What We Can Learn from Multicultural Education Research - ASCD
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May 1, 1994

What We Can Learn from Multicultural Education Research

Educators will be more successful if they understand five variables that matter in working with a diverse student population.

Equity
Instructional Strategies

Many findings from multicultural education research can be applied in the everyday world of teachers and administrators. This observation holds regardless of whether the educators work with many students of color or with only a few.

The research shows that five areas matter a great deal in the education of a multicultural population: teachers' beliefs about students, curriculum content and materials, instructional approaches, educational settings, and teacher education. One other area—whether the race and ethnicity of teachers affects student learning—remains unclear.

Beliefs About Students Matter

To begin to see how teacher beliefs affect student achievement, imagine two new teachers. Don Wilson and Margie Stewart are starting their first year of teaching.

Don Wilson. After his first weeks of teaching in an urban school, Wilson is exhausted and uncertain about whether he chose the right profession. His class of 28 fourth graders are African Americans and Latinos. Wilson knows that they have not had many advantages, so he doesn't push them too hard. He wants his students to have fun learning. He worries, though, because many of them don't seem to be having fun or learning. Many are one or more achievement levels below national averages, and some attend school sporadically, fail to complete homework assignments, and seem unmotivated in the classroom. Although Wilson has sent several notes home expressing concern, parents have not responded. Wilson doubts that he makes any difference in the lives of his students.

Margie Stewart. The first weeks of teaching in a suburban school have been exhausting for Stewart, too, but she is enjoying herself. Of Stewart's 28 third graders, 23 are white, upper-middle-class children. Three of the remaining five are African American, and two are Mexican American (one speaks limited English). In general, the students test at or above grade level on standardized tests, but the students of color lag behind the others. Stewart is also concerned about José. Because José's English is limited, Stewart must explain everything to him four or five times, and she can seldom work with him one-on-one. She fears that he is a special needs student. Perhaps she will ask the school psychologist to test José.

The research literature suggests that how teachers like Wilson and Stewart think about education and students makes a pronounced difference in student performance and achievement (Apple 1990, Cooper 1979). Winfield (1986) found that teachers expect more from white students than from African-American students, and they expect more from middle-class students than from working- and lower-class students. Teachers often perceive African-American students from working- or lower-class backgrounds as incapable of high-quality academic work. Both Wilson and Stewart are entertaining such thoughts. They are not attributing their problems with students of color to ineffective teaching approaches.

Sometimes, unrecognized or outright racism causes teachers to hold negative beliefs about students of color. A dramatic example from a first-year teacher's journal entry:

I hate [African-American students'] ethnic attitude and their lingo. I hate to categorize it but ... I am more comfortable with black students who act white (Birrell 1993).

Such negative attitudes toward students of color lower expectations for achievement, which lowers achievement (King and Ladson-Billings 1990, Lipman 1993).

Content and Materials Matter

Teachers who are sincerely committed to multicultural education cannot be satisfied with superficial celebrations of heroes and holidays. This approach to content trivializes multicultural education and conveys the idea that diversity issues come into play only during celebratory moments with foods, fun, and festivals.

In the multicultural festival model, teachers, students, and parents typically spend lots of time and energy preparing for an all-school activity. Students may do background research about a culture, prepare maps, and help create indigenous costumes. Parents may help to prepare various ethnic foods. On the day of the festival, members of the school community go from class to class, visiting the various cultures, sampling the foods, and enjoying dances, songs, and arts and crafts. At the end of the day, everyone agrees that the annual event has been a great success. Then teachers and students go back to their real work.

In the transformative model, on the other hand, multicultural education is not a separate, isolated, once-a-year activity. Instead, the regular curriculum includes a range of cultural perspectives, as in the following two classroom scenarios.

In a primary classroom, the teacher reads several versions of the Cinderella story. One is the familiar European tale by the Brothers Grimm, but other versions are Chinese, Egyptian, and Zimbabwean. The teacher helps students compare the different versions. Similarities include story structure, plot development, moral and ethical dilemmas, and the use of magic. Differences include standards of beauty, settings, use of language, and specific characters. The students absorb the importance of understanding cultural differences and similarities.

