Cultural Competence: Coming To a School Near You?

Published October 19, 2005

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"Cultural Competence": the trendy term is appearing with greater frequency in education proposals and literature.

Parents would do well to ask, "What is it, and how could it affect my children's education from kindergarten through college?"

"Cultural competence" arose in connection with health care services, where a standard definition is, "services that are respectful of and responsive to the cultural and linguistic needs of the patient."

For example, this means health care providers should be able to communicate with a non-English-speaking patient, and they should take into account cultural habits when constructing a health regime.

Recently, the term has migrated from health care to education; its definition has shifted in the drift. In theory, "cultural competence" in the classroom means being able to teach children from diverse backgrounds.

In practice, the term is the new face of political correctness, which is often accompanied by the PC concepts of "diversity" or "multiculturalism."

"Cultural competency" advances the same basic goals as those buzz words. Certain groups (such as minorities) and certain ideas (such as gender feminist interpretations of oppression) are to be promoted by institutionalizing policies that encourage them. Of course, this means that other groups and other ideas are de facto penalized or discouraged.

But instead of being applied directly to students, as with affirmative action in college entrance, "cultural competency" applies to educators: their hiring, their firing, their promotion. It is more of a behind-the-scenes process and, so, less visible to the public. Yet the impact upon children's education could be as dramatic.

Norman Levitt, Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University, explains, "'Cultural competence' is…a bureaucratic weapon. 'Cultural competence,' or rather, your [an educator's] presumed lack thereof, is what you will be clobbered with if you are imprudent enough to challenge or merely to have qualms about 'affirmative action', 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism,' as those principles are now espoused by their most fervent academic advocates."

According to Levitt, the beliefs that are likely to torpedo an educator's career include:

-- affirmative action conflicts "with other standards of justice and equity."

-- feminism's theory of "the social constructedness of gender" is incorrect.

"Cultural competence" has achieved some momentum. For example, in March 2005, the Corvallis, Ore., Gazette Times reported, "A quiet effort by state officials to require that all newly certified Oregon teachers be 'culturally competent' looks to be dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled House, despite firm support from education advocates."

(Oregon is one of dozens of states exploring and implementing "cultural competency," but it seems be on the cutting edge. For example, starting in 2007, the state's Teachers Standards and Practices Commission says it will require new school administrators to demonstrate cultural competency.)

The definition of the term is all-important.

Unfortunately, language surrounding the term is usually vague and bureaucratic. The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey is typical in stating, "Cultural competence requires that organizations…have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge…"

Piercing the "Bureaucrat Speak" returns us to Oregon where, in 2003, the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission began developing "cultural competence" standards for certifying teachers and administrators. The task required a clearer definition.

In May 2004, the Oregon Department of Education sponsored a summit of "over 100 of the State's leaders in education…to engage in a dialogue about cultural competency." Its purpose was to develop a specific proposal on how to implement 'cultural competence' in education, from kindergarten to university.

It was the summit's definition of 'cultural competence' that caused Oregon's House to balk at the education bill that ensued -- Senate Bill 50. The essence of that definition: "Cultural competence is based on a commitment to social justice and equity."

Some of the specifics of what constitutes 'social justice' and 'equity' emerged from the summit, which was organized into discussion Ttbles. 'Cultural competence' "entails actively challenging the status quo…one table noted the need to incorporate institutionalized notions of power, privilege, and oppression into the definition….Thus, for many, cultural competence is transformative and political."

In practical terms, a "culturally competent" teacher "advocates for social justice"; the teacher "exhibits awareness of key concepts" such as "privilege, affirmative action"; he or she must not only "apply cultural competencies" but also "believe it."

'Cultural competence' would not be a request but a requirement. In its five year projection, the summit proposed to "revise rules to achieve high cultural standards including possible revocation of licensure for culturally incompetent behavior" and "to require cultural competence for license renewal."

Indeed, SB50 would have authorized the establishment of "standards for cultural competency and require an applicant for a teaching license to meet those standards."

In short, teachers would be required to advocate a specific vision of social justice to be licensed.

Dave Mowry, a legislative coordinator for Rep. Linda Flores, noted in The Oregonian on May 11, "[T]he Teachers Standards and Practices Commission and the Oregon Department of Education are backtracking, saying they really didn't mean it…Then why is it in the definition and the five-year plan and on the commission's Web site?"

Oregon may be an extreme example but PC policies have a tendency to become extreme…and quickly so. The best protection for children against political correctness is for parents to be aware.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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