16 Living in Complex Societies 2: Diversity & Multicultural Education

Diversity and Multicultural Education

Our goal for students is to not only be familiar with Foundations concepts but also to be scholars of Foundations of Education. The additional readings selected throughout the course modules reflect this goal, as we have included authors who are considered experts in the field to supplement the content course content. In this module, you will be exposed to Sonia NietoDiane Ravitch, and Ronald Takaki.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Define and discuss the idea of multicultural education and the different philosophical approaches to accomplishing this.
  • Understand the historical roots of multicultural education
  • Explain the idea of culture and be able to provide examples of how culture is influential. (Key terms: dominant culture, ethnocentrism, cultural capital, compensatory programs, acculturation)
  • Recognize the various acculturation outcomes for immigrants

Introduction to Multicultural Education


Why Multicultural Education?

What is multicultural education? It is likely a term you have heard before, and perhaps something that you have never spent much time thinking about. Multicultural education is the idea that the United States is made up of many different kinds of people, and the public education people receive should be reflective and inclusive of all the different backgrounds that make up our country. Additionally, multicultural education should help all students feel that they have a place in our schools and society, regardless of their race, social class, gender, sexual identity, disability, language and geographic background, or religious background. In order to help you understand this importance, we have organized these modules into groups based on these differences. By understanding the experiences and societal impacts of each of these dimensions of diversity, you should be more prepared to teach or interact with people from all backgrounds going forward. As our schools and society in the United States continue to become more diverse, multicultural education is critical to foster empathy and understanding to each other.

While many people can agree that this is an important concept, implementation of multicultural education can be very different. In today’s educational policy landscape, multicultural education is often viewed as being separate from general education, something that can be used occasionally to enrich or complement the general academic program. For example, many schools use national events like Black History Month or Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to learn about the contributions of African-Americans, while others organize events to celebrate multiculturalism. Diversity Weeks or school assemblies designed to promote racial and ethnic diversity can be observed in districts across America. While these efforts are no doubt designed and implemented with benevolent intentions, many scholars in the field of multicultural education have suggested that current educational policies and practices address only the surface-level of multiculturalism by highlighting differences in food, dress, music, dance, and language, without addressing the underlying issues of educational values, worldview, and knowledge construction (Banks, 2004; Gollnick & Chinn, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012). As such, the conceptualization of multiculturalism shifts from a product to a process. Rather than offer simple educational products–like prescribed, close-ended lesson plans—these modules view multiculturalism as a long term investment that shifts and shapes educational experiences at all levels of policy and practice.

The aim of these modules is to expand the understanding of multiculturalism to create a more inclusive and more holistic approach to teaching and learning. While many discussions of multiculturalism center around issues of race and ethnicity, we posit that class and socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, language, immigration, geography, and religion also play crucial roles in the development of equal and equitable educational policies and practices. Therefore, after a discussion of the sociopolitical and sociocultural contexts of education and the overarching approaches to multicultural education, this module will investigate each of the individual identifiers that contribute to a more complete view of multiculturalism.

History of Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism, by definition, contains–and is characterized by–the diverse histories, ideologies, and social movements that combined to create the body of educational theories and practices that exist today. Given the history of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and language in the United States, the American education system offered unequal educational experiences to students for centuries. Prior to the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, dominant social groups–for the most part white, wealthy, males– held the social, intellectual, political, and economic power to construct the knowledge, ideologies, and cultural norms that became institutionalized in American society and therefore implemented in educational settings. A wide body of scholarly research documented the systematic construction of educational curricula that validated and reinforced the dominance of European and Western values, while simultaneously degrading and devaluing the contributions of communities of color (Banks, 1993; Fine, 1987; Hines, 1964). Theoretical and empirical research confirmed that the imposition of a singular construction of knowledge based on the political, cultural, and economic ideologies of the dominant group was detrimental to the education of students whose backgrounds did not align with the dominant group (Banks, 2004). These findings, which were documented in formal research as well as in the informal experiences of countless individuals, contributed to the formation of a more unified conception of multicultural education. It is important, however, to situate modern understandings of multiculturalism within their historical contexts.

In an effort to reflect the diverse history of multiculturalism, Fullinwider (2003) identified several “tributaries” that converged to create multicultural education. Intergroup education, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, ethnic studies programs, and feminist and gender equality movements offered some of the most influential contributions to the contemporary conception of multiculturalism. Each of these traditions challenged dominant patterns of knowledge construction in American society, and thereby influenced teaching and learning in schools across the nation.

