Harford County's school board is considering a multicultural education plan that includes more than just racial and ethnic groups.
A disabled student, for example, could see other disabled people in a social studies textbook. An African-American student would learn about the contributions African-Americans have made to scientific fields. And teachers would learn how to teach children from various backgrounds, despite their different learning styles.
These measures and others should help close the gaps in the academic performance of different groups of students.
That's the theory behind a state-mandated plan for "education that is multicultural" that the Harford school board is expected to vote on tomorrow night. Harford must submit a plan for multicultural education to the Maryland Department of Education September.
Changes in what and how students are taught would not appear in schools until the 1998-1999 school year, according to the five-year plan. But the process would begin this fall.
Teachers, principals and administrators would attend workshops on multicultural education, racial and cultural differences, how to select teaching materials that are multicultural and other topics.
In system-wide surveys, parents, students and teachers would be asked to assess the cultural climate in schools. They would look at issues such as the acceptance of different patterns of speech and whether students have equal access to academic programs.
Teachers would start teaching revamped curricula in the 1998-1999 school year, according to the plan.
Multicultural education teaches students about diversity and commonality in race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, language, socioeconomic status, age and disability, according to the state board of education.
Multicultural education should help close gaps in performance among different groups, said Agnes Purnell, the school system's supervisor of equity and cultural diversity.
One of those gaps, for example, is that Hispanic and black male students in Harford, when compared with white male students, drop out at a rate of 5-to-2. And on many parts of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, Asian and American Indian students do better than white, Hispanic and black students.
If multicultural education works, students would perform at similar levels. That could mean a smaller dropout rate for some groups and better scores on standardized tests for others, Mrs. Purnell said.
Because many of the changes in instruction and teacher training would be developed over several years, much of the plan still is vague. But the state board of education has set objectives, including:
* Correcting the omissions and misrepresentations of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women and individuals with disabilities.
* Including the history of cultural groups and their contributions in Maryland, the United States and the world.
* Presenting issues of racism, sexism, bias and prejudice.
Students should be able to:
* Value their heritage.
* Value other people's cultures.
* Eliminate stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, age and disabilities.
Board members had a few concerns at their meeting July 12, when the plan was first presented.
"We cannot set out to rewrite history for the mistakes that we have made in the United States," said board member Ronald R. Eaton.
But officials don't plan to rewrite history, said Deborah J. Heiberger, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
"The point is, we want all students to feel connected to what we are trying to teach them," she said.
Mr. Eaton also was concerned about burdening teachers with having to teach a new set of learning styles based on cultural groups. He and board member Geoffrey R. Close wanted to know how much the multicultural plan would cost.
Mrs. Purnell said her salary was, so far, the only additional cost to the school system.
Edgewood mother Juanita Hubbard said multicultural efforts in schools will help students and teachers gain a better understanding of people from different groups.
"It couldn't help but affect their performance, because any time you have better communication you're going to have better performance," said Mrs. Hubbard. "As a parent I've experienced situations where some teachers looked down on students because of their economic background."
Too often, Mrs. Purnell said, students' success is determined by socioeconomic factors such as the education level and occupations of their parents or caretakers. "That should not be," she said. "The predictors of success should be motivation, effort and opportunity."