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Student Diversity and the American Educational System

There are two major ways in which the educational system in the United States differs from those in most other countries. First, in many countries, students who plan to enter vocational careers go to one type of high school while students who plan to attend college enter a different type of high school. In the United States, all students in a given geographic area go to the same high school and have the option of taking the same courses, making the high schools less specialized than those of many other countries. Students with diverse ability levels and types of abilities (Gardner, 1984), all attend the same types of schools but with widely varying curriculums.

A second way in which the educational system in the United States differs from many others has to do with the way the system is organized. The amount of student exposure to a specified curriculum is determined by each individual state. Within each state, each community has a local Board of Education whose members are elected by the local community. These individual school boards have administrative responsibility and determine competency standards for the schools within their jurisdictions. Thus, the educational system within each community reflects local standards and conditions more than state or national standards. As a result of this local control of education, the student population has a diverse academic background.

Although college and university admission is based on a combination of students' high school grade point average, letters of recommendation, and college entrance examination scores, grade point averages may not be comparable between high schools. Due to the variation in local competency standards, a student with a high grade point average in one high school may not have received such high grades had they attended a high school in a different school district. This is compounded by the fact that grades are often awarded on a comparative basis. Thus, a high school with a predominantly middle or upper class student population may have a more competitive grading system and minimum competency standards which may be higher than in schools with a more inclusive population. These variations and inequalities in educational standards and opportunities have been addressed in integration legislation, school busing legislation, and continue to be addressed in legislation that modifies state funding to provide money to school districts on the basis of need rather than strictly on the basis of the number of students enrolled.

Thus, the structure of the educational system in the United States is itself diverse and adds to the diversity in the academic backgrounds of university students. In addition to variation in academic backgrounds, students also differ in regard to ethnic background, cultural background, international citizenship, age, sex and socio-economic levels.

Research in sociolinguistics on patterns of participation (Philips, 1983; Heath, 1982; Sato, 1981) demonstrate the need for instructors to pay particular attention to the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of their students. Many of the research studies report the negative consequences of assuming cultural solidarity of students when in fact most classrooms in the United States are multi-ethnic. Students and teachers operate according to their own cultural, ethnic, and social standards of behavior. When student behavior does not match the instructor's own standards, that behavior may erroneously be labeled by the instructor as non-cooperative or disruptive and student motivation, self- esteem and learning may suffer as a result.

Because international TAs are entering an unfamiliar culture, it may be relatively easy to see differences in ethnicity in the classroom. On the other hand, a lack of familiarity in working with American students may make the differences even more difficult for the international TA to recognize. International TAs may apply their own experiences in a foreign culture to help understand and appreciate the different ways students may choose to or expect to participate in the classroom. The learning styles and needs of students will vary with their academic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, and individual personalities.

consultation contacts

George Michaelsexecutive director2130 Kerr Hall
lisa berrysenior instructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
mindy colininstructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
Mary Lou Ramos database and ESCI administrator1130 Kerr Hall
TBD ESCI assistant1124 Kerr Hall


TBDoffice manager 1130 Kerr Hall
faxfax: 805-893-5915