Cultural Competence; Oregon Style

By Dave Mowry

“Oregon is taking cultural competency to a level never seen before.” Felice Goodenough (sp) from the NY Times on NPR, “Justice Talking Debates”.

“What Oregon is doing in cultural competency is unique. Oregon is way ahead of  the curve.” Northwest Regional Education Research Laboratory.

The Oregon Department of Education received a $600,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation of New York to improve educational leadership and to close the achievement gap. With this grant the Oregon Department of Education, Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, Oregon University System, The Eugene School District LEAD Project and the Oregon State Action for Education Leadership convened the Invitational Summit on Cultural Competency in May 2004. This summit produced Oregon’s unique definition of cultural competence and the 5-year work plan for embedding cultural competence throughout the educational system.

Oregon’s definition of cultural competence is:

Cultural competence is based on a commitment to social justice and equity.

Culture refers to integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communication, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and norms of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups.

Cultural competence is a developmental process occurring at individual and system levels that evolves and is sustained over time. Recognizing that individuals begin with specific lived experiences and biases, and that working to accept multiple world views is a difficult choice and task, cultural competence requires that individuals and organizations:

A) Have a defined set of values and principles, demonstrated behaviors, attitudes, policies and structures that enable them to work effectively in a cross-cultural manner.

B) Demonstrate the capacity to 1) value diversity, 2) engage in self-reflection, 3) facilitate effectively (manage) the dynamics of difference, 4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge, 5) adapt to the diversity and the cultural contexts of the students, families, and communities they serve, 6) support actions which foster equity of opportunity and services.

C) Institutionalize, incorporate, evaluate, and advocate the above in all aspects of leadership, policy-making, administration, practice, and service delivery while systematically involving staff, students, families, key stakeholders, and communities.

Cultural Competence Summit Report, page 4.

The Summit Report tells us what social justice is.

Notions of Equity and Social Justice: “cultural competence is more than just effectively meeting the needs of all students by providing teachers with the requisite knowledge and skills. Rather, cultural competence entails actively challenging the status quo and advocating for equity and social justice. For example one table noted the need to incorporate “institutionalized notions of power, privilege, and oppression” into the definition. Another noted the need to “acknowledge power differences and silencing.” Thus, for many, cultural competence is transformative and political.”
Cultural Competence Summit Report, page 3.

What cultural competency means for teachers in Oregon: Summit Report, page 8.

  • A culturally competent teacher advocates for social justice
  • A culturally competent teacher exhibits awareness of key concepts: privilege, affirmative action, assimilation vs. pluralism, color blindness vs. color awareness, meritocracy, etc.
  • A culturally competent teacher has the ability to receive and integrate critiques of cultural competence
  • A culturally competent teacher understands the ways schools reproduce inequality
  • A culturally competent school leader will develop methods for assessing/evaluating cultural competence of teachers
  • The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission will revise rules, after review, to achieve high cultural competency standards including possible revocation of licensure for culturally incompetent behavior
  • The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission will ensure new and existing licensed educators are culturally competent
  • The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission will require cultural competence for license renewal
  • A culturally competent teacher must apply cultural competencies and believe it
  • A culturally competent teacher must embrace and implement the standards

What cultural competency means to an educator wanting to become a principal:

“She might acknowledge that she is a beneficiary of privilege, a party to perpetuating institutional racism, an unconscious oppressor and an imperfect exemplar of cultural responsiveness. She would open her eyes to the realities of oppression and work with others to eliminate it from the school…she might find her own voice, develop political savvy and add advocacy to her portfolio.”

“Our ambitions–and not yet fully realized-action agenda focuses on recruiting and supporting diverse faculty and students, implementing curricula and assessments that incorporate multicultural perspectives, and developing an intentionally inclusive community that promotes social justice. The program to prepare school leaders is situated within that agenda.”

Phyllis Edmundson, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University. NY Times article.

When the cultural competency summit based its definition of cultural competence on social justice and equity with the focus on oppression, privilege, power, and advocacy, they turned the cultural competency initiative from educational to political. The summit report is, in essence, a political document that designates the political perspective and philosophy that everyone in education must adhere to. Teachers, principals, counselors, and others must advocate for the kind of social justice that is approved by the state

Closing the achievement gap is important and in everyone’s best interest. All children must be given the opportunity to succeed. With the help of Wallace Foundation grants, other states are working with teachers on initiatives to strengthen leadership, increase expectations, raise standards, and improve student outcomes. Oregon’s brand of cultural competence is not the way to achieve these goals.

The plan for implementing cultural competency must be scrapped. The implementation of any policy based on this flawed document is misguided at best. Cultural competency standards, if they can be defined, must only be implemented as part of a larger initiative focusing on tangible and measurable actions that will truly help close the achievement gap.

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