By: Brian Sikma

The recent, and ongoing, debate over the future of the Washington D.C. school voucher program has served as a high profile reminder that efforts must continue to be made to improve the quality of education provided by public schools.  Here in Indiana, the House has passed a bill that has the potential to lower the quality of education in this state and increase the administrative workload facing school districts.  The bill deals with creating “cultural competency” standards and protocols for schools around the state and has been sponsored by Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis).

Cultural competency is often defined as understanding the differences in action, behavior, and communication that span across various cultural and social groups.  If one is able to take this understanding and act in ways that are consistent with an increased awareness of these differences, they can be considered culturally competent.  To bring it to the practical level, if one is to be culturally competent they must be willing to adjust their actions based on the culture they are dealing with and, by extension, they emphasize the fact that differences between the two groups exist.

Cultural competency is good for diplomats.  It is not good for Indiana’s teachers and students.  By requiring school districts to develop programs to train teachers in cultural differences, set benchmarks for culturally competent behavior, and implement a system that monitors the cultural competency of teachers, we are shifting our focus away from the proper goal of classroom instruction: educating students in a way that stretches them academically and prepares them to become successful individuals and good citizens.  We should not turn the focus of classroom instruction into understanding the varying degrees of differences that we have with one another.

Teachers do need to be aware of the different socio-economic backgrounds that their students come from.  Yet this understanding should not be translated into a mandate that classroom education be reduced to a number of different individual standards with each student being held to his or her own level of accountability.  Our teachers should have the freedom to hold all students accountable for their actions and demand that each student do their very best in class.  Not all students will be at the top of the class, but by excusing lack of effort, inattention to instruction, or other behavioral issues by ascribing them to the cultural background of the student, we are sending the message that because of one’s background they will not be expected-or encouraged-to achieve great things.

Tailoring an educational program, whether in the individual classroom or throughout an entire school, to meet the needs of individual students is appropriate.  However, substantially altering the program to consciously emphasize the cultural differences between students or between student bodies across the state would not be the right thing to do.  Emphasizing, either explicitly or implicitly, what issues divide us does not make for an educational process that prepares students to be well equipped to join a society founded on a unity of beliefs and ideals with regard to responsibility and freedom.

Some have expressed concern that cultural competency will turn into a round about method of indoctrinating Hoosier school children with moral and social values that are not consistent with the values held by a majority of Hoosiers today.  This concern is a valid one because this result would occur if educators were required to not only acknowledge but also emphasize and encourage students to accept behaviors such as same-sex marriage and adoption. In the name of teaching students to accept diversity (which, when properly understood is a good thing), other states have had this very thing take place.

Indiana’s educators should not overlook or ignore the broad variety of cultures that have come together to make Indiana what it is today.  Yet as our state moves forward we must keep in mind that the secret to our past ability to assimilate various cultures into the fabric of our state’s society today is that we emphasized the ideas that united us as Americans and as Hoosiers.  Immigrants to our country have long recognized that it is not a common race or ethnicity, economic occupation, social status, or even intellectual ability that has brought us together as a people.  It has been our common commitment to a shared set of values, visions, and responsibilities that has created the rich tapestry of our history.

The future of the next generation of Hoosiers is too bright and too brimming with potential to waste in the shallow demands of the bureaucratic do-goodism known as cultural competency.  Young Hoosiers should be aware of the differences that they have with others, but they should be educated by teachers and an education system that focuses on what unites us and does not excuse a lack of effort in the name of a political correct form of condescension.