Wrapped in a flag of many colours

MANAGING DIVERSITY. By Sandra Leslie Wong. Rowman and Littlefield pound;17.95. Distributed by Plymbridge

HISPANIC EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES. By Eugene Garcia. Rowman and Littlefield pound;16.95

THE POWER OF COMMUNITY. By Concha Delgado-Gaitan. Rowman and Littlefield pound;18.95

SCHOOLS OF RECOGNITION. By Charles Bingham. Rowman and Littlefield pound;17.95

EDUCATIONAL CONTROVERSIES. By Pamela LePage and Hugh Sockett. RoutledgeFalmer, pound;50 hbk

The motto of the United States is "E pluribus unum" - "From many to one". Above all, it was the American public school system that made this reality. Now, though, the US sense of identity, like the US school system, is being fragmented. Race, gender, language, class and culture have become educationally and politically explosive. The new watchwords are diversity and choice.

But do the arguments rending education have any effect on the substance of what is taught? The thesis of Managing Diversity is that they probably don't. Analysing what happened after two high-profile educational rows (one about the selection of official textbooks in Texas, the other involving a multicultural social studies programme in New York state), it concludes that the debates are more symbolic than real. Bureaucratic caution, commercial imperatives and classroom realities mean that relatively little changes. "We are lulled into thinking that significant educational transformation may be occurring."

Eugene Garcia disagrees. In Hispanic Education in the United States, he writes against the background of what many see as the profoundest of all the changes facing the US - the rapid growth of its Latino population. Almost all of the contentious issues are here - under-performance, affirmative action, multiculturalism and bilingual education.

Garcia's survey is humane, scholarly and convincing. Its thrust is in his subtitle, "raices y alas" ("roots and wings"). There are scores of programmes, he reminds us, that aim to advance the achievement of the nation's largest minority group, but those that help Hispanic children develop their educational wings are invariably those that explicitly attend to and respect their roots. "Class and race count," is his summing-up, "but so does culture."

The Power of Community makes the same point. This is a study of a project in the Mexican immigrant community of Carpinteria, California, that began by involving parents in their children's schooling but went on to turn the families themselves - their identity, their language and, above all, their stories - into a motivational resource for schools. It is part research, part diary; very personal, very persuasive, and full of resonances in the current debate on asylum seekers in the UK.

It recognises, too, that the politics of identity is often bitterly contested. There is a powerful illustration of this in Schools of Recognition. A white teacher in a predominantly African-American New York elementary school uses a widely praised story to help boost her children's self-esteem. It's about a little girl who has been blessed with curly, kinky, "nappy" hair. When the parents see it, all hell breaks loose - and the teacher has to be "relocated".

The moral of the story is that the parents felt themselves "misrecognised". Schools, the author contends, need explicit ways of recognising the multiple racial, cultural, class and gender identities that parents and children bring to school with them. Every individual's dignity has to be respected and confirmed. Conflict will, of course, remain - but given the appropriate "discourse of recognition" it will be a point of departure, not a breaking point.

"Conflict will remain." It sounds like an epitaph for those distant hopes of unity and educational common ground. In Educational Controversies, Pamela LePage and Hugh Sockett argue that the conflicts that rack American schooling are caused less by competing identities than by muddled aims. They identify four additional killer factors: the power of special interests, the poor quality of public debate, the lack of public access (a sideswipe at academics) to the language of education, and (surprise, surprise) "the lust for a quick fix".

Their prescription is what they call "a reconciliatory discourse", or RD for short: a structured procedure for breaking down arguments, working out differences, formulating common ground. They apply it, theoretically, to some of the hardy perennials of educational controversy - new maths versus traditional, testing versus assessment, neighbourhood schools versus parental choice - and very reasonable it sounds. They don't apply it to (for instance) creationism versus science, which is probably just as well.

They are, in the very best tradition of American education, profoundly optimistic. The trouble is that not even optimism can resolve the fundamental tension that bedevils the American (and indeed the English) education system - the clash between democracy and market forces. "From many to one" was a noble aspiration. Today, "One and many" would be nearer the mark.

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