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Multicultural Education

History, The Dimensions of Multicultural Education, Evidence of the Effectiveness of Multicultural Education

Multicultural education is an idea, an approach to school reform, and a movement for equity, social justice, and democracy. Specialists within multicultural education emphasize different components and cultural groups. However, a significant degree of consensus exists within the field regarding its major principles, concepts, and goals. A major goal of multicultural education is to restructure schools so that all students acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to function in an ethnically and racially diverse nation and world. Multicultural education seeks to ensure educational equity for members of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups, and to facilitate their participation as critical and reflective citizens in an inclusive national civic culture.

Multicultural education tries to provide students with educational experiences that enable them to maintain commitments to their community cultures as well as acquire the knowledge, skills, and cultural capital needed to function in the national civic culture and community. Multicultural theorists view academic knowledge and skills as necessary but not sufficient for functioning in a diverse nation and world. They regard skills in democratic living and the ability to function effectively within and across diverse groups as essential goals of schooling.

Multicultural education is highly consistent with the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. It seeks to extend the rights and privileges granted to the nation's founding elites–the ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy–to all social, cultural and language groups. Multicultural education addresses deep and persistent social divisions across various groups, and seeks to create an inclusive and transformed mainstream society. Multicultural educators view cultural difference as a national strength and resource rather than as a problem to be overcome through assimilation.


Multicultural education emerged during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It grew out of the demands of ethnic groups for inclusion in the curricula of schools, colleges, and universities. Although multicultural education is an outgrowth of the ethnic studies movement of the 1960s, it has deep historical roots in the African-American ethnic studies movement that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Initiated by scholars such as George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, W. E. B. DuBois, and Charles H. Wesley, the primary goal of the early ethnic studies movement was to challenge the negative images and stereotypes of African Americans prevalent in mainstream scholarship by creating accurate descriptions of the life, history, and contributions of African Americans. These scholars had a personal, professional, and enduring commitment to the uplift of African Americans. They believed that creating positive self-images of African Americans was essential to their collective identity and liberation. They also believed that stereotypes and negative beliefs about African Americans could be effectively challenged by objective historical research that was also capable of transforming mainstream academic knowledge.

Carter G. Woodson–one of the leading scholars of the early ethnic studies movement–helped found the Association for the Study of Negro (now Afro-American) Life and History in 1915. The association played a key role in the production and dissemination of African-American historical scholarship. In addition to writing numerous scholarly works and editing the association's publications, Woodson initiated Negro History Week (now Black History Month) to focus attention in the nation's schools on the life and history of African Americans.

In 1922 Woodson published a college textbook, The Negro in Our History, which was used in many African-American schools and colleges. In response to public demand for classroom materials, he wrote an elementary textbook, Negro Makers of History, followed by The Story of the Negro Retold for senior high schools. Woodson also wrote, edited, and published African-American children's literature. In 1937 he began publication of The Negro History Bulletin, a monthly magazine for teachers and students featuring stories about exemplary teachers and curriculum projects, historical narratives, and biographical sketches.

When the ethnic studies movement was revived in the 1960s, African Americans and other marginalized ethnic groups refused assimilationist demands to renounce their cultural identity and heritage. They insisted that their lives and histories be included in the curriculum of schools, colleges, and universities. In challenging the dominant paradigms and concepts taught in the schools and colleges, multicultural educators sought to transform the Eurocentric perspective and incorporate multiple perspectives into the curriculum.

By the late 1980s multicultural theorists recognized that ethnic studies was insufficient to bring about school reforms capable of responding to the academic needs of students of color. They consequently shifted their focus from the mere inclusion of ethnic content to deep structural changes in schools. During these years, multicultural educators also expanded from a primary focus on ethnic groups of color to other group categories, such as social class, language and gender. Although conceptually distinct, the key social categories of multicultural education–race, class, gender, and culture–are interrelated. Multicultural theorists are concerned with how these social variables interact in identity formation, and about the consequences of multiple and contextual identities for teaching and learning.

