Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Indiana Teachers Should Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences (But Can Apparently Ignore Religious Differences)

Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) has authored House Bill 1187 which would require the Indiana Department of Education to require standards for cultural competency teacher training. House Bill 1187 requires standards for teacher education to prepare teachers:
to teach successfully in a manner that serves the diverse needs of all students, including: (1) racial minority students; (2) low social economic status students; (3) English language learners; (4) students who are exceptional learners (citation omitted); and (5) students of various ethnic or religious groups.

House Bill 1187 would also require as part of teacher training "methods that use the cultural knowledge, experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for those students".

These certainly seem to be a laudable goals; after all, how can it hurt for our children's teachers to be sensitive to the diversity of their students and to consider that diversity when determining how best to help those children learn? I'm not sure that the goal can be readily accomplished and I have some concerns about how the training would be done, but by and large, this seems like a generally good idea. Plus, I really like Rep. Porter.

But imagine my surprise to see the amendment offered by Rep. Jeff Thompson (R-Lebanon/Danville) that stripped "religious" from the list of diverse backgrounds for which competency training is to be mandated. Even more unbelievable, this amendment passed the Indiana House by a vote of 77-15!

Take a moment and think about what Rep. Porter has proposed and what Rep. Thompson's amendment has done to that proposal. Rep. Porter wants the Department of Education to formulate education standards so that teachers can be sensitive to the needs and cultural backgrounds of an ever-diversifying student population. Rep. Thompson apparently agrees that teachers should be sensitive to those diverse needs and cultural backgrounds except for religious differences. I guess in Rep. Thompson's world, a teacher should understand and be sensitive to students of a minority racial background or to students from a low socio-economic standing or those just learning to speak English and even those whose native culture differs from that of mainstream America. But Rep. Thompson doesn't want those teachers to have the same education about or sensitivity to students who are from a religious minority. Said differently, Rep. Thompson apparently doesn't think that teachers should be sensitive to the needs and differences of students who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or any of the myriad other religious traditions represented in Indiana's classrooms. Rep. Thompson wants teachers to operate under the presumption that all students, whether white or black, rich or poor, native English speaker or new immigrant, and coming from any cultural background around the world, are Christian. Why else is Rep. Thompson willing to encourage cultural competency but exclude religious groups from that sensitivity?

I suppose that some might suggest that Rep. Thompson's amendment was for the purpose of maintaining the separation of church and state, but that is, in reality, a patently false notion. Teachers are not being asked to teach religion; nor is the Department of Education being asked to teach religion. Rather, Rep. Porter's initial bill would have required teachers to be instructed on the basic differences between students as a result of their religious upbringing. What is wrong with a teacher knowing that some students might not eat certain foods or might be required to wear certain clothing for religious reasons? What is wrong with a teacher recognizing that certain students may celebrate different holidays and might be absent from school for those days? More importantly, what is wrong with a teacher knowing that a certain example that might be used to illuminate a point might not be understood by children raised in a different religious context (for example, certain biblical parables that might, in fact, be excellent examples, may be completely meaningless to children unfamiliar with those parables; similarly, discussions of holiday observances may serve to exclude those who don't follow those observances).

I'm certainly willing to listen to another explanation for Rep. Thompson's amendment, but to me it looks like nothing short of religious intolerance and a desire to further enshrine Christianity as the de facto (maybe even de jure) religion of Indiana's schools.

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