Cultural Contexts for Learning
Not since the 1930s has the ethnic composition of the nation's children been so diverse. Nonwhites now account for almost one-third of the U.S. population of children and youths (to age 18), with recent growth accounted for almost exclusively by Latinos and Asians—two groups that are themselves extremely diverse. Estimates of the number of students in U.S. schools with limited English proficiency range from 2.3 million (U.S. Department of Education, 1992) to much higher (Stanford Working Group, 1993). The current influx of new immigrant groups, some of whom also have relatively high rates of birth, will fuel continued growth in the number of students who enter school with little or no English proficiency and whose cultural and educational backgrounds may not correspond to the norms and expectations they encounter when they start formal schooling.
THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL DIVERSITY
These trends pose new opportunities, but also serious challenges, to U.S. educational institutions, including the early childhood programs that lay the foundation for children's school experience and achievement. In California, for example, a recent study of more than 400 child care centers revealed that only 4 percent enrolled children from a single racial group (Chang, 1993). Nationwide, estimates suggest that 20 percent of the children enrolled in Head Start speak a language other than English (Kagan and Garcia, 1991).
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
the preschool years for the success of school reform initiatives when they set the first of six national educational goals: “By the year 2000 all children in America will start school ready to learn. ” Efforts to assure that children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are prepared for school entry have, as a result, gained prominence during the past few years. For example:
The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association for Family Day Care have published curricula and handbooks focused on anti-bias curricula (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1989; National Association for Family Day Care, 1990).
The National Association of State Boards of Education Task Force on Early Childhood Education has explicitly recommended that state boards of education encourage the use of children's home language and culture to foster the development of basic skills, including English acquisition (National Association of State Boards of Education, 1988).
“Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs” (Head Start Bureau, 1991) reflects the culmination of a multiyear project aimed at improving Head Start's capacity to teach its increasingly diverse enrollment.
Specific attention is being focused on the implications of the first national educational goal of school readiness for language minority children (see Prince and Lawrence, 1993).
All these efforts seek to ensure that children's first exposure to a “schoollike” setting is a positive one. Whether this experience makes a child feel accepted or alienated is believed to set the stage for subsequent attitudes about and performance in school. The prevailing orientation within the early childhood community assumes that children whose language or cultural backgrounds differ from those found in most American schools will feel accepted only to the degree that their classroom experiences are adapted to be more compatible with their home culture and language. Others, however, believe that instructional programs must use universal principles of learning and instruction for all students. Fundamental questions are raised by this debate regarding appropriate and effective educational practices in a pluralistic society.
ORIGINS AND PURPOSE OF THE WORKSHOP
In light of the controversy about this subject, its significance for educational policy, and the complexity and changing dimensions of the issues that lie at the interface of early education and cultural diversity, the Forum on the Future of Children and Families and its successor, the Board on
Children and Families, believed it was important to take stock of the small, but growing research literature that bears on the early education of culturally and linguistically diverse populations of children. Scholars of language and cognitive development are contributing to increased knowledge about the conditions that affect first- and second-language acquisition. Others who study early childhood education, bilingualism, and cross-cultural influences on development are learning about the influence of children's home environments on the expectations and skills with which they approach school, and about effective instructional practices for bilingual, immigrant, and other children who may face special challenges in the classroom. Much of this literature remains focused on elementary-age and older students, although its implications for preschool and kindergarten instruction are receiving increased attention.
The forum held a preliminary planning workshop in April 1993 to outline the most important tasks that could be accomplished on the topic of cultural diversity and early education. The participants highlighted the need to assess the scope and adequacy of the research base about the early education of culturally diverse populations of children and stressed the importance of deciphering its implications for educational policy and practice. This emphasis grew out of the participants' perceptions that much of what is presently known from both research and educational practice is based on the demographics of the past, in which most classrooms were at least linguistically, if not ethnically, homogeneous, and in which the backgrounds of teachers and students did not usually differ. If true, it is critical to initiate a discourse regarding what we know and don't know about preparing educators and educational institutions for the demographics of the present and future.
On the basis of the planning workshop, the Board on Children and Families convened a workshop, “Culture and Early Education: Assessing and Applying the Knowledge Base,” on November 29-30, 1993. The workshop had two primary aims: to inform educators about the research base that is available to guide decisions about how best to educate children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and, in particular, to distinguish whether and how one might expect optimal early childhood education for diverse classrooms to differ from that for culturally homogeneous classrooms; and to urge more scholars, including those who conduct basic research on early learning processes, to address the vast agenda of unanswered questions regarding the early education of culturally and linguistically diverse groups of children.