While some education historians challenge the idea that the intergroup education movement influenced the development of early multiculturalism (Boyle-Baise 1999), others see it as a precursor to the establishment of the ethnic studies movement that was integral to its recognition as a legitimate academic field (Banks, 2004). The intergroup education movement was a product of the larger political, social, and economic context of the era. Throughout the 1940s, the effects and consequences of the United States’ involvement in World War II radically changed the way of life for many Americans. Economically, the increased availability of wartime jobs in the North and West enticed large numbers of African Americans, Mexican Americans, rural whites, and women to migrate into urban centers to fill vacant jobs. Politically, the wartime nationalism sparked–to a degree– a more inclusive national political narrative that promoted tolerance of African Americans in order to achieve common goal of defeating Germany and Japan, though the war also sparked increased racism against Asian Americans, particularly Japanese Americans, who were subject to harassment and violence, in addition to being forced to live internment camps. The social consequences of the war, however, were more complex. With increasing diversity in many urban centers, conflict based on race, ethnicity, and gender became a common experience. In the years following the war, black and Hispanic soldiers were legally and institutionally barred from receiving their GI and other veteran benefits, which was a stark reminder of the deeply entrenched racism in American society. The unrest caused politicians and policy-makers to turn to education for solutions to social issues.

In response to the social, political, and economic consequences of World War II, the intergroup education movement aimed to reduce racial and ethnic tension by promoting an educational ideology of tolerance. Intergroup education grew out of progressive education and was headed by predominate educational researchers such as Hilda Taba, Howard Wilson, and Lloyd Cook (Banks, 2004). In order to achieve its central goal of reducing racial tensions and promote intergroup tolerance and understanding, the intergroup education movement advocated for the establishment of intergroup relations centers, active involvement in social tolerance movements, and the creation of more inclusive educational objectives, curriculum, and pedagogy throughout educational experiences, from kindergartens through universities. These programs were implemented into practice sporadically and non-uniformly, which led to mixed results in their effectiveness in achieving their stated goals. However, the intergroup education produced a number of influential research studies and reports that offered empirical evidence of educational inequalities based on race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. These studies confirmed and helped to support landmark cases that were directly preceded the Civil Rights Movement, including Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll study. While the intergroup education movement was viewed as a departure from previous educational traditions because of its inclusiveness, it was rooted primarily in an ideology that promoted tolerance and human relations, without a specific focus on the individual histories of different minority groups or the overarching institutionalized discrimination in American society, which became a central focus of the Civil Rights Movement, revisionist history, and ethnic studies programs. It is this distinction that has led scholars to view the intergroup education movement as an educational ideology separate from multiculturalism (Boyle-Blaise; 1999).

The scholarly literature identified the Civil Rights Movement as one of the major factors that contributed to modern multicultural education (Banks, 2004; Banks, 1993; Gay, 1983; Valverde, 1977). Clearly, the overarching goals and objectives of multicultural education reflect the struggle for freedom and equality embodied in the Civil Rights Movement. The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 marked the beginning of court-ordered educational integration in the United States. However, the oft quoted “all deliberate speed” language in the court’s decision limited the ability for federal oversight to ensure that states complied with the decision. Despite the ruling, the integration of schools continued to be a hard fought battle waged by civil rights activists, parent groups, and even students themselves. During this time, the focus was so heavily on integration of schools and the physical safety of students, there was little room for inquiry into curriculum content and pedagogical practices. However, as the Civil Rights Movement advanced, educational researchers and activists began to question the educational policies and practices of the time and began to develop the underlying foundations of multicultural education.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the character of the Civil Rights Movement began to shift towards cultural pride, self-determination, and political activism (Gay, 1983). The growth of cultural consciousness among black activist groups sparked intellectual inquiry into the histories, traditions, and worldviews of cultures that had previously been excluded from the curriculum in American education, from elementary school through university. Armed with a critical consciousness, academics and practitioners conducted numerous analyses and reviews of curriculum contents and textbooks. Not only did these studies find that the contributions of minority groups and women systematically left out of the curriculum, they also identified that the vast majority of textbooks reported “ethnic distortions, stereotypes, omissions, and misinformation” (Gay, 1983, p.561). The misinformation that existed in historiographies and curriculum content served as an impetus for scholars to revisit historical narratives with a specific focus on the contributions and experiences of non-dominant groups. These counter-narratives– sometimes called revisionist histories– challenged intellectual status-quo and offered a contrasting approach to the construction of knowledge. As the field of counter-narratives and revisionist history gained ground in academia, students and professors at universities and colleges across the nation began to demand specific academic programs that centered around the experiences of minority groups in America.

In the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, the Civil Rights Movement became increasingly fractured as various activist groups trended in different directions, though many shared similar goals and aims. Educationally, the combination of a resurgence of cultural pride and the counter-narratives of revisionist history created a sense of isolation and alienation from mainstream American culture and inspired a separatist perspective on curriculum and instruction. With the support of faculty, minority student activist groups on college and university campuses petitioned for specialized programs that addressed racial and ethnic issues. In response to the pressure from students, colleges and universities established Black Studies programs and courses throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, San Francisco State University became the first university to offer a Black Studies major. The establishment of Black Studies programs helped opened the door for other groups who had been subjected to institutionalized discrimination to organize and lobby for programs and courses specific to their experiences. By 1973, approximately 600 new ethnic studies programs had been established at colleges and universities around the United States (http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases).