In an intermediate history class, students study the African slave trade, but not solely from the perspective of the European traders. They also read a range of primary documents, like the slave narrative called The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano (it compares slavery in Africa with slavery in the Americas). In addition, the teacher introduces information about the European feudal system. The students compare the lives of enslaved people in Africa, the Americas, and medieval Europe. Finally, they generate analytical questions, such as, What is the relationship between slavery and racism? How could a nation striving for equality and justice permit slavery? Why did some people in Africa participate in the slave trade? And how does the textbook's treatment of slavery compare to primary source material?

The teacher in this class plans to do similar in-depth study when the class studies the displacement of Native Americans, the Spanish mission system, European immigration of the 1890s, and Japanese internment. Although the transformative approach requires redesigning the curriculum, searching for additional materials, and limiting the number of topics taught, the teacher thinks the outcome is worth the effort. Students learn more content and develop a real ability to ask and answer critical questions.

The materials used in classrooms have important effects, too. As Banks' comprehensive literature review (1993a) points out, children are aware of their race and ethnicity at an early age. “If realistic images of ethnic and racial groups are included in teaching materials in a consistent, natural, and integrated fashion,” Banks (1993b) concludes, all children “can be helped to develop more positive racial attitudes.” Similar results are reported on gender issues (Scott and Schau 1985).

If classrooms use materials that do not portray diverse groups realistically, students are likely to develop, maintain, and strengthen the stereotypes and distortions in the traditional curriculum. Text analysis (a common form of multicultural research) indicates that textbook images and representations exclude, distort, and marginalize women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic echelons. A growing proportion of textbooks do include diversity, but their images and representations tend to be superficial and incorrect (Swartz 1992).

Instructional Approaches Matter

Changes to make curriculum content more equitable must be accompanied by changes that make pedagogy even-handed. To ensure “equitable pedagogy,” Banks says (see “On Educating for Diversity: A Conversation with James A. Banks,” p. 28), teachers must modify instruction to “facilitate academic achievement among students from diverse groups.”

To some teachers, simultaneously dealing with the flood of new materials and modifying instructional approaches seems like an overwhelming task. These teachers think that it is all they can do to teach the new material in old ways. In other classrooms, however, teachers have asked themselves, what one move can I make to ensure that all students have opportunities for success?

For some teachers, providing more equitable pedagogy may be as simple as using more cooperative learning strategies in class. After all, cooperative learning was first developed as a way to create more equitable classroom environments (Cohen and Benton 1988, Slavin 1987).

For other teachers, equitable pedagogy will demand that they use the language and understandings that children bring to school to bridge the gap between what students know and what they need to learn (Au and Jordan 1981, Erickson and Mohatt 1982, Jordan 1985, Vogt et al. 1987). In addition, the total school context must come to accept whatever students have learned and experienced as legitimate knowledge (Irvine 1990, Ladson-Billings 1992, in press). Teachers can further these ends if they spend time in their students' community and apply in the classroom what they learned in students' homes.

Teachers may also profit by learning their students' language. A teacher who knows how to ask and answer basic questions in a second language can often make the classroom a welcoming and psychologically safe environment for speakers of that language. If a teacher becomes sufficiently fluent to teach academic content in English and a student's home language, the teacher tacitly promotes bilingualism and biliteracy (Hornberger 1988).

Educational Settings Matter

Forty years ago, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate schools inherently unequal. Yet now, after years of hard-fought battles to desegregate the nation's schools, most students of color still attend segregated schools (Orfield 1989). Even when students go to desegregated schools, they are resegregated within the school via tracking and ability grouping (Oakes 1985).

For students of color, perhaps more devastating is the lack of access to high-quality education (Kozol 1991). Clearly, as a society, our care and concern for student learning is differentiated along racial, class, and ethnic lines.

To grasp the impact of these inequities, imagine that our new teachers, Wilson and Stewart, were to participate in a school exchange program. Wilson's students would visit Stewart's class. Then Stewart's class would visit Wilson's. What will each setting informally teach the children?

