Multicultural education refers to any form of education or teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs, and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds. At the classroom level, for example, teachers may modify or incorporate lessons to reflect the cultural diversity of the students in a particular class. In many cases, “culture” is defined in the broadest possible sense, encompassing race, ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, and “exceptionality”—a term applied to students with specialized needs or disabilities.
Generally speaking, multicultural education is predicated on the principle of educational equity for all students, regardless of culture, and it strives to remove barriers to educational opportunities and success for students from different cultural backgrounds. In practice, educators may modify or eliminate educational policies, programs, materials, lessons, and instructional practices that are either discriminatory toward or insufficiently inclusive of diverse cultural perspectives. Multicultural education also assumes that the ways in which students learn and think are deeply influenced by their cultural identity and heritage, and that to teach culturally diverse students effectively requires educational approaches that value and recognize their cultural backgrounds. In this way, multicultural education aims to improve the learning and success of all students, particularly students from cultural groups that have been historically underrepresented or that suffer from lower educational achievement and attainment.
Instructionally, multicultural education may entail the use of texts, materials, references, and historical examples that are understandable to students from different cultural backgrounds or that reflect their particular cultural experience—such as teaching students about historical figures who were female, disabled, or gay (a less common practice in past decades). Since schools in the United States have traditionally used texts, learning materials, and cultural examples that commonly—or even exclusively—reflect an American or Eurocentric point of view, other cultural perspectives are often absent. Consequently, some students—such as recently arrived immigrants or students of color, for example—may be placed at an educational disadvantage due to cultural or linguistic obstacles that have been overlooked or ignored.
The following are a few representative ways in which multicultural education may play out in schools:
- Learning content: Texts and learning materials may include multiple cultural perspectives and references. For example, a lesson on colonialism in North America might address different cultural perspectives, such as those of the European settlers, indigenous Americans, and African slaves.
- Student cultures: Teachers and other educators may learn about the cultural backgrounds of students in a school, and then intentionally incorporate learning experiences and content relevant to their personal cultural perspectives and heritage. Students may also be encouraged to learn about the cultural backgrounds of other students in a class, and students from different cultures may be given opportunities to discuss and share their cultural experiences.
- Critical analysis: Educators may intentionally scrutinize learning materials to identify potentially prejudicial or biased material. Both educators and students might analyze their own cultural assumptions, and then discuss how learning materials, teaching practices, or schools policies reflect cultural bias, and how they could be changed to eliminate bias.
- Resource allocation: Multicultural education is generally predicated on the principle of equity—i.e., that the allocation and distribution of educational resources, programs, and learning experiences should be based on need and fairness, rather than strict equality. For example, students who are not proficient in the English language may learn in bilingual settings and read bilingual texts, and they may receive comparatively more instructional support than their English-speaking peers so that they do not fall behind academically or drop out of school due to language limitations.
Multicultural education evolved out of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Although it began with the African-American community, the movement soon expanded to include other cultural groups who were subject to discrimination. In recent years, as student populations have grown more diverse, multicultural approaches to education are increasingly being used in public schools.
The following are few representative ways in which multicultural education may intersect with efforts to improve schools:
- Curriculum design: In teaching materials and learning experiences, the backgrounds and perspectives of previously excluded subcultures are increasingly being represented in school curriculum. In addition, learning standards—brief descriptions of what students are expected to learn and be able to do at particular ages and grade levels—are evolving to reflect greater cultural diversity (for example, the Common Core State Standards intentionally consider the educational experiences of English-language learners and students with special needs). In addition, there are now educational programs, such as ethnic and gender studies, that focus on specific cultural groups, and school learning experiences and social-justice programs may also encourage students to investigate and address cultural bias in their school or community.
- Student instruction: The way that educators teach is also changing to accommodate increasing diversity in public schools. For example, students with moderate disabilities and students who are not proficient in English are increasingly being moved into regular classes (rather than being taught in separate classes), where they may receive specialized assistance, but where they learn the same material as their peers. In the classroom, teachers may also employ “culturally responsive” instructional strategies (such as those described above) that reflect the cultural identity of individual students.
- Learning assessment: Proponents of multicultural education tend to argue that “one-size-fits-all” approaches to assessing student learning could disadvantage students from different cultural backgrounds—e.g., when students are not fluent in the language used on a test, when assessment questions are phrased in a way that could be misinterpreted by students (because the students are unfamiliar with American slang, customs, or cultural references), or when a testing situation does not make sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities. One alternative to standardized tests, for example, is to measure student learning progress using a wider variety of assessment options, such as teacher-created tests, oral presentations, and various demonstrations of learning that give students more opportunities to show what they have learned. Generally speaking, proponents of multicultural education tend to advocate that students from different cultural backgrounds should be held to the same high expectations as other students, but that schools should adopt more flexible and inclusive ways of teaching them and measuring what they have learned. For related discussions, see test accommodations, test bias, and stereotype threat.