As distinct ethnic studies programs became increasingly common in educational settings, scholars and researchers began to identify commonalities between the philosophies, ideologies, and experiences addressed across the separate programs. These common ideas became a center point for the establishment of multiethnic perspectives, which is considered to be the antecedent to multiculturalism. The shift to ethnic studies to multiethnic studies was guided by the work of many scholars who are now considered to be the founders of multiculturalism, including James Banks, Christine Bennett, Geneva Gay, Donna Gollnick, and Carl Grant. While the central goals of achieving equal and equitable educational experiences for all students through critical thinking, social justice, and community activism did not change during this period, some worried that the conceptual frameworks and theoretical perspectives would become muddled and less clear due to the diverse variety of experiences of the various minority groups included under the multiethnic umbrella (Grant, 1978).

Despite these warnings, the boundaries of multiethnic education quickly expanded to become multiculturalism with the addition of gender and disability issues. Not surprisingly, the counter-narratives of ethnic studies were mirrored by a movement in gender studies that contributed to the creation of feminist movements and a resurgence of scholarship that focused on women’s issues and larger discussions about the importance of gender in society. The inclusion of gender studies in multiculturalism allowed for the development of new frameworks for analysis. For example, concepts of intersectionality and the interlocking experiences based on race, class, gender, and other identifiers–which are common in modern multiculturalism– grew out of scholarship and research in Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies. These developments allowed for deeper investigations into the systems of discrimination and advantage in American society. However, the inclusion of gender and disability in multiculturalism was not welcomed by all as some scholars continued to challenge the inclusion of gender, disabilities, and age in multiculturalism because experiences based on those identifiers did not constitute a “pervasive worldview” and therefore did not conform with the commonly accepted definition of culture in the field of multiculturalism (Boyle-Baise, 1999). Regardless, modern conceptions of multiculturalism often include a consideration of gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and age (Gollnick & Chinn, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012).

Current perspectives on multicultural education today continue to reflect the initial goals of improving educational equity and equality, reducing discrimination, and promoting active involvement in social justice and democratic society. The history of multiculturalism includes diverse influences and contributions that truly embody the ‘multi’ of multiculturalism.

Sociopolitical Contexts of Education

Although educational policies and practices are sometimes viewed as if they existed in a vacuum, separate from the larger social, political, and cultural contexts, one of the central tenets of multiculturalism asserts that educational decision-making is heavily influenced by each of these contexts. In particular, many scholars of multicultural education point to the importance of the sociopolitical context of education in the modern era as educational policies and practices are increasingly becoming politicized. Given the political nature of educational decision making, the educational policies and practices implemented at national, state, and local levels reflect the values, traditions, and worldviews of the individuals and groups responsible for their design and implementation, which inherently makes education a non-neutral process, though it is often seen as such. Understanding the sociopolitical context of education allows for a critical analysis of educational policies and practices in an effort to reduce educational inequalities, improve the achievement of all students, and prepare students to participate in democratic society.

In the field of multicultural education– and across the social sciences– the sociopolitical context refers to the laws, regulations, mandates, policies, practices, traditions, values, and beliefs that exist at the intersection of social life and political life. For example, freedom of religion is one of the fundamental principles of life in American society, and therefore there are laws in place that protect every individual’s right to worship as they choose. In this instance, the social practices (ideologies, beliefs, traditions) and political process (laws, regulations, policies) reflect each other and combine to create a sociopolitical context that is, in principle, welcoming to all religious practices. There are similar connections between the social and the political in the field of education. Given that one of the main purposes of schooling is to prepare students to become productive members of society, classroom practices must reflect– to some extent– the characteristics of the larger social and political community. For example, in the United States, many schools use student governments to expose students to the principles of democratic society. By organizing debates, holding elections, and giving student representatives a voice in educational decision making, schools hope to impart upon students the importance of engaging in the political process. The policies and practices that support the operation of student government directly reflect the larger sociopolitical context of the United States. Internationally, the use of student government often reflect the political systems used in that country, if a student government organization exists at all. However, sociopolitical contexts influence educational experiences in subtler ways as well.