During the 1970s a number of professional organizations–such as the National Council for Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education–issued policy statements and publications that encouraged the integration of ethnic content into the school and teacher education curriculum. In 1973 the title of the forty-third yearbook of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) was Teaching Ethnic Studies: Concepts and Strategies. NCSS published Curriculum Guidelines for Multiethnic Education in 1976, which was revised and reissued in 1992 as Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education. A turning point in the development of multicultural education occurred in 1977 when the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) issued standards for the accreditation of teacher education. The standards required all NCATE member institutions (about 80% of the teacher education programs in the United States) to implement components, courses, and programs in multicultural education.

Over the past two decades more ethnic content has appeared in the textbooks used in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. An increasing number of teachers are using anthologies in literature programs that include selections written by women and authors of color. In addition, the market for books dealing with multicultural education has gown substantially, and some of the nation's leading colleges and universities, including the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, have either revised their core curriculum to include ethnic content or have established ethnic studies course requirements.

The Dimensions of Multicultural Education

James A. Banks's Dimensions of Multicultural Education is used widely by school districts to conceptualize and develop courses, programs, and projects in multicultural education. The five dimensions are:(1) content integration; (2) the knowledge construction process; (3) prejudice reduction; (4) an equity pedagogy; and (5) an empowering school culture and social structure. Although each dimension is conceptually distinct, in practice they overlap and are interrelated.

Content integration. Content integration deals with the extent to which teachers use examples and content from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline. The infusion of ethnic and cultural content into a subject area is logical and not contrived when this dimension is implemented properly.

More opportunities exist for the integration of ethnic and cultural content in some subject areas than in others. There are frequent and ample opportunities for teachers to use ethnic and cultural content to illustrate concepts, themes, and principles in the social studies, the language arts, and in music. Opportunities also exist to integrate multicultural content into math and science. However, they are less ample than they are in social studies and the language arts. Content integration is frequently mistaken by school practitioners as comprising the whole of multicultural education, and is thus viewed as irrelevant to instruction in disciplines such as math and science.

The knowledge construction process. The knowledge construction process describes teaching activities that help students to understand, investigate, and determine how the implicit cultural assumptions, frames of references, perspectives, and biases of researchers and textbook writers influence the ways in which knowledge is constructed.

Multicultural teaching involves not only infusing ethnic content into the school curriculum, but changing the structure and organization of school knowledge. It also includes changing the ways in which teachers and students view and interact with knowledge, helping them to become knowledge producers, not merely the consumers of knowledge produced by others.

The knowledge construction process helps teachers and students to understand why the cultural identities and social positions of researchers need to be taken into account when assessing the validity of knowledge claims. Multicultural theories assert that the values, personal histories, attitudes, and beliefs of researchers cannot be separated from the knowledge they create. They consequently reject positivist claims of disinterested and distancing knowledge production. They also reject the possibility of creating knowledge that is not influenced by the cultural assumptions and social position of the knowledge producer.

In multicultural teaching and learning, paradigms, themes, and concepts that exclude or distort the life experiences, histories, and contributions of marginalized groups are challenged. Multicultural pedagogy seeks to reconceptualize and expand the Western canon, to make it more representative and inclusive of the nation's diversity, and to reshape the frames of references, perspectives, and concepts that make up school knowledge.

Prejudice reduction. The prejudice reduction dimension of multicultural education seeks to help students develop positive and democratic racial attitudes. It also helps students to understand how ethnic identity is influenced by the context of schooling and the attitudes and beliefs of dominant social groups. The theory developed by Gordon Allport (1954) has significantly influenced research and theory in intergroup relations. He hypothesized that prejudice can be reduced by interracial contact if the contact situations have these characteristics: (1) they are cooperative rather than competitive; (2) the individuals experience equal status; and (3) the contact is sanctioned by authorities such as parents, principals and teachers.

