Lehigh University
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New book helps principals address diversity in schools

Beachum (above) and coauthor McCray say that many school teachers and administrators feel unprepared to deal with language and cultural differences and other complex issues.

Floyd Beachum, associate professor of educational leadership, has coauthored a new book that addresses the changing role of school principals with regards to increasing diversity in American schools. School Leadership in a Diverse Society: Helping Schools Prepare All Students for Success, encourages principals to balance student relationships, student engagement and community connections with the growing emphasis on test scores and grades.

Here, in an interview with the office of university communications, Beachum shares his reasons for writing the book and his advice to principals challenged by increasing diversity in schools:

What was your reason for writing the book?

This book is a collaborative effort with my colleague, Dr. Carlos R. McCray at Fordham University. For years we have been observing, and our students (mostly teachers and administrators) have been experiencing, an increasing amount of diversity (racial/ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic) in their schools. We recognized that many of our students felt unprepared to deal with complex issues with regard to language differences, cultural misunderstandings, parental communication and engagement, and student discipline, to name a few. We recognized that much of our work over the years did a pretty good job of explaining some of these changes in schools and provided some guidance as to ways to address many of these issues.

How have school principals’ roles changed in regards to increasing diversity in schools? What pressures and challenges do principals face today versus 10 years ago?

I would say that the overall role of the principal has changed over the last 20 years. In the current era, there is definitely more accountability for student test scores, more reporting to state departments of education, and more responsibility to communities for the safety and academic preparation of their children. The level of intensity seems to have increased so now all of these things place an enormous amount of pressure on principals. With all of the emphasis on academic accountability, grades and test scores, sometimes principals forget about the importance of (or do not have time to emphasize) relationships, student engagement and community connection, especially in high-need diverse areas. Part of what we argue in the book is that school leaders must balance educational excellence (high academic standards and expectations) with educational equity (making sure all students get what they need to be successful).

If you could give three bits of advice to a school principal today, what would they be?

First, they could start by reading diversity-related literature, attending seminars and conferences, engaging diverse communities, starting a book club on a diversity-related topic, to name a few. By doing this, they start to liberate their minds from the confining effects of the status quo and unawareness. Sometimes we have to recognize that we do not know. Therefore, the first step is to start gaining knowledge.

Second, principals should make sure that they and their teachers have an affirming view of all students. Far too many educators give this notion lip service and say that they treat all students equally or that they do not see color. This cannot be true; we all see color. And if we see color, we can visually recognize the differences in our students. These differences can lead to certain students receiving more suspensions and expulsions, low expectations regarding students’ abilities, and the undervaluing of the communities from which these students come (research confirms all of this). Thus, we need more than lip service. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that instead of lip service, we need life service.

Finally, principals should RAC (Reflect, Amend and Change). They should take time to reflect on decisions that were made (academic, disciplinary, teacher-related, etc.), even if it is a short reflection and weigh it against their new knowledge and affirming attitude. If necessary, they should amend (make minor changes) if the decision may not have been the best one. This may mean going back to a teacher to clarify, calling a parent back to apologize, or taking another look at how a student was disciplined. The last part is change (major change). If the process leads the principal to realize that the decision is more than an isolated event, it may require them to revise their discipline policy, revisit their special education referral process, develop new and innovative ways to engage parents and community members.

You were a high school teacher before becoming a professor. Did you recognize and witness at that time that principals were challenged by increasing diversity in schools? What aspect of your research for this book could help with those challenges?

My time as a classroom teacher was a great learning period for me. Back in those days, the mid-90s, it was pretty much sink-or-swim. This meant that you as the teacher either found a way to be successful in the classroom with limited administrative support or you probably would not keep your job. The key here was that administrator support was limited. Today, there seems to be more of an effort to support teachers, especially in their formative years. The book gives lessons and insight for school leaders, aspiring school leaders and teachers in reference to understanding the how and why of increasing student diversity. We also discuss aspects of multicultural education, bullying and community engagement. Furthermore, we offer a new framework for educational leadership called Culturally Relevant Leadership, which builds upon our understandings of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Lastly, we include case-based examples in the book that propose some complex diversity-based issues for readers to ponder, debate and solve.

This book is a wonderful collection of our combined research, reflections and experience. It does a pretty good job of explaining educational concepts, placing discussions in historical and contemporary context and posing practical solutions.

Story by Sally Gilotti

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014

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