Throughout the history of American education, school policies and practices have reflected the ideological perspectives and worldviews of the underlying sociopolitical context. As stated above, schools in democratic societies often have democratic student government organizations that reflect the political organization of the larger society, while similar organizations cannot be found in schools in countries that do not practice democracy. Similarly, if a society shares a widespread belief that some groups (based on race, class, language, or any other identifier) are inherently more intelligent than another, educational policies and practices will reflect that belief. For example, as the United States expanded westward into Native American lands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Americans shared the widespread belief that Native Americans were inherently less intelligent and less civilized than white Americans. This belief system served as a justification for the “Manifest Destiny” ideology that encouraged further westward expansion. Not surprisingly, the larger sociopolitical context of the time influences educational policies and practices. In large numbers, young Native Americans were torn from their families and forced into boarding schools where they were stripped of their traditions and customs before being involuntarily assimilated into “American culture”. These Native American boarding schools outlawed indigenous languages and religions. They required students to adopt western names, wear western clothes, and learn western customs. While from a contemporary perspective these schools were clearly inhumane, racist, and discriminatory, they illustrate how powerful the sociopolitical climate of the era can be in the implementation of educational policies and practices. Educational policies today continue to reflect the larger social and political ideologies, worldviews, and belief systems of American society, and although instances of blatant discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, or any other identifier have been dramatically reduced in recent decades, a critical investigation into contemporary schooling reveals that individuals and groups are systematically advantaged and disadvantaged based on their identities and backgrounds, which will be explored in more depth in subsequent sections of this (book/class).

The role of social institutions in educational experiences are another key consideration in developing an understanding of the sociopolitical contexts of education. The term social institutions refer to the establish, standardized patterns of rule governed behavior within a community, group, or other social system. Generally, the term social institutions includes a consideration of the socially accepted patterns of behavior set by the family, schools, religion, and economic and political systems. Each social institution contributes to the efficiency and sustained functionality of the larger society by ensuring that individuals behave in a manner that consistent with the larger structure, which allows them to contribute to the society. Traffic regulations offer an example of how social institutions work together to create and ensure safety and efficiency in society. In order to reduce chaos, danger, and inefficiency along roadways in the United States, political institutions have created laws and regulations that govern behavior along public roads. Drivers found in violation of these regulations face punishment or fines that are determined by the judicial system. Furthermore, families and schools– and to some extent religions organizations– are responsible for teaching young people the rules and regulations that govern transportation in their society. The streamlined and regulated transportation system produced by the aforementioned social institutions allows economic institutions to function more efficiently. Functionalist Theory is a term used to refer to the perspective that institutions fill functional prerequisites in society and are necessary for social efficiency as seen in the previous example.

However, Conflict Theory refers to the idea that social institutions work to reinforce inequalities and uphold dominant group power. Using the same transportation example, a conflict theorist might argue that the regulations that require licensing fees before being able to legally operate a vehicle disproportionately impact poor people, which would limit their ability to move freely and thereby make it more difficult for them to hold and maintain a job that would allow them to move into a higher socioeconomic class. Another argument from the conflict theorist perspective might challenge institutionalized policies that require drivers to present proof of citizenship or immigration papers before being allowed to legally operate a vehicle. These policies systematically deny the right of freedom of movement to immigrants who entered the United States illegally, thereby limiting their civil rights as well as their ability to contribute to the American economy. Both the Functionalist Theory and Conflict Theory perspectives can contribute to a nuanced understanding of contemporary educational policies and practices by providing contrasting viewpoints on the same issue. Throughout these modules these perspectives will inform the discussion of educational institutions and how they influence– and are influenced by– other social institutions.

Much like educational policies and practices, the rules and regulations set by social institutions do not exist within a vacuum, nor are they neutral in regard to the way they impact individuals and groups. Institutional discrimination refers to “the adverse treatment of and impact on members of minority groups due to the explicit and implicit rules that regulate behavior (including rules set by firms, schools, government, markets, and society). Institutional discrimination occurs when the rules, practices, or ‘non-conscious understanding of appropriate conduct’ systematically advantage or disadvantage members of particular groups” (Bayer, 2011). Historical examples of institutional discrimination in abound in American history. In the field of education, perhaps the most well known example of institutionalized discrimination is the existence of segregated schools prior to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. During this era, students of color were institutionally and systematically prevented from attending white schools, and instead were forced to attend schools that lacked sufficient financial, material, and human resources. Institutional discrimination in contemporary society, however, is often subtler given that there are a plethora of laws that explicitly prevent discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifier. Regardless of those laws, social institutions and institutionalized discrimination continue to disadvantage non-dominant groups, thereby advantaging members of the dominant group. Use housing as an example, homeowner’s associations are local organizations that regulate the rules and behaviors within a particular housing community. If a homeowner’s association decides that only nuclear families can live within their community and create a bylaw that stipulates such, the practice of allowing nuclear families and denying non-nuclear families becomes codified as an institutionalized policy. While the policy does not directly state that it intends to be discriminatory, it would disproportionately affect families from cultures that traditionally have households that include aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other extended family members, a practice that is common in many Asian, African, and South American communities. Although hypothetical, this example represents an example of the subtle ways in which institutional discrimination surfaces in contemporary society.

