Multicultural Classrooms

Most beginning educators think there is a set definition for multicultural education. They are confused when they are told there is no set definition for multiculturalism in education. According to most researchers such as James A. Banks and others, multicultural education should be dynamic or emergent. In other words, multicultural education should evolve to meet different circumstances and will look different in different educational settings. For example, do schools that serve majority dominant cultural students need multicultural education? Do schools that serve majority underrepresented communities of students need multicultural education? The answer is yes, however, multicultural education will look different in both settings. Each educational institution needs multicultural education, but the need of schools are different. Thus, the multicultural education strategies need to fit the educational setting in which they are located.

According to Banks (2019), the goal of multicultural education is to reform educational institutions so that students who come from diverse backgrounds (racial, ethnic, socioeconomic classes, levels of ableness) experience educational equity. A quality multicultural educational program will also champion efforts to create educational equity and opportunities for students who represent different biological sexes (male and female), different genders (a social construct), and students who represent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and or questioning, intersex, asexual, two-spirit).

Another way of looking at multicultural education is the definition suggested by Nieto (2012) as cited by Alenuma-Nimoh (2012), “… as a process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students. It challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society and accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and gender among others) that students, their communities, and leaders represent. Multicultural education permeates the curriculum and instructional practices used in schools, as well as the interactions among teachers, students, and parents and the very way that schools conceptualize teaching and learning” (p.2). Additionally, Alenuma-Nimoh (2012) cites the work of Banks (2008), by suggesting that there are key elements to a quality multicultural educational program. They are content integration, knowledge construction process, equity pedagogy, prejudice reduction, and an empowering school culture and social structure.

Teachers who are interested in allowing all students to reach their full potential socially and academically must first take a critical look at themselves. One of the ways to do this is suggested by Harro (2010). Harro suggests that we are born with a certain set of social identities. These identities include our gender, ethnicity, skin color, first language, age, ability status, religion, sexual orientation, and economic class. According to Harro these social categories predispose us to unequal roles in a system designed on oppression. We are socialized to be different and according to Harro, “This system is pervasive (coming form all sides and sources), consistent (patterned and predictable), circular (self-supporting), self-perpetuating (intra-dependent), and often invisible (unconscious and unnamed). These hegemonic systems play out in our classrooms as well.

Schools often serve as reproduction systems of the dominant culture’s social values, or cultural hegemony—“a commonsense view of what is and why things continue to happen that serves the interests of those already privileged in a society” (Banks & Banks, 2010, p. 46). As social institutions, public p-12 schools are not immune to social issues of the societies and communities in which they are located. Naturally, education is impacted by social constructs such as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class. Numerous studies and research have persistently pointed to a racial achievement gap in the U.S. (Pollack, 2012; Sugai, O’Keefe, & Fallon, 2012; Banks & Banks, 2010; Sealy-Ruiz & Green, 2010; Wyatt, 2009; Ladd & Fiske, 2008; Rothstein, 2008). Many such analyses indicate that students of color have lower achievement scores (Pollack, 2012; Sugai et al., 2012), higher disciplinary rates (Canton, 2012; Pollack, 2012; Sugai et al., 2012), higher rates of referral to special education services (Pollack, 2012; Sugai et al., 2012), and higher drop-out rates than White students (Wexler & Pyle, 2012). As a result, socio-economic and racial school-readiness gaps, mainstream-centric curriculum, and inadequately qualified teachers have contributed to the academic and social marginalization of students of color in some U.S. schools. Although the U.S. has experienced a deepening in ethnic culture, “… the U.S. school, college, and university mainstream curriculum is organized around concepts, paradigms, and events that primarily reflect the experiences of mainstream Americans” (Banks & Banks, 2010, p. 233). Banks and Banks (2010) claim that mainstream-centric curriculum marginalizes the experiences of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

