Culture-based education… can it work?

Khalil Gibran International Academy opened up in Brooklyn earlier this month, making itself NYC’s first school that focuses on Arabic culture. Already there have been cries of discrimination from tax-payers who don’t want their money spent that way and big support from members of the Arab-American community in the Big Apple and others who just think it’s a good idea. Khalil Gibran is just one example of an important issue: the intersection of education and culture.

Since we’ve been talking about No Child Left Behind a lot on this blog, let’s throw it in here too; we can’t get enough of NCLB (or FEICWCRGWLDOSGT, if Bobby had his way–see post below).

Given that NCLB emphasizes test scores as the prime measure of classroom success, what room does that leave for culture? Are high test scores and embracing students’ cultures mutually exclusive goals (you could make a strong argument either way)? And to what extent should the public education system accommodate the various learning cultures of its students? I know, I know–lots of questions. Welcome the the field of education.

Accommodation of different cultural learning styles could take a lot of different forms. Mary Ann Zehr gives the example of a talking circle being used in schools with high numbers of Native American students. She writes that some teachers and administrators have banned them, deeming them a waste of time, while others have actually instituted them as a regular part of the school day.

The state Department (er… province Department) of Education, Culture & Employment in Northwest Territories, Canada offers the following insight on the subject:

Culture-based education is far more than the incorporation of cultural events and traditional skills into the curriculum. The goal of culture-based education is to support all students through affirmation of their culture. When the school recognizes and validates the students’ culture, it helps them to be aware of their heritage and to value the accomplishments of their family, their community and their ancestors. It builds a sense of pride and self-esteem, which is the best gift any teacher can give to his/her students.

At Breakthrough sites, we value rigorous academics and enthusiasm for learning, but we also have a lot going on that sounds similar to our northern neighbors. Each student approaches Breakthrough with her own background, her own experiences, and her own story to tell. These things don’t get in the way of academic rigor or enthusiasm for learning–they help it thrive.


2 Responses to Culture-based education… can it work?

  1. Adam Gardner says:

    Agreed: we should be most concerned with what works best for the student. And I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that culture is always infused in education, so I’m glad you brought that up.

    Given the significant cultural diversity among students in the United States, then, it seems that major steps toward standardization on a federal level would inevitably leave some students behind (no pun intended… okay, maybe a little intended).

  2. Christopher says:

    The reality is, we in American already have culture-based education, and it is called the public school system. It’s just a matter of whose culture the school is being based on. For some people, having a culturally white and middle-class American school works for them, but for some it doesn’t. Shouldn’t we be most concerned about what works best for the student?

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