An equity pedagogy. An equity pedagogy exists when teachers modify their teaching in ways that will facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and language groups. This includes using a variety of teaching styles and approaches that are consistent with the range of learning styles within various cultural and ethnic groups, such as being demanding but highly personalized when working with American Indian and Native Alaskan students. It also includes using cooperative learning techniques in math and science instruction to enhance the academic achievement of students of color.

An equity pedagogy rejects the cultural deprivation paradigm that was developed in the early 1960s. This paradigm posited that the socialization experiences in the home and community of low-income students prevented them from attaining the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for academic success. Because the cultural practices of low-income students were viewed as inadequate and inferior, cultural deprivation theorists focused on changing student behavior so that it aligned more closely with mainstream school culture. An equity pedagogy assumes that students from diverse cultures and groups come to school with many strengths.

Multicultural theorists describe how cultural identity, communicative styles, and the social expectations of students from marginalized ethnic and racial groups often conflict with the values, beliefs, and cultural assumptions of teachers. The middle-class mainstream culture of the schools creates a cultural dissonance and disconnect that privileges students who have internalized the school's cultural codes and communication styles.

Teachers practice culturally responsive teaching when an equity pedagogy is implemented. They use instructional materials and practices that incorporate important aspects of the family and community culture of their students. Culturally responsive teachers also use the "cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them" (Gay, p. 29).

An empowering school culture. This dimension involves restructuring the culture and organization of the school so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and language groups experience equality. Members of the school staff examine and change the culture and social structure of the school. Grouping and labeling practices, sports participation, gaps in achievement among groups, different rates of enrollment in gifted and special education programs among groups, and the interaction of the staff and students across ethnic and racial lines are important variables that are examined and reformed.

An empowering school structure requires the creation of qualitatively different relationships among various groups within schools. Relationships are based on mutual and reciprocal respect for cultural differences that are reflected in school-wide goals, norms, and cultural practices. An empowering school structure facilitates the practice of multicultural education by providing teachers with opportunities for collective planning and instruction, and by creating democratic structures that give teachers, parents, and school staff shared responsibility for school governance.

Evidence of the Effectiveness of Multicultural Education

The Handbook of Research of Multicultural Education comprehensively reviews the research on multicultural education and the effectiveness of various kinds of multicultural curricular interventions. At least three categories of research that describe the effectiveness of multicultural education can be identified: (1) research that describes the effectiveness of multicultural curriculum interventions such as Banks's 2001 research review; (2) research on the effects of cooperative learning and interracial contact, such as Robert Slavin's 2001 research review; and (3) research on how culturally responsive teaching influences student learning, such as Carol Lee's 1993 study and Gloria Ladson-Billings's 2001 work. An extended discussion of studies in the first genre is presented in this entry. Research reviews of the other two genres are found in the Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education.

Slavin's 2001 research review and Cohen and Lotan's 1995 research on cooperative learning and interracial contact activities indicate that these interventions–if they are consistent with Allport's theory of intergroup contact–help students to develop more positive racial attitudes, to make more cross-racial friendships, and have positive effects on the academic achievement of Latino and African-American students. Lee's 1993 research on culturally responsive teaching indicates that when teachers use the cultural characteristics of students in their teaching the academic achievement of students from diverse groups can be enhanced.

Research on curriculum materials and interventions. Research indicates that the use of multicultural textbooks, other teaching materials, television, and simulations can help students from different racial and ethnic groups to develop more democratic racial attitudes and perceptions of other groups. Since the 1940s a number of curriculum interventions studies have been conducted to determine the effects of teaching units and lessons, multicultural textbooks and materials, role playing, and simulation on the racial attitudes and perceptions of students.