When Wilson's students arrive at Stewart's school, they are struck by its physical beauty and space. Well-kept grounds have ample playground equipment. Inside the school, the halls gleam, and a lively buzz emanates from the various classrooms. Each brightly lighted classroom has at least one computer. The school library has several computers, CD-ROM, laser disks, and an extensive library of videotapes. The school has many special rooms: a gymnasium, a multipurpose room, vocal and instrumental music rooms, an art room, and a room for enrichment activities. In each of the rooms is a teacher who regularly works with Stewart's students, freeing her for 45 minutes each day. She uses the time to plan, read, hold parent conferences, and do research.

When Stewart's class visits Wilson's school, they enter an old structure built in the 1920s. Its concrete yard is littered with broken glass, graffiti cover the walls, and the only piece of playground equipment is a netless basketball hoop. Inside the building, the dark halls are eerily silent, since room doors are closed and locked from the inside. There is a room where books are stored, but they are not catalogued because there is no librarian. The entire school shares one VCR and monitor. One of the two 16 mm film projectors is broken. A few filmstrips hide in various closets. The one room that does have computers, listening centers, and film loop machines is the Chapter One lab.

Here, students with literacy and mathematics deficits receive small-group instruction and skill practice for 30 to 45 minutes each day. In a corner of the multipurpose room, 12 gifted students in grades 3 to 5 meet one morning a week with a visiting gifted and talented education teacher. Classroom teachers are responsible for all other instruction, so they rarely have time to plan or confer.

What Stewart's students learn from their encounter is that Wilson's students are underprivileged, and perhaps, undeserving. The students will probably come to see inequities as normal and to equate African Americans and Latinos with poverty.

Meanwhile, Wilson's students learn that material advantages go with being white. Since Stewart's and Wilson's students are all about the same age with similar interests and abilities, the major difference that Wilson's students can see is skin color.

The few students of color in Stewart's class learn that they are very lucky. Under other circumstances, they could be at Wilson's school. Even though they may do poorly in a predominantly white school, they regard being there as a privilege.

Teacher Education Matters

If Wilson's and Stewart's students derive naive conceptions from their exchange visits, the teachers themselves also have trouble making sense of the differences. Neither teacher learned much about cultural variation during preservice preparation (Zeichner 1992, Ladson-Billings, in press).

Wilson took an ESL course, but Stewart did not, and she has José. Both Wilson and Stewart took a required human relations course, but although it presented some historical information about Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, it was silent on European-American cultures and the role of culture in learning and achievement. Both Wilson and Stewart believed, further, that the course was designed to make them feel guilty. As a result, they silently resisted the material, and its impact on their eventual practice was sharply reduced.

As inservice teachers, Wilson and Stewart have had some opportunities to learn about multicultural education, but these have taken the form of fleeting, one-time workshops. The experiences had little or no follow-up, and no one attempted to ensure that teachers applied the new information (Sleeter 1992).

Fortunately, one of Wilson's colleagues is a graduate student who has taken several courses dealing with race, class, and gender issues. He has learned from the experiences of two teachers like Vivian Paley (1979) and Jane Elliot (Peters 1987). Wilson's colleague is impressive because he seems to manage his classes easily, and his students achieve well on tasks that go beyond worksheets and drills. Wilson plans to enroll in a multicultural education course next semester. He hopes to learn something that will help him succeed with students of color.

While Wilson is motivated to change, Stewart is not. Because she is successful with most of her students, she thinks her lack of success with students of color stems from their deficiencies. Stewart's colleagues and the parents of her white students reinforce this belief.

Does the Race and Ethnicity of Teachers Matter?

Whether teachers' race and ethnicity affect student achievement remains an open question. We know that most teachers in the United States are white and that the next largest group, African Americans, comprise less than 5 percent of all public school teachers. We also know that the majority of students in the 25 largest public school systems are students of color.

No empirical evidence, however, indicates that students of color learn better when taught by teachers of color. The most recent review of the literature on African-American teachers (King 1993) finds no connection between teacher race/ethnicity and student achievement. The positive aspect of this finding is that it makes all teachers accountable for teaching all students.