A more concrete example of institutionalized discrimination can be drawn from the housing market in New Orleans as homes were being rebuilt in the aftermath Hurricane Katrina. While the Lower Ninth Ward– a mostly black neighborhood– was among the most damaged neighborhood in New Orleans, just downriver the St. Bernard Parish neighborhood– which was mostly white– was also heavily damaged. By 2009, most of St. Bernard Parish had been rebuilt, while the Lower Ninth Ward remained unfit for living. As families began moving back into the neighborhood, elected officials in St. Bernard Parish passed a piece of legislation that required property owners to rent only to ‘blood relatives’. In effect, the policy barred potential black residents from moving into the area and served to maintain the racial makeup of the neighborhood prior to Katrina. After several months of implementation, the policy was legally challenged and was found to be in violation of the Fair Housing Act in Louisiana courts. In 2014, the Parish agreed to pay approximately $1.8 million in settlements to families negatively affected by the policy. This example illustrates how institutionalized discrimination surfaces in contemporary society. Throughout the modules, instances of institutional discrimination in schools, as well as in American society as a whole, will be critically analyzed in order to develop an understanding of how educators can work to reduce inequality and promote academic achievement for all students.

A basic understanding of social institutions and institutional discrimination helps inform this course’s approach to key educational issues in the field of multicultural education. As the student body in American schools becomes increasingly diverse, it becomes increasingly important for future teachers to know and understand how students’ identities might impact their educational experiences as well as their experiences their larger social and political settings. While there are many issues facing education today, Nieto and Bode (2012) identified four key terms that are central to understanding sociopolitical context surrounding multicultural education. These terms include: equal and equitable education, the ‘achievement gap’, deficit theories, and social justice.

The terms equal and equitable are often used synonymously, though they have vastly different meanings. While most educators would agree that providing an equal education to all students is an important part of their mission, it is sometimes more important to focus on creating equitable educational experiences. At its core, an equal education means providing exactly the same resources and opportunities for all students, regardless of their background. An equal education, however, does not ensure that all students will achieve equally. Take English Language Learners (ELLs) as an example. A group of ELL students sitting in the same classroom as native English speakers, listening to the same lecture, reading the same books, and taking the same assessments could be considered an equal education given that all students are receiving equal access to all of the educational experiences and materials. The outcome of this ostensibly equal education, however, would not be equitable. The ELL students would not be able to comprehend the lecture, books, or assessments and would therefore not be given the real possibility of achieving at an equal level, which is the aim of an equitable education. Equity refers to the educational process that “provides students with what they need to achieve equality” (Nieto & Bode, 2012, p.9). In the case of the ELL example, an equitable education would provide additional resources– perhaps including ESL specialists, bilingual activities and materials, and/or programs that foster native language literacy– to the ELL students to ensure that they are welcomed into the classroom community and are given the opportunity to learn and succeed equally. Working towards educational equality by providing equitable educational experiences is one of the central tenets of multicultural education and will be a recurring topic throughout these modules.

A second key term that is crucial in understanding multicultural education is the ‘achievement gap’. A large body of research has documented that students from racially and linguistically marginalized groups as well as students from low-income families generally achieve less than other students in educational settings. Large scale studies of standardized assessments revealed that white students outperformed black, Hispanic, and Native American students in reading, writing, and mathematics by at least 26 points on a scale from 0 to 500 (Nieto and Bode, 2012; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2009). Though usage of the term has changed over time, it often focuses on the role that students themselves play in the underachievement, which has drawn criticism from advocates of multicultural education because it places too much responsibility on the individual rather than considering the larger sociopolitical and sociocultural contexts surrounding education. While gaps in educational performance no doubt exist, Nieto and Bode (2012) suggest that using terms such as “resource gap”, “opportunity gap”, or “expectations gap” may be more accurate in describing the realities faced by marginalized students who often attend schools with limited resources, limited opportunities for educational advancement or employment in their communities, and face lowered expectations from their teachers and school personnel (p.13). Throughout this (book/course) issues related to the achievement gap’ and educational inequalities based on race, class, gender, and other identifiers will be viewed within the larger social, cultural, economic, and political contexts in order to create a more holistic and systematic understanding of student experiences, rather than focusing purely on the individual.

Historically in educational research, deficit theories have been used to explain how and why the achievement gap exists, but since the 1970s, scholars of multicultural education have been working to dismantle the lasting influence of deficit theory perspectives in contemporary education. The term ‘deficit theories’ refer to the assumption that some students perform worse than others in educational settings due to genetic, cultural, linguistic, or experiential differences that prevent them from learning. The roots of deficit theories can be found in 19th century pseudo-scientific studies that purported to show ‘scientific evidence’ that classified the intelligence and behavior characteristics of various racial groups. The vast majority of these studies were conducted by white men, who unsurprisingly, found white men to be the most intelligent group of human beings, with other groups falling in behind in ways that mirrored the accepted social standings of the era (Gould, 1981). Though many have been disproved, deficit theories continue to surface in educational research and discourse. Reports suggesting that academic underachievement is a product of cultural deprivation or a dysfunctional relationship with school harken back to deficit theory perspectives. Much like the ‘achievement gap’, deficit theories place the burden of academic underachievement on students and their families, rather than considering how the social and institutional contexts might impact student learning. Deficit theories also create a culture of despondency among educators and administrators since they support the idea that students’ ability to achieve is predetermined by factors outside of the teacher’s control. Multicultural education aims to disrupt the prevalence of deficit theory perspectives by encouraging a more nuanced analysis of student achievement that considers the structural and cultural contexts surrounding American schooling.

