to reach the academic levels of native speakers in their school districts. Therefore, schools with LEP populations who can, at most, exempt them from AYP testing for three years, are very likely to be labeled as failing schools that must face NCLB's corrective actions. This situation is often exacerbated by the fact that LEP students often fall into multiple categories (Asian, Hispanic, and/or low-income as well as LEP), making the schools' test data look even worse. Therefore, as Diaz-Rico (2008) noted, the law "appears to be an unfortunate fit with what is known about effective second-language learning" (p. 122).

There is considerable controversy regarding "whether it is more effective to teach English to non-English speakers through bilingual instruction or English immersion" (Tienda & Haskins, 2011, p.5). However, according to Calderon, Slavin, and Sanchez (2011), either approach can be effective as long as the instruction is of high quality. Another crucial research finding regarding LEP students is that early English-language instruction is crucial. For instance, Michael Kieffer (2008) found that "LM (language minority) learners who enter kindergarten with limited English proficiency had large, persistent, deficiencies in English reading achievement" (p. 865) while those entering kindergarten with good oral English skills had achievement similar to that of native-English speakers. Citing this and similar studies, Tienda and Haskins (2011) concluded, "Controversies about pedagogy aside, evidence is incontrovertible that children who enter kindergarten with limited proficiency in spoken English fall behind native speakers in reading and math proficiency; more-over, early achievement gaps widen through primary school and carry over to middle school and beyond" (p. 5).

Though effective early English language instruction is crucial for LEP students, it is equally important for classroom teachers to view all students who are linguistically different or bilingual as children of promise rather than seeing them only as children at risk of failure. Additionally, teachers must provide a classroom environment for these students that recognizes and values their culture and language (Cleary and Peacock, 1998; Heath and Mangiola, 1991).

Students with Disabilities: Students with disabilities constitute another large and important category of diversity. More than 11% of school-age children in the U.S. receive special education because of an identified disability (Smith and Tyler, 2010). Nearly one-half of these students have a specific learning disability (Smith and Tyler, 2010).

In the 1960s and 70s, parents of and advocates for children with disabilities were influenced by the success of the civil rights movement and used the courts to force states to provide appropriate educational opportunities for their children (Banks and Banks, 1993). One important consequence of their advocacy was passage of The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (P. L. 94-142), which implemented the results of much of the disability-rights litigation. This legislation dramatically changed the way students with disabilities are educated in American schools (National Advisory Committee on the Handicapped, 1976). Important aspects of this legislation included Provision of Full Services, which requires that all children with disabilities receive  a free, appropriate education; Least Restrictive Environment, requiring that students with disabilities receive their education in the regular classroom whenever appropriate; Individualized Educational Plans (or IEPs), mandating that educational programming for children with disabilities be based on students' individual strengths and needs; Non-Discriminatory Assessment Procedures, meaning that assessment procedures used in identification and placement of students with disabilities must not discriminate, and Due Process, requiring that the rights of parents and students be protected.

In 1990, legislators updated P. L. 94-142, changing its wording and broadening its scope. This revision, called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), included important changes such as substituting the word disability for handicap, adding autism and traumatic brain injury to the categories of disability, and mandating transition services for secondary students with disabilities (Lewis and Doorlag, 2003). IDEA was reauthorized and updated in 1997 and again in 2004, when it was aligned with the No Child Left Behind act. This latter reauthorization of IDEA included the Response to Intervention (RTI) approach as a means for the early identification of students at risk for specific learning disabilities. RTI provides a three-tiered model for screening, monitoring, and providing increasing degrees of intervention using "research-based instruction " with the overall goal of reducing the need for special education services (Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen , 2012).

Though terms used for disability categories vary to some extent from state to state, IDEA currently specifies 14 special education categories that include high-incidence conditions such as intellectual disabilities (formerly mental retardation), specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance/behavior disorders, and communication (speech and language) disorders. It also includes low-incidence disabilities such as hearing impairments, visual impairments, physical and other health impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, and multiple disabilities (Smith and Tyler, 2010). As noted by Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen (2012), the occurrence of some low-incidence disabilities has increased dramatically in recent years. This is particularly the case for autism (or autism spectrum disorder). Though Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen (2012) suggest that factors such as "improved identification procedures and identification of milder cases of autism" (p. 10) provide at least a partial explanation for the increased incidence of this disorder, a complete explanation remains a mystery and topic for speculation.