The participants were selected to span the range of perspectives that presently exists regarding the most critical dimensions of diversity —linguistic, cultural, or class-linked, for example—in order to foster a wide-ranging discussion about “what matters” about diversity for early childhood
settings. They had expertise in learning and instructional psychology, developmental psychology, early education, anthropology, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and program evaluation. The samples they studied included African American, Native American, Caribbean, Portuguese, Anglo, and Latino children from Central America, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; children from first-, second-, and third-generation immigrant families; and children living in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and other countries. Virtually every participant had spent substantial amounts of time in early childhood classrooms that serve diverse groups of children and many had worked directly with the families of the children they studied.
In preparation for the workshop, the participants were asked to prepare a set of remarks aimed at familiarizing each other with key aspects of their work, specifically to:
discuss the theoretical assumptions that have guided their work,
describe the primary questions that their research has addressed and the methods and samples they have used, and
summarize their most important findings.
The participants were also asked to provide background papers describing their research, and these materials, many of which are cited in this report, enabled us to expand on the discussion that occurred at the workshop. In addition to the participants' presentations and background papers and the workshop discussions, this report draws on a commissioned review paper by Klenk and Parecki (1993).
THE ROLE AND MEANING OF CULTURE
The role of culture in learning and development has been a prevailing theme in developmental research for more than 50 years. Much of the earliest work was designed to test the assumption that human development, particularly cognitive and sensorimotor development, occurs in a universal, sequential fashion. Counter-evidence was often interpreted as demonstrating a deficiency within the culture, rather than as deriving from the investigator's failure to use tasks and methods that were relevant to the cultural groups being studied. As the field began to make culturally appropriate adjustments in methodology, the diversity of paths by which children achieve developmental milestones was revealed (Cole, 1992, Cole and Bruner, 1971).
During the 1960s and 1970s, efforts to understand the influence of culture on human development expanded from cross-cultural research on other continents to examinations of cultural variation within the United States. Early examples of this research tended to compare various ethnic
groups to members of the dominant culture, often confounding race and social class and typically ignoring important within-group variation (see, e.g., critiques by Coll, 1990; McLoyd, 1990). This approach led to stereo-typing and interpretations of findings that promoted notions of cultural deficits (Bloom, Davis, and Hess, 1965; Jensen, 1981). Children from low-income African American families, in particular, were portrayed as being culturally deprived by their families' failure to provide appropriate stimulation and adequate preparation for school. Opponents of deficit reasoning asserted that minority students do poorly in school not because their home environments are inferior, but because their strengths are not recognized or used in school settings (Ogbu, 1978; Tharp and Gallimore, 1988; Tharp, 1989). This position is referred to as the cultural conflict model.
Workshop participants criticized both the cultural deficit and cultural conflict models as promoting cultural stereotyping and contributing to unconstructive efforts to “find fault” with children's home or school settings as the source of minority and low-income students' lower achievement. They also rejected models of research that treat culture as a category for classifying and comparing individuals as one might treat, for example, nationality. Not only does this approach foster undesirable uses of research, but it also camouflages the substantial variation that characterizes every cultural group. As noted by Gallimore and Goldenberg (1993: 331): “Variance within groups means that “culture” cannot be controlled for or measured as a trait.”
Turning to their own definitions of culture, the participants agreed on two points. First, culture is a ubiquitous context for socialization within which children are taught that particular acts have particular meanings and that certain behaviors are appropriate while others are not. Second, culture has a profound effect on the way in which people's shared understandings about what youngsters need to learn and how best to teach them are enacted in children's day-to-day lives.
The participants diverged, however, in how they had operationalized “culture” in their own research. Some had focused primarily on economic or educational differences among their subjects. Others had distinguished children primarily in terms of their home language. Still others had been most interested in the immigrant status or ethnic backgrounds of the children. It is not uncommon for several of these dimensions of culture to have been confounded in this research, particularly those of class and minority group status. As a result, the workshop discussion periodically turned to speculation about what, other than social class, is significant about the increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds of the young children who are now entering early childhood classrooms.
Recognizing the shortcomings of treating culture as a categorical vari-
able that has uniform effects on all families and children, the participants emphasized the importance of examining within-culture and individual differences in learning experiences and outcomes. Claude Goldenberg cautioned against treating culture as a “straitjacket that predetermines the learning experiences that children can benefit from.” The participants were uniformly concerned that the use of culture as a organizing construct not be interpreted as a prescription for treating particular children (e.g., Haitians, Zuni, Vietnamese) in certain limited ways.
Generational, regional, socioeconomic, and gender differences within ethnic groups were specifically discussed. Kenji Hakuta, for example, noted that native language loss among Mexican American children increases across first-, second-, and third-generation children (Hakuta and D'Andrea, 1992). Luis Laosa discussed the wide variation associated with social class within ethnic and immigrant populations. His own research with Chicano families, for example, revealed significant differences in the teaching strategies used by high school graduates and nongraduates with their 5-year-old children (Laosa, 1978). With respect to immigrant families, he highlighted the need to consider the range of social and economic backgrounds that may characterize families from the same country or ethnic group (Laosa, 1990).