The fourth and final term that is central to understanding the sociopolitical context of multicultural education is social justice. Throughout these modules, the term social justice will be employed to describe efforts to reduce educational inequalities, promote academic achievement, and engage students in their local, state, and national communities. Social justice is multifaceted in that it embodies the ideologies, philosophies, approaches, and actions that work towards improving the quality of life for all individuals and communities. Not only does social justice aim to improve access to material and human resources for students in underserved communities, it also exposes inequalities by challenging and confronting misconceptions and stereotypes through the use of critical thinking and activism. Finally, in order for social justice initiatives to be successful, they must “draw on the talents and strengths that students bring to their education” (Nieto and Bode, 2012, p.12). This allows students to see their experiences represented in curriculum content, which can empower and inspire students– not only to excel academically– but also engage in activities that strengthen and build the community around them. These key components of social justice permeate throughout the field of multicultural education.

In order to develop a holistic understanding of educational experiences, these modules will interpret and analyze educational policies and practices through a lens that considers the sociopolitical contexts of education. By recognizing the role that social and political ideologies have over educational decision making, multicultural approaches to education aim to reduce educational inequalities, improve the achievement of all students, and prepare students to participate in democratic society.

Sociocultural Contexts of Education

Culture and Society

One of the main goals of multicultural education is to help bridge understanding between dominant culture and different people groups who may have been marginalized by that culture. Therefore, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by the term “dominant culture”. For most sociologists, culture refers to a roadmap for living within a society. Culture includes many components, such as language, customs, traditions, values, food, music, dress, gender roles, importance of religion, and so on. As culture encompasses so many aspects of diversity, it is one of the key components for understanding and discussing the experiences of all types of groups that will come in the following modules.

Culture imposes order and meaning on our experiences, and it allows us to predict how others will behave in certain situations. For example, if you are in a classroom and a student raises their hand, we know this means he or she has a question. But, culture includes so many things – the way people talk, dress, interact, eat, live, and so on. Within each culture are individuals, who are unique expressions of many cultures and subcultures.

There are two major responses to culture. One is enculturation, or, the process of acquiring the characteristics of a culture and knowing how to navigate behaviors, customs, etc. This often happens simply through the process of growing up within a given culture, but is certainly something that can continue should the culture around you change. For example, if you have ever studied abroad or visited another county for an extended amount of time, you will likely have encountered another culture where you needed to adapt and learn how to navigate social behaviors within that culture. Even in English-speaking countries there can be differences; while those of us in the United States often ask for the “bathroom”, Canadians refer to it as the “washroom”. The second major response is socialization, which refers to the process of learning the social norms of a culture. This can include what it means to be a daughter, husband, student, etc. and the societal expectations within those roles.

Dominant culture refers to the major aspects of culture that you find in a society. If you think back to our previous discussion a few paragraphs ago, we mentioned that culture helps to guide language, customs, values, food, etc. Given that, how would you describe the dominant culture in the United States? White? English-speaking? Middle class? Christian? These are just a few terms that are often used to describe the dominant U.S. culture. While you may disagree or find you do not fit into those categories, a key distinction of dominant culture is that it is often maintained through our institutions. These can be our political and economic institutions (we will go into more detail about these in our discussions in Module 3 on Class and Socioeconomic Status), churches, schools, and media. When you examine the leaders in most of these areas, you find they would meet the criteria listed above.

When people begin to believe that their culture is best and that any others are strange, inferior, or wrong, it is referred to as ethnocentrism. At its roots, ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture is correct and superior to all others, any other culture is not an equally viable option. Perhaps you have seen photos like this one that demonstrate ethnocentrism:

The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism. Cultural relativism refers to an attempt to understand other cultures within the context of your own cultural beliefs. For example, if you religiously identify as Methodist and attend services and participate regularly, perhaps you can identify with Jews or Muslims who also have religious beliefs that impact their daily living, customs, and values.

Culture and School

So, what does culture have to do with education? There are two main ways that culture interacts with our education system. First, culture influences what and how we learn, and second, greater experiences with a dominant culture often equal greater success within that culture.