If current demographic trends hold, our student population will become more diverse, while the teaching population remains predominantly white. The implication is that if teachers are to be effective, they will need to be prepared to teach children who are not white. If we are lucky, more teachers will follow Wilson's lead. They will know that the multicultural education research literature can help them understand themselves, their culture, and the cultures of others, and be more successful with all students.

References

Apple, M. (1990). Ideology and Curriculum. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Au, K., and C. Jordan. (1981). “Teaching Reading to Hawaiian Children: Finding a Culturally Appropriate Solution.” In Culture and the Bilingual Classroom: Studies in Classroom Ethnography, edited by H. Trueba, G. Guthrie, and K. Au. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

Banks, J. A. (1993a). “Multicultural Education for Young Children: Racial and Ethnic Attitudes and Their Modification.” In Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children, edited by B. Spodek. New York: Macmillan.

Banks, J. A. (1993b). “Multicultural Education: Development, Dimensions, and Challenges.” Phi Delta Kappan 75: 22–28.

Birrell, J. (February 1993). “A Case Study of the Influence of Ethnic Encapsulation on a Beginning Secondary School Teacher.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators, Los Angeles.

Cohen, E., and J. Benton. (Fall 1988). “Making Groupwork Work.” American Educator: 10–17, 45–46.

Cooper, H. (1979). “Pygmalion Grows Up: A Model for Teacher Expectation Communication and Performance Influence.” Review of Educational Research 49: 389–410.

Erickson, F., and G. Mohatt. (1982). “Cultural Organization and Participation Structures in Two Classrooms of Indian Students.” In Doing the Ethnography of Schooling, edited by G. Spindler. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hornberger, N. (1988). “Iman Chay?: Quechua Children in Peru's Schools.” In School and Society: Teaching Content Through Culture, edited by H. Trueba and C. Delgado-Gaitan. New York: Praeger.

Irvine, J. (1990). Black Students and School Failure. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Jordan, C. (1985). “Translating Culture: From Ethnographic Information to Educational Program.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 16: 105–123.

King, J., and G. Ladson-Billings. (1990). “The Teacher Education Challenge in Elite University Settings: Developing Critical Perspectives for Teaching in Democratic and Multicultural Societies.” European Journal of Intercultural Education 1: 15–20.

King, S. H. (1993). “The Limited Presence of African-American Teachers.” Review of Educational Research 63: 115–149.

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1992). “Reading Between the Lines And Pages: A Culturally Relevant Approach to Literacy Teaching.” Theory into Practice 31: 312–320.

Ladson-Billings, G. (In press). “Multicultural Teacher Education: Research, Practice, and Policy.” In Handbook of Research in Multicultural Education, edited by J. A. Banks and C. M. Banks. New York: Macmillan.

Lipman, P. (1993). “Teacher Ideology Toward African-American Students in Restructured Schools.” Doctoral diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Orfield, G. (1989). Status of School Desegregation 1968– 1986. (Report of Urban Boards of Education and the National School Desegregation Research Project). Washington, D.C.: National School Boards Association.

Paley, V. (1979). White Teacher. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Peters, W. (1987). A Class Divided: Then and Now. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Scott, K. P., and C. G. Schau. (1985). “Sex Equity and Sex Bias Instructional Materials.” In Handbook for Achieving Sex Equity Through Education, edited by S. S. Klein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Slavin, R. (November 1987). “Cooperative Learning and the Cooperative School.” Educational Leadership 45, 3: 7–13.

Sleeter, C., and C. Grant. (1988). “An Analysis of Multicultural Education in the United States.” Harvard Educational Review 57: 421–444.

Swartz, E. (1992). “Multicultural Education: from a Compensatory to a Scholarly Foundation.” In Research and Multicultural Education: From the Margins to the Mainstream, edited by C. Grant. London: Falmer Press.

Vogt, L., C. Jordan, and R. Tharp. (1987). “Explaining School Failure, Producing School Success: Two Cases.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 18: 276–286.

Winfield, L. (1986). “Teacher Beliefs Toward At-Risk Students in Inner-Urban Schools.” The Urban Review 18: 253–267.

Zeichner, K. (1992). Educating Teachers for Cultural Diversity. East Lansing, Mich.: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning.

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