March 2003 -- Volume 6, Number 4
Debunking the Middle-Class Myth; Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids
Eileen Gale Kugler (November 2002)
Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Pp. xxvii + 162
ISBN 0-8108-4512-1 (paper)
Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids is written by a white, middle-class parent whose children attended one of the most diverse schools in the nation. The author's two children attended Annandale High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, near Washington, DC. There the author discovered how beneficial diverse schools can be for students in terms of educational experience that prepares for a lifetime. It is not a scholarly book written by a researcher who carried out empirical studies; rather, this testimonial consists of anecdotes and interviews from students, graduates, parents, teachers, administrators, and superintendents who made diverse schools a success from California to Colorado and Maryland to Mississippi. The apparent lack of theoretical perspective, so often sought by academics, is the very strength of this book--who better could say that diverse schools are the path to take for a nation whose majority white population will be surpassed by minorities sooner than later?
Parents have first-hand knowledge of what it really means to send their children to ethnically and racially diverse schools, and they have actively taken part in the process of making these diverse schools successful. Kugler satisfactorily qualifies on both requirements; as a result, her voice is not only powerful but sincere to the point where it forces readers to confront what is at stake in the future of America and to see for themselves that diverse schools are better schools.
Kugler lays out her argument in three parts. In the first one, she lists 7 myths that cloud white, middle class parents' judgments when choosing their children's school:
For the second part, she describes realities of the diverse schools and our society at large in relation to persistent myths. The final segment of the book consists of recommendations the author makes to teachers, administrators, and parents in achieving "well-run diverse schools." The author uses the term, well-run diverse schools, to refer to diverse schools accomplished their academic success.
- the best school for my child is the one with the highest standardized test scores;
- one style of school leadership will work in every school;
- the best teachers prefer homogeneous middle-class schools;
- diverse schools can't provide rigorous classes;
- diverse school are not safe;
- our family's beliefs and values will be threatened if we expose our youth to people with different perspectives;
- minority parents don't care about the education of their children.
The book has two major premises: First, while this nation becomes more diverse than ever before, public schools are more segregated than ever. She cites the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which states that more white students attend schools whose student body is predominantly white. Kugler argues that school segregation takes place because white middle-class parents opt for private schools or move to areas without diverse schools in their neighborhoods, spurred by fears firmly based on myths about diversified school populations and bolstered by real estate representatives whose concern is not education. One cannot criticize parents for wanting to provide the best education possible for their children. However, they should understand that they shortchange their children of many valuable educational opportunities by depriving them of learning in an environment enriched and stimulated by diversity. Parents should be informed of the truth and investigate prevalent misinformation before taking "flight" out of their neighborhoods. Kugler's chastisement of white middle-class parents for creating school segregation is accompanied by a persuasive, well-considered argument for parents to "give diverse schools a chance." The point is that the majority must embrace the diversity formed by having a larger minority population. If not, neighborhoods will be such that students will be educated in segregated schools and the country will regress to the time before Brown vs. the Board of Education. [-1-]
Even as the author urges parents to find out the facts, she cites numerous accounts of why well-run diverse schools clearly benefit both minority and white middle-class students: Diversity helps all students to stretch their minds and think possibilities beyond race and ethnicity. Kugler reports that these had fewer ethnically motivated incidents than did the more white-dominant schools and were safer. Students in diverse schools deepen their understanding about differences in cultures and are able to see the strengths in them. Graduates from diverse schools consistently said that diversity had taught them to value the experiences of all people and it had made them a better person. A school where students represented more than 80 nations simply offers diverse perspectives, and students learn that there are many sides to the truth. Therefore, Kugler poignantly argues that "debunking the middle class myth" is a critical necessity so that we as a society take the best out of the ipso facto reality of diversity. It holds the future of the nation.
As convincing and persuasive as the arguments and facts about the value of diverse schools are, this does not mean the book is without its weaknesses. While Kugler lays out for the readers factual information about high academic achievement and anecdotal accounts of successful diverse schools, but offers only generic how-tos in doing so. For example, the book offers philosophical advice on how to achieve well-run diverse schools by highlighting the roles of each stakeholder, but it fails to provide specifies strategies for going about the business of running well-run diverse schools even while acknowledging that not all diverse schools are successful. For example, "Teachers: Reaching for every child" or "Principals: Doing whatever it takes" is mundanely pedagogical. What Kugler recommends is certainly not limited to diverse schools--every teacher or principal should aim to do so.
Although the author effectively states the myths that cause the white middle class to abandon their diverse neighborhood schools, she seems to miss out on a good opportunity to break down commonly held white middle-class prejudices, a root cause in believing misinformation and myths about diversity and diverse schools. Perhaps further discussion regarding prejudice, intolerance, and insensitivity about people who look and speak differently from them, or of racism in relation to multiculturalism, would have added a significant dimension to this book.
What implication does this book have for educators of English language learners? Although the book argues that the dominant group of people holds the key to successful diversity, educators cannot stand idly by, waiting for majority acceptance of diversity. The English language teaching community needs to take a key role in actively promoting diversity through communicating and educating white middle class parents as to the very great benefits that schools with diverse populations have to offer. One benefit, for example, is the opportunity for dual language programs. Dual language classes that have perhaps 50% English-speaking students and 50% native-speakers of Spanish or Chinese, for instance, can benefit both English language learners and white middle-class students. This is truly an effective way to bridge the gap of language and culture while it enhances students' academic achievement. As the author shows in her book, diverse schools are good for children. As the face of the nation changes, diverse schools might just be the only viable option for the future education of America.
Clara Lee Brown
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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