It is important to note that attention deficit-hyperactive disorder (ADHD) is not currently included within the categories of disability specified by IDEA. However, according to Smith & Tyler (2010), many students with ADHD are classified as having physical and other health impairments or receive services through a 504 Plan (based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). For an in-depth look at definitions, characteristics, and educational needs of children receiving special education, the reader is referred to sources such as Lewis and Doorlag (2003), Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen (2012), or Smith and Tyler (2010).

Inclusion of Students with Disabilities: Though not the norm in all states, special education in Minnesota is typically provided within the framework of the inclusion model, which can be defined as" placing students with disabilities in general education classes and other school activities" (Hallahan, Kaufmann, and Pullen, 2012, p. 460). Delivering appropriate instruction for students with disabilities within the regular classroom requires teachers to be familiar with the students' IEPs and work collaboratively with other members of the IEP teams. Additionally, teachers are encouraged to use instructional strategies such as multi-level cooperative learning (Stainback, Stainback and Stefanich, 1996), peer tutoring (Hendrickson and Frank, 1993), and the lecture-pause technique (Ruhl, Hughes, and Schloss, 1987).

Students needing more extensive supports who are included in the regular classroom (such as those with severe or profound disabilities) are typically accompanied by a paraprofessional (special education aid) who provides this support on a one-to-one basis. Though these paraprofessionals are generally quite helpful, they do add another person to the IEP team, and therefore, it is important for the regular classroom teacher to meet with them as well as students' special education teachers in order to clarify goals and expectations.

Often, the goals for students needing extensive supports are more social and behavioral than academic in nature, such as providing opportunities for peer interaction, improving social skills, and helping non-disabled students become more comfortable interacting with persons with disabilities (Benner, 1998). When these students attend regular class settings, the teacher's attitude toward them is especially crucial in helping to accomplish these goals and create an overall atmosphere of acceptance. As Giangreco (1998) noted, the teacher is the primary role model in the school setting, and therefore, it is important that s/he not only welcomes these students, but also spends an appropriate amount of time talking to and interacting with them. To help them feel a part of the classroom community, Giangreco has suggested being sure that students with disabilities are seated with their non-disabled classmates and allowed to take part in as many classroom activities as possible.

Whether the inclusion model is preferable for all students with disabilities is a matter of some debate. As Benner (1998) has noted, the evidence regarding the benefits of inclusion, even for those with mild disabilities, is ambiguous and often contradictory. Therefore, as Zigler, Hodapp, & Edison (1990) noted, the decision regarding whether to include those with disabilities in regular classrooms often "rests on political and philosophical grounds rather than on any scientific evidence" (p.9).

Gifted and Talented: Though certainly not disabled and, therefore, not included in IDEA, students who are gifted and talented (GT) represent another important category of diversity. Concepts of giftedness vary, but Title IX of the No Child Left Behind Act defines gifted and talented students as those "who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop these capabilities." As noted by Smith and Tyler (2010), this definition or the similar, but more detailed, definition provided in the Marland Report (1972), provide the basis for definitions used by most states.

There is no federal law mandating services for students who are gifted or talented; however, many states and school districts do make special provisions for them. The most common approaches include ability grouping (placing gifted students together, typically for only a part of the school day, such as in honors sections ), acceleration (moving students through school at a faster pace), differentiation (providing advanced  learning experiences along with additional support and assistance in the general education classroom), and enrichment (providing more depth and higher-level  topics or projects on which students often work individually or in small groups) (Tyler and Smith, 2010).