To elaborate on how culture influences what and how we learn, we can look to history for some strong examples of this. One of the most blatant ones was the introduction of geocentric versus heliocentric theory. Prior to the work of Galileo, most scientists and certainly the influential Catholic church, fully believed the Earth was at the center of the solar system. However, mounting scientific evidence showed the sun was actually at the center. Was the church and culture quick to change their opinion based on scientific evidence? Not exactly. Galileo was subjected to Roman Inquisition by the church and put on house arrest in 1615. It was not until 1992 that the Catholic church apologized for the handling of Galileo.

While this may be a more extreme example, we continue to see culture influencing other aspects of learning today. The topics surrounding climate change, evolution, sex education, and others continue to be influenced in school settings by politicians and dominant U.S. culture.

The second way culture is important to education is that the more experiences a person has with dominant culture, the more likely they are to be successful within that culture. Sociologists often discuss these experiences as cultural capital, a symbolic credit a person would acquire by having more experiences with dominant culture. It is important to realize here, however, that all students come to school with some capital, it just may not be the capital schools expect them to have. Research tells us that there are two tiers of the most valuable cultural capital. Tier one activities include things like reading at least three hours per week, owning a home computer, attending preschool, and having exposure to performing arts (playing an instrument, chorus, etc.). Tier two experiences, those that research has shown important, but not as large of an impact, are things such as, having high family educational expectations, rules limiting television and screen time, participating in sports teams or clubs, completing arts and crafts activities, and exposure to lots of different types of music. Other examples of capital students may have that schools may not value in curriculum and assessment include things like knowing how to navigate public transit, cultivating and growing a garden, knowing how to birth a calf or other animal, and knowing how to load and shoot a shotgun.

Families are often erroneously blamed for not providing their children with the cultural capital needed to succeed in schools. These children are often labeled as having a cultural deficit or experiencing cultural deprivation (a somewhat insensitive and biased term). The issue these terms are attempting to define, however, is a real one. The challenge for educators is that often the expected knowledge and experiences of students do not actually line up with their actual knowledge and experiences. Essentially, there is a gap between what our schools expect students to know and have experienced and what students actually know and have experienced.

Compensatory programs are programming, funding, and other assistance that school systems and communities have put in place to address these gaps. Field trips and community schools are just a few examples of such programs. The following table includes several different programs you may see in schools and communities:

Examples of Compensatory Programs

· Title I of Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) · Programs and support services for the disabled
  • Head Start
  • Family literacy programs
  • Language instruction
  • Extended day instruction
  • Transportation services
  • Computer instruction

Responses to Culture

Another interesting point to consider is how individuals and families respond when they are confronted with a new culture. Acculturation is the term sociologists use to describe the process of adopting or taking on the culture of a new group. Most often, this involves immigrants adopting the dominant culture as their own. This can include speaking the new language, adopting a new set of core values, changing dress and foods, and so forth. The immigrant family or individual usually decide the degree to which acculturation will take place.

There are multiple models that address acculturation outcomes, but only two will be highlighted here.

One approach to understanding acculturation is the model proposed by Rambaut & Portes (2001). They identified the following acculturation patterns:

  • Consonant acculturation – Parents and children learn the language and culture of the community in which they live at approximately the same time.
  • Dissonant acculturation – Children learn the new language and the new culture, while parents retain the native language and culture, leading to conflict and decreased parental authority.
  • Selective acculturation – Children learn the dominant culture and language but retain significant elements of the native culture.

However, these outcomes can certainly be considered too limiting, namely because they only address acculturation outcomes in family settings. Not all immigrants who come to the United States come as families, and many of your students may even be studying here alone or through exchange programs. Therefore, the Berry (1980) model is more widely used in research and practice to think about the different ways immigrants adapt to a new country and culture.

Diagram showing combinations of Relationship to dominant society and cultural identity

Rejection/encapsulation refers to an individual decision to withdraw from norms of larger society; a cultural identity from the home country is retained, but within terms of a negative relationship to dominant society. For example, a Chinese immigrant that moves into a Chinese neighborhood and continues only speaking Chinese and interacting only with other immigrants in the immediate vicinity could be viewed as assuming the rejection variety of assimilation.

Deculturation/marginalization is fixed upon individual confusion and anxiety about personal cultural identity and relationships to larger society. This is the most negative outcome possible, where there is not retention of cultural identity and there is not a positive relationship with dominant society.

Assimilation on its own is similar to the old melting pot idea that new immigrants should give up their personal cultural identities in favor of greater, more dominant societal norms. Immigrants who changed their names upon arriving in America, such as changing the German-sounding “Von Meincke” to the more Anglo “Miller”, would be acting within the assimilation outcome of acculturation. Thus, individual cultural identity is lost, but a positive relationship to the dominant society is established.

Integration/biculturalism is the most positive outcome, and this type of acculturation results in the retention of cultural identity and a positive relationship to dominant society. Using this model, integration/biculturalism is the best acculturation outcome for immigrants’ psychological wellbeing because of the balance struck between the culture of the home country and that of the new one.

