Posted on Tue, Jun. 10, 2003

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 up."

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 below:

Edward Williams is chief academic officer of the School District of Philadelphia.

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