Cultural Competence

Cross, et al (1989) define cultural competence as : “…a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that a system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations”.  Cultural competence is more than just “awareness”, it is the fundamental development of an inclusive model so that everyone feels safe, valued, and can do their best work.

Why become culturally competent? The fundamental tenet of any helping profession or organization is Do No Harm. As educators, we are committed to helping all students succeed, feel safe, and do their best work.  By devaluing the socio-cultural heritage of our students, we are disenfranchising children whom we are bound to educate.  In discussing cultural competence in counseling relationships, Sue & Sue stated: “Counseling and psychotherapy have done great harm to culturally diverse groups by invalidating their life experiences, by defining their cultural values or differences as deviant and pathological, by denying them culturally appropriate care, and by imposing the values of the dominant culture over them”.  In fact, there is significant concern regarding the disproportionality of minorities in special education.  Many of these children have not had the opportunity for teaching methods that match their learning styles, have had their differences categorized as “emotional disturbance”, or have had their progress in English as a second language labeled as a “learning disability”. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act prohibits the identification of disabilities on the basis of cultural deprivation or limited English proficiency.  The same act specifically outlines the right of all students to access the general curriculum.  No Child Left Behind mandates that all children, regardless of background, must be educated to a level of proficiency. Because we need to educate all children, we need to provide a culture in which they can succeed.  Diverse groups of students cannot be expected to achieve in a climate that is unresponsive to their cultural makeup.  Culture has a powerful influence on who we are, and it is the driving force behind our behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and interactions. When that culture is ignored or worse, disrespected, we are discounted at the most basic level of our humanity.

Another important, albeit practical reason to develop cultural competence in school systems is the need to develop a workforce that can operate cooperatively within the multicultural framework of our country. As the number of students from diverse backgrounds increases, cultural competence in school leadership has become more urgent.  The 2000 census indicated that 65% of school aged children were non-Hispanic White, and 35% were from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. In 2004, there were 5.5 million English language learners in public schools. By 2040, it is estimated that there will be no “minority” group in the United States (NASP).

The global community is becoming increasingly connected and interdependent as well. Friedman (2007) states that  in a “flat” world, the ability to work cooperatively within a technologically connected, “real time” multicultural milieu will be our most marketable and valuable commodity.  Cultural competence promotes inclusion of a wide variety of thinking styles and problem-solving methods. When harnessed in a climate of cooperation and inclusion, this diversity leads to innovation.  Unlike products and services, innovation does not fall into obsolescence.   Susan Hockfield , former president of MIT, echoed this belief in her keynote address (2008) outlining her cultural diversity agenda for the organization : “…[Cultural Competence] is not something we want to pursue because it is warm, or fuzzy, or a feel-good idea. We must create a culture of inclusion so that we can actively capitalize on our diverse skills and perspectives, so that we can better advance the fundamental mission of MIT. …We need to make it possible for everyone to contribute at the apex of their ability; and if something in the culture is getting in the way we have to change it.”


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