Public schools in the U.S. are becoming more and more culturally diverse. The culture of schools can help to support or hinder the healthy academic and social development of students of color. Sugai et al. (2012) state in their research that by 2050 students who have historically been considered minorities such as African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans will actually comprise more than 50 percent of the population (p. 197). In actuality, U.S. Schools are already there. Presently, the number underrepresented students in the U.S. is equal to and in upcoming years will surpass the number of White students in the U.S. However, U.S. Schools still are based on White Eurocentric norms and values. The U.S. teaching population perpetuates these norms as 80% of teachers in the U.S. are White and out of that 80%, 75% of teachers are White females. Thus, “when the espoused values of knowledge and learning are at odds with the lived experiences of racially underrepresented students, students feel isolated and rejected (Thompson, 2004: Tatum, 1997). This holds true for students who come from underrepresented economic levels as well as most schools are designed around middle class social and economic norms.

Figure 1

Percentage distribution of student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by race/ethnicity: Fall 2010, fall 2021, and fall 2031

# Rounds to zero

1 Includes imputations for nonreported prekindergarten enrollment in California and Oregon.

2 Data for fall 2031 are projected.

NOTE: Data are for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Projections in this figure were calculated after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and take into account the expected impacts of the pandemic. Some data have been revised from previously published figures. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Detail may not sum to 100 percent because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education,” 2010–11 and 2021–22; and National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity Projection Model, through 2031. See Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 203.50.

To counter these hegemonic structures teachers, need to embrace and incorporate aspects of social justice theory into their classrooms. Teachers who Incorporate social justice initiatives into the classroom believe in equitable distribution of resources and treating all students with equity so that they feel safe mentally and physically. Incorporating social justice measures into the classroom can be challenging, however, according to Navarro, Shah, Valdez, Dover, and Henning (2020)  “… there are countless examples of social justice teachers artfully navigating these challenges (e.g., Agarwal et al., 2011; Dover, 2016; Picower, 2012b). Social justice teaching in urban schools merges academic skills, content knowledge, and critical literacy (Camangian, 2010, 2015; Epstein, Mayorga, & Nelson, 2011; Martin & Larnell, 2014); infuses culturally caring classroom practices (Gay, 2000, 2014; Howard, 2002; Ware, 2006); sustains the linguistic, cultural, and dynamic practices of students of Color and other marginalized groups (Brockenbrough, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 2014; Paris & Alim, 2017); and involves social action beyond the schoolhouse (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Picower & Boyle, 2017)”, (p.11).

Teachers who incorporate social justice initiatives into their classroom must develop the concept of conscientization. This work is based on the work of Paulo Freire who defined the term as an…”ongoing activity of engaging in critical consciousness that involves reflection and action upon the world; it can help individuals “achieve a deepening awareness both of the socio-cultural reality which shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality” (cited by to Navarro, Shah, Valdez, Dover, and Henning, 2020, p. 12).    

Figure 3

Paulo Freire

Freire dedicou seus 75 anos de vida à construção de métodos inovadores de educação, com foco na transformação social - Foto: Escola de Gestão Socioeducativa Paulo Freire - RJ 

Students who come from underrepresented communities need to, “…be exposed to outstanding, diverse, caring educators who have high expectations for them and believe in their capacity to succeed. They would feel welcomed in their school environments by adults who affirm their cultural identities and recognize the strengths and assets of all students” (King Jr & Forte, 2021, p. 2).

This can be done through the practice of culturally relevant pedagogy. However, before we discuss the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy, we must first get a working definition of culture, school culture, and how school culture and home culture can compete against one another.

In basic terms, culture is a way of life for diverse groups of society. Culture is passed on from one generation to the next. Banks in his 2006 publication defined culture as aspects of a person such as their race, religion, language, sexual identity, gender, and social class. Yet, intersectionality plays a role in cultural development as well. In other words, race, biological sex, gender expression, and socioeconomic class will intersect to determine characteristics of an individual, the advantages and disadvantages of that individual, and how those individual experiences different societal structures, for example schools. Schools have their own cultures, and these cultures can influence how different students experience schools.

