School System's 'Courageous Conversations' Raises Eyebrows


(Tuesday, January 8, 2008 7:45 AM EST)

How are race and education connected, and how do they relate to the achievement gap?

One way Arlington Public Schools is trying to answer these questions is through “Courageous Conversations,” a concept inspired by diversity consultant Glenn Singleton's book “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.”

But this initiative worries some Arlington residents.

Singleton's book (co-written with Curtis Linton) and the courageous conversations-initiatives that have followed have sparked controversy in recent years, because some people find Singleton's messages themselves to be racist.

Particularly offensive to Singleton's critics is his claim that schools push a white-oriented curriculum and ignore the different learning styles of people of other races.

Singleton writes in the book that “white talk” is “verbal, impersonal, intellectual [and] task-oriented,” while “color commentary” is “non-verbal, personal, emotional [and] process-oriented.”

“Stereotypes like whites are individualistic and other races are not are stereotypes that, if a white person were to say them, would be recognized as racist statements,” said Arlington resident Hans Bader in a recent interview. “It contributes to the very problem that we should be fixing.”

While a number of schools across the country have held courageous conversations in the format dictated by Singleton's book - a format that critics see as controversial because Singleton writes that whites often experience “anger, guilt and shame . . . as they move toward greater understanding of whiteness” - Arlington's school system has opted only to use elements from the text.

“The school division is not engaged in Glenn Singleton's ‘Courageous Conversations,'” said assistant superintendent of student services Alvin Crawley. “We are engaged in our own ‘courageous conversations' using various materials and texts . . . Mr. Singleton brings one perspective to the work we are doing.”

Singleton was a presenter at the school system's administrative conference in August, “but is not directing our courageous conversations,” Crawley said.

By engaging in discussions facilitated by fellow public schools staff, administrators said they have felt comfortable disagreeing with some of Singleton's messages.

“Disagreeing is part of the conversation,” said school spokesman Linda Erdos. “That's part of looking at multiple perspectives.”

Participants also have found that their conversations have not been confined only to race but have touched on gender issues and religion, as well.

These conversations, which are held monthly for all school administrators, are part of a cultural competence action plan, which was developed by the public schools' Council for Cultural Competence.

The council was formed in 2002 with goals to promote diversity in the workplace, examine the relationship between race and education and develop culturally responsive teaching practices that prepare students to live and work in a diverse and changing world.

Administrators will hold conversations through the end of the school year, and hope to integrate such discussions with the school's support staff next year, along with other elements of the action plan.

“This is one piece of a larger framework,” Crawley said. “Courageous conversations have been a part of a sustained focus on instructional best practices, including differentiation of instruction, encouraging our students to take challenging classes and providing our staff with quality professional development opportunities.”

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