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Cultural Diversity and Early Education: Report of a Workshop
Many of these children adapt successfully to school environments. In spite of unusually difficult circumstances, such as those frequently experienced by refugee children, some even exceed the academic norms of U.S.-born native speakers from advantaged environments (Laosa, 1990). But many others fare less well. On entering elementary school, large numbers of limited-English-proficient and bilingual students are placed in programs that assume relatively low levels of achievement and focus on remedial education (Independent Commission on Chapter 1, 1992; Stanford Working Group, 1993; U.S. Department of Education, 1993).
This occurs despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Lau v. Nichols (1974) upholding requirements that schools open their instructional programs to students with limited English proficiency. Latino children, in particular, often begin school behind their white, non-Latino peers, and the variance widens as children go through school. Latino dropout rates, though declining, remain extremely high: in 1990 only 54.5 percent of 18- to 24-year- olds had a diploma or GED (General Equivalency Diploma) (Carter and Wilson, 1991). These inequities in different children's prospects for school success are a serious affront to the value that Americans place on equal opportunity and a grave problem for the future well-being of the society, which relies on an informed citizenry, a productive workforce, and the harmonious coexistence of multiple cultures.
From another perspective, teachers are confronted with classrooms of children they feel ill-prepared to teach. And parents whose backgrounds may leave them poorly equipped to feel confident as advocates for their children's schooling worry about how their children are faring in school, whether they are learning what they need to learn, and whether their adaptation into the classroom will alienate them from their home communities.
Yet little is understood about the derivation of this complex of concerns. Is it primarily different language, different culture, or different social class that determines which groups of children succeed or fail in the educational system? It is primarily an issue of difference—that a teacher faces a classroom of Russian immigrants? Or is it a problem of diversity—that many classrooms include children with multiple nationalities, languages, and social and economic backgrounds? Absent a clear understanding of the problem that is posed by the growing diversity of the nation's children, and of who perceives these demographic changes as a problem, efforts to identify appropriate adjustments in teacher training, classroom practices, schools' relations with parents, assessments, and other dimensions of schooling are likely to remain fragmented, if not ineffectual.
Today, efforts to define and address these issues are coinciding with growing pressures to raise performance standards for the nation 's schools and to assess all students' progress towards meeting those standards. In 1990, the President and the 50 state governors recognized the importance of