The concept of school culture can be traced back to Waller (1932), who wrote about the sociology of schools and teaching (Meier, 2011; Maslowski, 2006). Waller, as cited in Meier (2011) and Maslowski (2006), was one of the first to suggest that schools were institutionalized miniature societies that had cultures that were definitely their own. Even with an abundance of studies on the concept of culture, there has not been an agreed upon definition of what school culture actually is. As a matter of fact, Meier (2011) writes in his paper that “An extensive body of literature has been developed in the area defined as school culture and equally widespread are the definitions utilized in the field in an effort to describe it” (pp. 805-806). Waller (2011) writes that over 150 definitions have been used to describe school culture.

Whatever definition is used to describe school culture, teachers play a vital role in the establishment of a school’s culture. The way teachers respond to school culture will likely be influenced by the community in which they teach and live (Bell & Kent, 2010, p. 12). The culture of a school is often taken for granted, but according to the research conducted by Meier (2011), “… a school’s culture is the 31 most powerful predictor of a teacher’s work within that school” (p. 806). Meier (2011) suggested that the culture of a school will determine what teachers deem to be important, the structure of their classrooms, the success of their individual goals, their work ethic, and how they identify with the school (p. 806).

However, one of the things that teachers can do is facilitate their classrooms utilizing culturally relevant pedagogies (CRP). Hernandez (2022) writes about the difference between in-service and pre-service teachers. She cites the work of Lecorchick and Perterson (2019) and describes in-service teachers as those who have completed all their academic and pre-service teacher training and are certified educators that are currently teaching in the classroom (Hernandez, 2022, p. 1). While pre-service teachers are not trained to teach diverse student classrooms, so when they enter in-service teaching, they are not prepared to teach in diverse classrooms (Hernandez, 2022, p. 1). Hernandez (2022) suggests that pre-service teachers incorporate the idea suggested by Ladson-Billings (1990) of viewing what is right with students of color instead of what is wrong with students of color. By adopting this mindset, pre-service teachers will start to challenge the preconceived stereotypes of students of color, thus seeing the cultural strengths their students bring into the classroom. Teachers utilizing CRP measures will focus on three broad categories of teaching, which are academic achievement, cultural competency, and sociopolitical awareness. Hernandez (2022) states, "Teachers in CRP engage with students to help them acquire the skills that are essential for academic achievement, and individuals’ differences are respected in the classroom environment. Teachers that use CRP aid students in achieving student excellence as well as personal development in a variety of settings" (p. 2). Lastly citing the work of Vescio (2016), Hernandez (2022) writes, "The primary premise of CRP is for educators to become cultural translators or bridge builders between a student’s prior cultural knowledge and what is being taught in the classroom. CRP enables educators to take a student’s everyday lived cultural experience and make appropriate classroom connections through examples, comparisons, and contrasts to what needs to be taught" (p. 3). 

In order for teachers to sustain CRP strategies in their classrooms they must develop culturally sustaining practices. When it comes to improving the culture of schools’ teachers play a vital role. However, the culture of a school does not come into being or improve overnight through the will power of a few teachers (Jackson, 2003, pp. 583-584). Change occurs through the sustained efforts of teachers who recognize the worth of teaching all students. Jones (2005) encouraged teachers to use the cultural identities of their students to create class environments that recognized the cultural contributions of all students (p. 150). Jones (2005) suggested that teachers use the 12 attributes of culture identified by Cushner, McCielland, and Safford (2000) to better facilitate instruction. The 12 attributes are ethnicity/nationality, social class, sex/gender, health, age, geographic region, sexuality, religion, social status, language, ability/disability, and race (p. 150). Approaches that give all students a chance to experience academic success and allow them to develop “… a critical consciousness through which they may challenge social injustice” (Jones, 2005, p. 151) are also known as culturally relevant pedagogy or culturally relevant teaching. Incorporating the 12 attributes of culture will allow teachers to sustain CRP in their classrooms. 

Figure 4

Framework based on current research in culturally sustaining eduation

The frame comprises key leverage points: schools, leadership, educators and pedagogy. This gives educators a path to quantify steps for identifying data points, situating student outcomes through an equity lens, identifying capacity-building needs, creating spaces for continuous community input and support, and evaluating success. 


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