Our nation was built (and continues to be built) by the interaction and resourcefulness of countless cultures and ethnicities that chose to make this land their home. Some were already here when the Europeans arrived, whereas others continue to join us in order to pursue their happiness. How should we—as Americans and integral parts of this story—interact with the different cultures and ethnicities that coexist in this country? There have been many answers to that question throughout our short history, and the current answer involves multicultural education. Providing an education to our citizens that includes awareness of, exposure to and interaction with various ethnicities and cultures is a challenging process that must overcome a few problems, but that carries the potential for the rewarding outcome of a unified, highly educated, global-minded citizenry.
Teaching and learning occurs within the context of interaction between ethnicities and cultures, and must be sensitive to this interaction in order to best serve learners and achieve the goal of equality and equity in education. Student differences, institutional racism and discrimination, and teacher and societal biases are some of the main factors that have the potential to negatively affect the learning experience and the mission of education.
All students are not the same. Learners come from different parts of the city, state, country or even other countries. They were born into a variety of cultures and subcultures that have a lasting impact on their lives and helped make them into what and who they are today. Some of these differences are obvious, whereas others may not be easily detectable: students may speak a mother tongue other than English; they may be of different races and ethnicities; they may be of different religions or have no religion at all; they may be rich, middle-class, or poor; they may have a supportive family or live a daily struggle just to attend school.
These differences are significant to learning because they are directly related to how learning takes place and how learning is most commonly evidenced in schools—through tests. For instance, the correlation between wealth and standardized test scores was demonstrated by a survey that showed a direct link between family income and SAT test scores (College Board, 2004).
Institutional Racism and Discrimination
Nieto and Bode (2008) define institutional racism as “the systematic use of economic and political power in institutions (such as schools) that leads to detrimental policies and practices” (p. 67). Institutional racism is born out of prejudices of the people who hold power in the institutions. Such prejudice usually results in discrimination, or “negative or destructive behaviors that can result in denying some groups life’s necessities as well as the privileges, rights, and opportunities enjoyed by other groups” (Nieto & Bode, 2008, p. 67).
Institutional racism is not always purposeful, but it is always destructive and negative because a few always benefit from it while others are always maligned by it. This type of racism is born out of the belief that one group is superior to another, resulting in unequal access to—and benefit from—society’s goods and services (Weinberg, 1990).
Teacher and Societal Biases
Teachers are people who have their own histories, cultures and biases. A teacher’s background and personality profile all play a direct role in how he or she interacts with students, teaches course content and assesses student learning (Lee, 2010). When a teacher has a personal preference for boys to play a certain role in activities, or for girls to answer certain types of questions, or for White students to behave in a certain way, etc., he or she will consciously or unconsciously act upon those beliefs to the detriment of other groups. This is a reflection of how society works, whether purposefully or not, and perpetuates the different treatment of subgroups and the unequal allocation of privileges that a democratic society has to offer.
Bias by teachers and society are in direct contrast to the inclusiveness character of multicultural education. Bias works to maintain the status quo and functions as a barrier to the movement between groups, resulting in a few individuals or groups taking advantage of society’s benefits, while other groups are excluded and marginalized (Carnes et al., 2012).
The Possible Solutions
The problems of student differences, institutional racism and discrimination, and teacher and societal biases are rooted in the complex make-up of our nation. Throughout its history, the United States has received an influx of various cultures and ethnicities. This influx was at first received with the expectation that the new cultures and ethnicities would be absorbed into mainstream American culture, the so-called “Melting Pot.” But this approach forced minority groups into disparaging their heritage, language and culture in order to attempt to feel welcome and integrated with the mainstream. This idealized Melting Pot failed to include minorities and repressed valuable contributions by groups that were physically, socially, culturally, ethnically or religiously different from the mainstream.
In place of the Melting Pot, educators have now shifted their thinking into a multicultural approach that can help integrate, desegregate and value the different ethnicities and cultures that make up our country. Several steps can be taken in educational settings to achieve the goal of equity and equality for all in our society. Among the changes in policy and procedures, the following structural aspects of education can work toward the inclusion of all students in the learning process, helping to educate fully functioning American citizens who benefit from all the privileges that our society has to offer.
Tracking, Retention and Standardized Testing
When students are divided up into groups of higher and lower academic achievement or supposed intellectual capacity, they receive a message of expectations that can have lasting effects. Tracking may perpetuate certain behaviors and disable the access to the best teachers by students who need them the most. Tracking separates students by preconceived ideas of what should be together and what should be separated, and may reinforce expectations of each student’s place in society. There is no evidence that tracking works for all students, so schools should avoid this practice and integrate students into diverse groups (Nieto & Bode, 2008).