Keep in mind that each of these outcomes exists within a spectrum; individuals may fall closer to one side or the other within these possibilities. Assimilation is a strong example of this, as Native American schools represent some of the worst examples of assimilation in United States history, and their outcome would certainly be closer to the marginalization side. However, other immigrant groups came to the United States and willingly assimilated, such as changing their name, in order to be perceived as “more American”. Thus, while the Berry model offers a great guide to consider the experiences of adapting to a new culture, remember individuals can and do exist in a variety of places within the model. The This I Believe essays that are in the readings section of this module provide a strong example of two different acculturation experiences. We encourage you to read both of these and consider where they would fall according to this model.


Now that you, hopefully, understand more about the background and key ideas of multicultural education, it is worth investigating how scholars in the field would design and implement multicultural programming in schools. Sonia Nieto’s (2012) piece, Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform, highlights many of the key tenets she thinks should be included in any multicultural program.

Additionally, educational philosophers Diane Ravitch and Ronald Takaki show alternative viewpoints on what a multicultural program would look like within a school setting in the two additional readings associated with this module. In these complementary pieces, educational philosophers Ronald Takaki and Diane Ravitch each put forth competing philosophies to guide the implementation of multicultural education. Takaki, an advocate of particularism, supports the idea that a common culture is both undesirable and unattainable and maintains the position that students would learn best from teachers and curriculum that reflect their ethnic backgrounds. Ravitch, on the other hand, advocates for pluralism, that the United States does have a rich, common culture made up of various subcultures. As you read, be sure to note the major ideas of each of these, as well as the criticisms.

For example, pluralism advocates for a common culture, while particularism views this as undesirable and unattainable. One of the easiest ways to think about these different positions is to imagine a circle that is the historical approach multicultural education. For a particularist, there would be many pieces making up the circle, but they would never touch, as a common culture is unattainable because of all the diverse backgrounds. However, for a pluralist, the circle would be complete, all pieces touching, but perhaps each piece a different color to represent all of the different backgrounds that come together to make up the common culture of the United States. From a practical standpoint, which approach do you think is easier for schools to implement?

Particularist Circle

Pluralist Circle

Ravitch clearly outlines the different criticisms she has against a particularist approach, without clearly articulating some of the shortcomings of pluralism. Perhaps the greatest criticism of this approach is that there is a default towards European-American perspectives and history. While we expect the diagram to look as it does above, in reality, it often ends up skewed.

As you continue working in this course and through the modules, consider the focuses of these perspectives and how each would apply to the various dimensions of diversity.


Discussion Prompt: This I Believe Essays and Acculturation Models

In the lectures for this module, we discussed two different acculturation models. Just to remind you, acculturation is the way a person, typically an immigrant, responds to new cultures. Your readings for this module included two This I Believe essays by immigrants. Based on their stories, which acculturation outcome do you think each of these people would fit into under Berry’s model? How about the Portes and Rambaut model? Be sure to support your ideas with specific references from the essays.


Discussion Prompt: Pluralism and Particularism

This week, you were assigned two different articles, ‘Multiculturalism: Battleground or Meeting Ground’ and ‘Multiculturalism: E Plurbus Plures’. Each of these advocates for a different educational philosophy of multicultural education, either particularism or pluralism. Using the Pluralism and Particularism Handout as a guide, create a post here in which you discuss as the major differences between each philosophy. What are some of the shortcomings of each?


Written Response: Multiculturalism Reflection Paper Topics

  • Choose a cultural norm to break. Write about what you broke, why you chose to break this, and others’ reactions. How does your experience relate to our discussion of cultural norms? Make sure you include information about how people who unintentionally break norms would feel based on dominant culture.
  • Describe ethnocentrism in your own words. What are 2 – 3 examples of how you are ethnocentric? What are some strategies you can use to control this in the classroom?

External Readings & Resources

Ravitch, D. (1990). Multiculturalism: E pluribus plures. American Scholar, 59(3), 337-354.

Takaki, R. (1993). Multiculturalism: Battleground or Meeting Ground?. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 109.

In these complementary pieces, educational philosophers Ronald Takaki and Diane Ravitch each put forth competing philosophies to guide the implementation of multicultural education. Takaki, an advocate of particularism, supports the idea that a common culture is both undesirable and unattainable and maintains the position that students would learn best from teachers and curriculum that reflect their ethnic backgrounds. Ravitch, on the other hand, advocates for pluralism, that the United States does have a rich, common culture made up of various subcultures. As you read, be sure to note the major ideas of each of these, as well as the criticisms.

‘Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform’ – Chapter 2 in Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (6th edition)

As we begin EDUC 2120, it is important to define exactly what we mean by multicultural education. Sonia Nieto gives us a precise definition of multicultural education to work from for the semester in this piece as she reframes the idea of multicultural education and provides suggestions on what it should look like in educational settings.



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