The Philadelphia Inquirer
METRO COMMENTARY: Multicultural approach
is a model for the nation
An African philosophy asserts, "When you keep your arms crossed, you
can receive nothing." Educator Booker T. Washington said, "There are two
ways of exerting one's strength; one is pushing down, the other is pulling
In debating whether the School District of Philadelphia has developed
enough African American content in its new standardized curriculum, it
is time for critics to uncross their arms and demonstrate their strength
by pulling up.
It's time for members of the African and African Descent Curriculum
and Instruction Reform Committee to embrace the fact that the new curriculum
represents the strongest multicultural content in the district's history
and stands among a few national models for the thorough infusion of diversity.
It's time that they grasp the reality that the district's new leadership
cannot erase overnight centuries of academia's cultural omissions or decades
of distrust between local activists and a succession of school administrations.
It's time that they take stock of the groundbreaking opportunities that
the curriculum affords the district's 200,000 students of all races, including
the two out of three who are African American.
When the school district's chief executive officer, Paul G. Vallas,
signed on to implement reforms, he confronted the nauseating statistic
that 50 percent of the district's students were scoring at the lowest performance
levels as measured by the Pennsylvania assessment system.
With Vallas' resolve, the district, along with experts from diverse
communities, has accomplished what many of us had attempted unsuccessfully
for the last 30 years - raising academic standards while infusing diversity
into the curriculum.
During the next school year, for the first time in the district's history,
educators will raise the level of their instruction so that students are
better prepared to meet grade-level proficiency rather than remaining in
remedial stages. In addition, curriculum models will provide continuity
as students move from one grade to the next. This also will help the 35
percent of our students who are reassigned or whose families move during
the school year. The reforms mean doubling the classroom time spent on
reading and math, reducing class size and improving teacher/student ratios,
and offering a district-wide professional development network and an aggressive
program to facilitate parental involvement.
The new curriculum guarantees the incorporation of mandatory multicultural
themes and information throughout the core curriculum, supplemental materials
and library resources. A team of lead coaches in African American, Latino
and Asian Pacific studies has been assembled to work with principals and
regional offices to ensure that multicultural content is taught with uncompromising
commitment. We also will continue to seek community experts to annually
strengthen the curriculum for years to come.
Is there room for improvement? Yes. Is the district aborting prolonged
community input on the curriculum for the upcoming school year in order
to meet a timeline? Yes. It is imperative that we close the process in
order to obtain materials and train teachers in time for the first day
of school. We will not surrender to a community advocacy process gone awry
and sacrifice another school year to low expectations and inadequate effort.
The district will not abide a Catch-22: What good is an African American
literature book if the student lacks proficient reading skills? Are proficient
reading skills enough when self-determination is undercut by Eurocentric
materials that would seem to predetermine a student's failure by projecting
cultural distortions and disregard?
Academic proficiency is the great equalizer. Academic achievement can
be driven only by ensuring every student's right to develop scholastic
competency as well as cultural pride. To fail at this mission is to condemn
still more generations of Philadelphia's public school students to the
brutality of undereducation and poverty.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, "The mind does not take its complexion
from the skin." As the district begins to fully cultivate the academic
potential of each of our students while affirming their cultural differences
and contributions, we are embarking upon one of the most redeeming reforms
of our time.
Editor's Note: For more in depth information on the Multicultural
Curricular Approach highlighted in this article visit the Web site indicated
Williams is chief academic officer of the School District of Philadelphia.