These studies provide guidelines that can help teachers to improve intergroup relations in their classrooms and schools. One of the earliest curriculum studies was conducted by Helen Trager and Marion Yarrow (1952). They found that a democratic, multicultural curriculum had positive effects on the racial attitudes of teachers and on those of first- and second-grade students. John Litcher and David Johnson (1969) found that white, second-grade children developed more positive racial attitudes after using multiethnic readers. Gerry Bogatz and Samuel Ball (1971) found that Sesame Street, PBS's multicultural television program, had a positive effect on the racial attitudes of children who watched it for long periods. In a study by Michael Weiner and Frances Wright (1973), children who themselves experienced discrimination in a simulation developed less prejudiced beliefs and attitudes toward others. Multicultural social studies materials and related experiences had a positive effect on the racial attitudes of African-American four-year-old children in a study conducted by Thomas Yawkey and Jacqueline Blackwell (1974).

Research indicates that curriculum interventions such as plays, folk dances, music, role playing, and simulations can have positive effects on the racial attitudes of students. A curriculum intervention that consisted of folk dances, music, crafts, and role playing positively influenced the racial attitudes of elementary students in a study conducted by M. Ahmed Ijaz and I. Helene Ijaz (1981). Four plays about African Americans, Chinese Americans, Jews, and Puerto Ricans increased racial acceptance and cultural knowledge among fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students in a study conducted by Beverly Gimmestad and Edith De Chiara (1982).

Jossette McGregor (1993) used meta-analysis to integrate findings and to examine the effects of role playing and antiracist teaching on reducing prejudice in students. Twenty-six studies were located and examined. McGregor concluded that role playing and antiracist teaching "significantly reduce racial prejudice, and do not differ from each other in their effectiveness" (p. 215).

Demographic Trends and Issues

The ethnic, cultural, and language diversity within the United States and its schools is increasing. The U.S. Bureau of the Census projects that 47 percent of the U.S. population will consist of ethnic groups of color by 2050. Between 1991 and 1998, 7.6 million immigrants entered the United States, mostly from nations in Asia and Latin America. The U.S. Census estimates that more than one million immigrants will enter the United States every year for the fore-seeable future. Thirty-five percent of students enrolled in U.S. schools in 1995 were students of color. If current demographic trends continue, students of color will comprise approximately 46 percent of the student population in 2020. The increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of the U.S. student population stands in sharp contrast to a teaching force that was 90.7 percent white, middle-class, and three-fourths female in 1996. Many of the students entering U.S. schools speak a first language other than English. The 1990 census indicated that 14 percent of the nation's school-age youth lived in homes where the primary language was not English.

In addition to increasing ethnic, language, and cultural diversity, a significant and growing percentage of children in the United States, especially children of color, are being raised in poverty. The number of children living in poverty rose from 16.2 percent in 1979 to 18.7 percent in 1998. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 12.7 percent of the United States population living in poverty in 1997,8.6 percent were non-Hispanic whites, 26.0 percent African Americans, and 27.1 percent Hispanics.

Multicultural education theorists believe that the nation's schools should respond to its increasing racial, ethnic, and language diversity. However, they have different views about how to define the field's boundaries and about which social groups should be included under its umbrella. Some theorists are concerned that as the field expands to include an increasing number of cultural groups, its initial focus on institutionalized racism and the achievement of students of color might wane. The discussions and debates within multicultural education reflect the vitality and growth of an emerging discipline.

An increasingly low-income and linguistically and culturally diverse student population requires a transformation of the deep structure of schooling in order to experience educational equity and cultural empowerment in the nation's schools. Multicultural education is a process of comprehensive school reform that challenges racism and prejudice by transforming the curriculum and instructional practices of schools, and by changing the relationships among teachers, students, and parents.

A major goal of multicultural education is to help students from diverse cultures learn how to transcend cultural borders and to engage in dialog and civic action in a diverse, democratic society. Multicultural education tries to actualize cultural democracy, and to include the dreams, hopes, and experiences of diverse groups in school knowledge and in a reconstructed and inclusive national identity. The future of democracy in the United States depends on the willingness and ability of citizens to function within and across cultures. The schools can play a major role in helping students to develop the knowledge and skills needed to cross cultural borders and to perpetuate a democratic and just society.


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