When students don’t perform as is expected of them, many schools retain them and force them to attend the same school year again in the hopes that they will learn what they did not learn during their previous attempt. This practice has been shown to cause higher drop-out rates, and there is no evidence that students will learn what they should have learned during the regular school year (Nieto & Bode, 2008). Every effort should be made for students to learn the curriculum progressively and during the period that is allocated for that learning to take place.
Standardized tests are another way used to separate students into groups and classify them according to their supposed achievements. These tests have been shown to have no relation to higher learning achievement, and have instead “created barriers, especially for the nation’s most vulnerable students” (Orfield & Kornhaber, 2001). Standardized tests should be replaced with other assessment methods, such as performance-based assessments, which can include alternative techniques such as “portfolios, performance tasks, and student exhibitions” (Nieto & Bode, 2008, p. 126).
Curriculum and Pedagogy
Every curriculum is based on preconceived notions of what students should learn and how they should learn it. As such, it is subject to bias and discrimination, either willingly or not. The ethnic and cultural backgrounds of students should be included and integrated in the curriculum, so that all students can learn content from various perspectives and points of view. This multicultural approach allows students to gain a better understanding of how the world works, and provides a great opportunity for them to critically think about society and their role in it.
Pedagogy, or how teachers implement the curriculum, is also deeply affected by the contents of the curriculum. If the curriculum is multicultural, teachers need to adapt their practices and approaches to student learning so that learners can benefit from the new content and be motivated to learn it. Haberman (1991) provides several best practices that teachers can implement when teaching a multicultural curriculum, including: addressing issues that students value, explaining ethnic and cultural differences, assisting students to see the big picture instead of focusing on small details, involving students in the decisions made about their learning, exposing students to different individuals through group-work, and challenging preconceived ideas.
School Climate and Disciplinary Policies
School buildings that are not adequately maintained have a negative impact on the student experience and play a major role in drop-out rates and student achievement (Berger, 2005). They can even cause the best teachers to leave. Multicultural education requires that all students have access to the best teachers, who are prepared with the necessary formation and knowledge to include all students in the learning experience, helping them to overcome their differences and other barriers to enjoy the fruits of an inclusive education. As such, school buildings should be well maintained and be equipped with relevant, working technology.
If schools look like prisons or abandoned buildings, some disciplinary actions and policies can have the opposite effect of their original purpose. If students already have an aversion for the installations, and are forced to remain in school for additional periods of time because they misbehaved or did not perform the way they were expected to, they will develop a distaste for learning and will become even more difficult to reach with the positive influence that learning can be in their lives. School disciplinary policies must be applied in ways that are consistent with the student’s cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as behavior in different cultures or ethnicities may not match what the teacher or the administrators from other backgrounds would expect. For example, a White teacher may not fully understand a Hispanic student’s downward gaze as he or she is being disciplined (Nieto & Bode, 2008).
A multicultural approach to education requires that all aspects of teaching and learning be revisited and revised. Changes in the curriculum, school policies, school infrastructure, student assessment and allocation need to take place so that the goal of a more egalitarian educational experience for all students—regardless of their ethnic or cultural background—can be achieved. Our nation can benefit tremendously from the pursuit of equity in education because this will likely result in a more integrated society, and will provide us with more intellectual resources to draw from in order to solve the big problems we face now, and build a better future for a new generation of Americans.
Berger, R. (2005). What is a culture of quality? In T. Hatch, D. Ahmed, A. Lieberman, D. Faigenbaum, M. White, & D. Mace (Eds.), Going public with our teaching: An anthology of practice (p. 35). New York: Teachers College Press.
Carnes, M., Devine, P., Isaac, C., Manwell, L., Ford, C., Byars-Winston, A., & Sheridan, J. (2012). Promoting institutional change through bias literacy. Journal Of Diversity In Higher Education, 5(2), 63-77.
College Board. (2004). 2004 College bound seniors’ test scores: SAT. In College-bound seniors 2004: A profile of SAT program test takers. Retrieved from http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2004/CBS2004Report.pdf
Haberman, M. The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(4), 290-294.
Lee, S. (2010). Reflect on your history: An early childhood education teacher examines her biases. Multicultural Education, 17(4), 25-30.
Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education
Orfield, G, & Kornhaber, M. (Eds.). (2001). Raising standards or raising barriers? Inequality and high-stakes testing in public education. New York: The Century Foundation Press.
Weinberg, M. (1990). Racism in the United States: A comprehensive classified bibliography (pp. xii-xiii). New York: Greenwood Press.