Some participants speculated that members of different cultural groups may have more shared than different values, including high aspirations for their children's school success, a clear recognition of the importance of educational achievement for their children's social and economic mobility, and a strong emphasis on the importance of hard work (see, e.g., Goldenberg, 1987). Others emphasized that local conditions under which different cultural groups are living will lead adult caregivers to emphasize different goals and aspirations (see, e.g., Levine, 1977). In situations in which a child's health is fragile or neighborhood violence threatens children's safety, keeping children confined and away from danger will likely be much higher on the list than promoting cognitive development.
Overall, the participants agreed that it is important to acknowledge variation in the extent to which home environments provide children with the materials and experiences that are broadly considered desirable for success in U.S. schools. They subscribed to the premise that children's adaptation to the norms and expectations of school environments can be affected by the culturally determined experiences to which they have been exposed at home. The important issue, as noted by Deborah Stipek, concerns “how these two contexts in which children learn can reinforce and complement each other.”
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT CHILDREN AND LEARNING
In addition to clarifying their views on the role and meaning of culture, the participants explored their shared views and assumptions about children and early learning:
Children from all linguistic and cultural backgrounds are capable of achieving high standards and should be encouraged and taught to do so. Individual differences in English language proficiency or in cultural background should not affect a child's exposure to high-quality instruction, challenging curricula, and high expectations for academic success. Given that educational attainment is a cumulative process, practices and expectations that impede a child's progress during the preschool and early elementary years may be particularly detrimental.
The contribution of children's cultural and linguistic backgrounds to their adjustment and success in school cannot be understood separately from the sociopolitical context within which discussions about culture and education are occurring in the United States. Despite the valued role of schools as an avenue for equal opportunity in this country, debates about whether and how schools should respond to the growing diversity of the school-age population often become mired in such controversial issues as immigration policy, access of immigrants to social and educational services, and U.S. language policy regarding the official status of English. This politically charged context underscores the critical importance of having a solid knowledge base with which to inform policy and practice.
Academic success involves knowledge and skill acquisition, as well as motivational and social dimensions of learning. Although academic learning is a primary goal of education and the focus of educational reform efforts, ideas about how best to achieve this goal need to be broadened to include children's participation in learning, their self-confidence as students, and their capacity to work effectively with other children and with adults.
All children can benefit from exposure to multilingual and multicultural learning environments. The growing linguistic and cultural diversity of the student population is often viewed as problematic, as an additional pressure placed on an already beleaguered school system. But, diversity is not inherently problematic. Early education settings can and should be designed to approach diversity as an asset that can be used in the preparation of all students for citizenship in an increasingly diverse society.
This report reflects the participants' views on the most important issues that require better knowledge if early childhood classrooms are to offer children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds effective
and meaningful learning experiences. It draws on their analysis, experience, and knowledge of the research on these issues. The goal was not to achieve unanimity of opinion, but rather to distinguish questions for which there is research evidence from those that are based primarily on values or ideology. The participants also began the process of deciphering the practical implications of the existing research and identifying promising directions for future research.
Several caveats about the scope of the report are in order. First, although much of what was discussed could be construed as having implications for policies regarding parent education, the focus of the workshop was limited to implications for group care and educational settings, including the ways in which those implications may affect parents. Second, substantial thought was given to culturally shaped aspects of children's home environments that hold meaning for early childhood settings. Variation in cultural aspects of schooling, while recognized as important by the participants, was not a focus of discussion. Finally, the extremely timely and controversial issue of assessment, particularly as a basis for placement at the end of early childhood in bilingual or mainstream classes, or in regular or special education classes, was not discussed: the complexity of the topic warranted more time than the workshop permitted.
The next three sections of the report are organized around the three questions that provided the structure for the workshop:
What roles does culture play in shaping children's earliest learning opportunities and experiences at home?
How do children's cultural and linguistic backgrounds affect the skills, knowledge, and expectations that they bring to school?
What do we know about whether and how the nature, language, or content of instruction needs to vary to assure learning and motivation for children from differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds?
Many interesting and important questions that call for serious study were raised throughout the discussions. Several of them are noted in the final section that addresses future directions for research.
Readers familiar with this field of study will appreciate the caution with which the participants approached the existing research literature. People in the early childhood community seeking clear advice about educational practices are likely to be frustrated by the limited degree to which preschool children or preschool settings have been studied in terms of questions of culture and schooling. As reflected in this report, the workshop participants believe it is critical to identify the limits of what is presently known, as well as the potential of research in progress, to advance this field substantially.