Gender: As Quinn and Obenchain (1999) suggested, awareness of gender bias is an important first step in changing teacher behaviors. Awareness alone, however, is insufficient, and Sadker, Sadker, and Long (1993) urged educators to examine textbooks for biases, omissions, and stereotyping. Changes in the curriculum may also be necessary, and as Peggy McIntosh (1983) recommended, teachers need to move past approaches that merely mention the accomplishments of extraordinary women or include a separate unit on women's issues. Instead, she urges that educators teach in ways that truly represent the perspectives of both genders and all cultural groups. Though some educators have advocated for single sex classrooms and schools as a solution to gender bias, the data regarding their effectiveness are inconclusive (Jobe, 2003).

Learning Styles: Popular approaches to describing and assessing learning styles include those offered by Gregorc (1983), Renzulli and Smith (1978), and Dunn and Dunn (1978). Matching one's teaching to students' individual learning styles certainly seems logical and appropriate. However, there is disagreement regarding which learning style variables are most important, and research on the effectiveness of matching one's teaching to student learning styles is, at best, mixed (Lefrancois, 1999). In fact, after their extensive review of learning-styles research, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) concluded, "The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing"( p. 117).Though we acknowledge the need to use a variety of instructional approaches and  realize that students may have different learning preferences, our department agrees with writers such as Willingham (2005) who suggested that it is typically best to match one's instruction to the content being taught rather than to students' learning styles.

Multiple Intelligences (MI): Howard Gardner (1995) offers an expanded viewpoint of intellectual abilities that describes eight separate categories of intelligence (linguistic, logical/mathematical, musical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily/kinesthetic, and naturalistic). Like learning styles, MI theory has become controversial with critics pointing out that it lacks research to support its claims. As noted by Snowman, McCown, and Biehler (2012), however, "MI theory has nevertheless influenced the preparation and professional development of teachers and curricula around the world" (p. 119).

Religious Diversity: Increased immigration has resulted in increased religious diversity. Though the United States has always been a nation where many religions are practiced, these have been mostly Christian religions. However, as immigrants come increasingly from Asia and Africa, the religious make-up of the United States is slowly changing. Though more than three-fourths of Americans still practice Christian faiths, nearly 5% practice other faiths, including growing numbers of Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus (Pew Forum, 2010). Increasing religious diversity can provide significant challenges for educators as they develop curricula, plan school calendars, formulate dress and attendance codes, address gender issues, and deal with legal/ethical issues such as censorship and school prayer. School districts with large numbers of Muslim students, in particular, face challenges such as providing prayer breaks and places to pray during the school day, modifying dress codes to allow for Islamic head coverings, and dealing with anti-Islamic prejudices. Though it is obvious that teachers in public schools need to remain neutral and not promote any religion or favor one over another, they certainly can promote religious tolerance. Sources such as, Religious, and Fighting Religious are good starting points for finding strategies and activities for teaching about religious tolerance in schools.

Sexual Orientation: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gender, and questioning (GLBTQ or LGBTQ) children and youth constitute only about 3-10% of the general population (depending on how homosexuality is defined) (Berger, 2005; Gollnick and Chinn, 2004), yet they are some of the most at-risk young people in our communities. The challenges they encounter become particularly evident during adolescence when they are often harassed for their sexual orientation (or even their perceived sexual orientation).  As a result, up to 20% are frequently truant because they fear for their safety at school (Ryan and Cooper, 2004). To avoid harassment and violence, many work hard to mask their sexual identities (Spring, 2000) and end up living with loneliness and isolation (Gollnick and Chinn, 2004). Between a quarter and a third drop out of school, and the Safe Schools Coalition (2004) speculated that as many as 40% of homeless youth are either gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gender or questioning.

Challenges for educators with respect to the GLBTQ population include combating the often hostile environment of homophobia that exists in our schools (Ryan and Cooper, 2004) and creating a safe environment in which all students can learn. To accomplish these goals, schools must provide support services, develop and implement anti-bullying and harassment policies, and confront those who bully and harass (Gollnick and Chinn, 2004). For additional information on creating safe school environment for GLBT students, the reader is referred to the GLSEN Library and Ways to Fight Homophobia in Your School from LA Youth.

For more detailed information regarding our departmental plans for improving our students' knowledge of and experience with diverse learners, the reader is encouraged to review the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University Education Department Diversity Report and Plan (2012), found on the department's website.


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Updated July 2012 by Edmund J. Sass