- Teacher education: Multicultural education has also affected the preparation of teachers. Beginning in the 1980s, accrediting organizations and state departments of education started requiring teacher-education programs to include multicultural coursework and training. States such as California, Florida, and Massachusetts undertook ambitious efforts to train teachers in multicultural education and English as a second language.
- School staffing: Districts and schools are also being more intentional or proactive about hiring educators of color from diverse cultural backgrounds. While proponents of multicultural education would not claim that teachers of color are more skilled than other teachers, they are likely to argue that staffing decisions reflect a school’s fundamental values and that students will benefit from having educators and role models from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.
- Legislative and legal issues: The rise of multicultural education has also coincided with a number of legislative and court actions. Laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1974, among many others, increased the visibility of multicultural education and led to the widespread adoption of more multicultural approaches to education in American public schools. Federal, state, and district policies, in addition to major legal decisions related to desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), the education of bilingual students (Lau v. Nichols, 1974), and fairness in school finance (San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 1973), for example, have also had a major effect on multicultural education in schools.
As demographic changes in the United States have significantly increased the cultural diversity of student populations in public schools—many urban districts, for example, are already “majority minority” districts—multicultural policies and practices have become important and sometimes contentious issues.
At the center of many debates about multicultural education is the question of whether such approaches might actually serve to divide rather than unite Americans, and whether certain strategies are fundamentally fair to all students. In the view of some educators, parents, and others, increasing emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism in schools has shifted attention toward economically disadvantaged students of color, and away from white students from wealthier and more educated families. For example, strategies such as “heterogeneous grouping”—the grouping of students with different abilities, backgrounds, and levels of preparation in a single class—often leads to concerns about whether the practice disadvantages higher-performing students who may not be sufficiently challenged in the courses.
While the debates about multicultural education are both numerous and nuanced, many center on differing interpretations of equity—what is fair and just—and equality—what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally (for example, a school might choose to allocate resources—funding, teachers, staff time, etc.—equally among all students). Another source of debate stems from the conception of America as a meritocracy in which anyone, if they work hard enough, can succeed and prosper. Those who believe in and prioritize meritocracy may perceive unequal educational allocations, accommodations, or compensations to be unfair (because some students are being given an unfair advantage, which may diminish opportunities for other, possibly more deserving, students). Others, who don’t perceive America to be a true meritocracy, may argue that the unequal distribution of educational resources is the only fair way to level the playing field and ensure that every student has an equal—or equitable—opportunity to succeed. For a more detailed discussion of these debates, see equity.
The following list describes a few representative examples of multicultural education giving rise to debate:
- Affirmative action: While affirmative action policies are frequently misunderstood—e.g., they are often misrepresented as quota systems for minorities, for example—the practice of giving certain minority groups preferential treatment in school admissions has been a source of ongoing debate in the United States, and it has led to charges of reverse-bias (some even refer to the practice as “positive discrimination”). While proponents of multicultural education would argue that affirmative action is motivated by the desire to counterbalance a legacy of systemic, institutionalized bias and to expand educational opportunities for all students, critics tend to argue that students should be admitted to schools based solely on academic performance and other objective measures of merit and worthiness.
- Resource allocation: As states, districts, and schools increase funding for specialized teachers, resources, and accommodations for minority, lower-income, and special-needs students, concerns and debates about fairness often follow. For example, a district and school may decide to hire more teachers with specialized expertise in English as a second language or in special education (often to comply with state or federal requirements) despite budgetary cutbacks and staffing reductions in other teaching areas. Such decisions can be particularly contentious if a school district decides to hire a private school, organization, or business, often at higher cost, to provide these specialized services.
- Assessment and testing: While there is broad agreement in the education community that all students should be held to the same high academic expectations, practices such as standardized testing and high-stakes testing are common sources of debate. Since all students—regardless of their ability, English proficiency, or cultural background—may be required to take the same test, debates about fairness can arise, particularly in those cases in which students may be at a clear disadvantage when taking the test—e.g., recently arrived immigrant students who are not yet proficient in the English language or in American customs and cultural references. Proponents of multicultural education may argue that students should be assessed using a variety of measures, while critics may contend that using a single test is the only fair and objective way to evaluate learning acquisition and academic progress.
- Curriculum and instruction: Critics of multicultural education may express concern that some texts and learning materials, for example, overemphasize culturally diverse content while giving insufficient attention to important topics or historical events. Proponents of multicultural education may argue that learning should address multiple cultural viewpoints, and that students from different cultural backgrounds should see their cultural groups represented in the lessons and content taught in public schools. Similar concerns are often expressed about instruction, and some educators and parents may argue that schools are spending too much time and too many resources on some students at the expense of others.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.