Friday, February 13, 2009

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

Earlier this week, I wrote about Indiana House Bill 1187 (cultural competency for teachers) and an amendment that stripped "religious" as one of the categories of cultural competency for teacher education. Since publishing my original post, it has been suggested to me (by a lobbyist) that the stated intent of the amendment was not a slap at religion as I suggested, but rather, a recognition that state (or federal?) law prohibits schools from asking students about their religion and, thus, the school would have no way of knowing what religions should be included in the cultural competency training of teachers. Bullshit.

First, while schools may be prohibited from asking students about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), they are, I presume, also prohibited from asking those same students about their ethnic or national heritage and are probably prohibited from asking whether a student is from a socially disadvantaged family. So why remove just one area from the competency training? There is no way for a teacher to know whether a particular child is originally from Mexico or Guatemala or Argentina, from Croatia, Bosnia, or Serbia, from Sudan, Nigeria, or South Africa, yet we are willing to include ethnicity in the list of groups for which teachers should have some exposure to cultural differences.

More importantly, it seems that there a core group of religions that we can presume a teacher might encounter and for which a school district could include a component in its cultural competency education (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, seem the most likely). Wouldn't it be better to provide teachers some degree of understanding of these religions rather than removing religion as an educational component entirely? And, if a school district happens to know of a particular religious group (Amish, for example?) in its community, it could easily add that to the competency training.

The "explanation" for the amendment may provide good political cover, but it simply doesn't hold water.

As further "evidence" for my belief that Rep. Thompson's amendment was, in fact, aimed at minority religions and was not merely an attempt to "protect" schools from trying to learn what religions their students are, we can examine another amendment that Rep. Thompson offered to HB 1187 (which, so far, has not been brought to a vote):
"diverse needs" does not include harmful behaviors, including the following: (1) Homosexuality. (2) Sexual relations outside of marriage [citation omitted]. (3) The use of tobacco. (4) The illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages, or the excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. (5) The use of illegal drugs. (6) Excessive overeating. [internal periods included in original]

Yes, you read that correctly. In Rep. Thompson's worldview, homosexuality and adultery are to be compared with the use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. And, the way that I read that amendment, what it really means is that when teachers learn about cultural competency so that they can best serve the diverse needs of their students, they should not be learning about any of the aforementioned "bad behaviors" and, therefore, should not consider those issues when trying to deduce the best way to teach a child.

Perhaps in Rep. Thompson's district there aren't any families that consist of same-sex domestic partners who are raising a child; and perhaps there aren't any families where a parent is an alcoholic or a drug user. I find it hard to believe, but maybe there aren't any families with unwed parents (or even a divorced or widowed parent with a boyfriend or girlfriend). But wouldn't it be better to allow a teacher to adapt teaching methods to best serve each individual child's "diverse needs" instead of telling teachers not to consider certain needs that some consider "bad"? I think that we do our children a disservice in their education if we stick our collective heads in the sand and ignore the reality of the actual diversity of our students and their families.

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