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Christine E. Sleeter
Are standards and multicultural education compatible? Whenever I am asked this question, my answer is both "yes" and "no."
When They Are Not Compatible
Standards and multicultural education are not compatible when standards cause educators to shift attention away from what students know and care about based on their lives outside school to teach a standardized curriculum. Many schools, for example, have adopted scripted curriculum packages that treat students as empty vessels that have no interests, life experience, or home knowledge of value. Teachers have told me of administrators who visit classrooms to make sure standards are posted on the walls and teachers are teaching standards-based content without paying attention to how well teachers are actually engaging their students in learning.
Standards and multicultural education are also not compatible when standards structure curriculum around perspectives that best fit those of middle-class Americans of European descent. This bias, which can exist in all content areas, is most visible in history and social studies. For example, in the study History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools (PDF), of the 96 Americans named in curriculum, 77 percent are white, 18 percent are black, 4 percent are American Indian, 1 percent are Latino, and 0 percent are Asian American.
The deeper narrative embedded in the study fits comfortably within a story of European immigration and their descendants' progress but negates historical accounts and analytical frameworks of scholars of color that highlight the construction of colonization and institutional racism. Although this does not mean that teachers cannot develop meaningful, standards-based curriculum, current content standards suggest a consensus that may not actually exist about what knowledge is most valuable.
Making Standards and Multicultural Education Compatible
Standards have value because they draw attention to teaching historically underserved students at grade level, rather than at a remedial level. Many educators of color champion standards for this reason. Given this value, what might a standards-based curriculum that is multicultural and taught in a way that is culturally relevant look like?
An excellent example is Math in a Cultural Context (MCC), an elementary-level curriculum that grew from a collaboration among Alaska Yup'ik Native elders, teachers, and math educators. MCC connects Yup'ik culture and knowledge with mathematics as outlined in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. It includes 10 modules that link mathematics with community culture; for example, the lesson "Parkas and Patterns" combines standards-based geometric concepts with the study of traditional patterns used in creating parkas.
MCC also supports traditional ways of communicating and learning, such as collaborative learning and cognitive apprenticeship. According to experimental research reported on the MCC website, students in classrooms that use MCC make more progress toward the state mathematics standards than students in classrooms not using it.
Start with a Vision
In my work, I have often helped classroom teachers develop several strategies to connect standards with multicultural education. Rather than starting with the standards and asking what they should add to them, the teachers started with a vision of an academically rich, culturally relevant unit.
For example, a high school English teacher developed a unit about West Coast immigration based on her concern that students in her school were expressing racial hostility toward one another. She wanted to create a literature and writing–based unit that would place students in the shoes of adolescents from cultural backgrounds other than their own. She prepared for the unit by gathering resources and doing her own research, and she implemented it when she had enough good material and well-conceptualized writing activities planned.
She explained to me that it was not difficult to connect the unit with the English language arts standards. But the standards themselves, as well as the English textbook that had been adopted to fit the standards, never would have given her this unit. The unit came from her identifying a local problem and envisioning how to use that problem as the basis for curriculum development.
Chunk Related Standards
An elementary teacher explained to me that she chunks, or groups, related standards together to reduce redundancy in the curriculum and carve out space for additional creative units. Elementary teachers have lists of standards for every subject area, and this teacher found teaching to all of the standards separately boring and repetitive. By carefully studying and grouping similar standards, she discovered that not only could she find time in the day for additional curriculum, but she could also push students into some standards at the next grade level.
Using this found time, she taught her students to use computers to research and write papers from which she created classroom books students could check out and take home. The result was authentic, culturally relevant writing units, and her students' achievement scores rose significantly in the process.
Annotate What You Are Doing
Another elementary teacher found it important to annotate what she was doing in relationship to the standards. This teacher designed and taught an interdisciplinary unit about Monterey County agriculture that she was able to connect with all of the academic subjects.
Much of the specific content came from projects and activities she designed rather than from textbooks and adopted curriculum packages. To show how she addressed the standards while teaching this unit, she annotated a copy of standards for each subject area, connecting them directly with the unit.
Attend to Student Achievement
The teachers I have worked with are very concerned that their students achieve. Most are fairly critical of the way achievement is measured, however, because it is so often reduced to filling in bubbles on test forms at the end of the year. In contrast, what excellent multicultural education teachers strive for is preparing students for advanced learning (such as attending a university); complex thinking; and seeing themselves as intellectually capable learners who, at the same time, embrace their own ethnic identity.
This student achievement vision transcends bubbles on multiple-choice tests. For example, a middle school Spanish teacher works in a school that serves mainly Mexican American and Mexican immigrant students from low-income families. Although their literacy achievement is officially measured on multiple-choice tests given in English, she prepares them for the kind of advanced literary analysis that is assessed on the Spanish advanced placement exam. Her culturally relevant curriculum, which uses novels written in Spanish, capitalizes on what students already know; her vision for their achievement uses a standard that is higher than the state achievement tests.
Yes and No
In this last example, however, we see where standards and multicultural education conflict: although most of this teacher's students read, write, and think most fluently in Spanish, the state tests of their reading, writing, and thinking skills are in English, thus not capturing their academic abilities fully. So although standards can be made compatible with multicultural education, they can also conflict, especially when they direct attention away from what students and their families know and from the intellectual work that historically marginalized groups have produced.
Christine E. Sleeter is professor emerita in the College of Professional Studies at California State University Monterey Bay and author of several books, including Teaching with Vision: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Standards-Based Classrooms and Doing Multicultural Education for Achievement and Equity. Learn more about her work at www.christinesleeter.org.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 15. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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