Does a multicultural curriculum promote educational excellence? Speakers at a recent City University-sponsored conference, entitled "Diversity in the Urban Schools: Implications for the Preparation of Teachers," seem to view the question as impertinent. The conference's predominant theme was that a single high standard of academic achievement is, in itself, discriminatory.

Keynote speaker Sonia Nieto, a professor of multicultural education at the University of Massachusetts, declared that students need to "look critically at and challenge testing," in order to understand how it "perpetuates inequality." Ramon Santiago, a professor of secondary education at Lehman College, added that "we have to fight the tendency to legislate high standards and skills."

Leslie Agard-Jones, director of multicultural education for the New York City Board of Education, said that blacks and Latinos who disagree that low minority achievement is caused by institutional racism are just making an "excuse" for society's racism—a fascinating reversal of traditional ideas of responsibility. 'We need to redefine terms such as 'excellence,'" he continued, "and ask what they mean in a transformational setting."

The answer is: not much. Multiculturalists would choose teachers on the basis of their ability to promote awareness of racial and ethnic difference, not traditional pedagogical skill. "I would rather have a teacher who's open to differences and sensitive than one who's expert in an area," Nieto declared. Such talk is not the posturing of a fringe group; it is the mainstream. Agard-Jones commands a $3 million budget to craft multicultural curriculums and train teachers. Even science, Agard-Jones said after the conference, must be "broadened to take into account different views." Scientific "norms" are set by particular groups of people, he claimed; they are not universal. That's some theory of relativity.


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