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Multicultural Education: Roles and Responsibilities

Please note:  This post is not based on original research.  In fact, this is a summary of a report by the National Council for the Social Studies entitled “Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education.”  I accessed this site on July 17 and 18, 2010.  If the above link does not work please Google “ncss, multiculturalism” and it should be the first on the list. Also, the NCSS report offers 23 curriculum guidelines and a program evaluation checklist.  This post only discusses the Roles and Responsibilities for schools incorporating multiculturalism into their curriculum.

Roles and Responsibilities for Multicultural Education.

Ethnic pluralism in the United States is growing at an astounding rate.  According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), “students of color will make up nearly half (46%) of the nation’s school-age youth by 2020.”  Furthermore, 27% of that group will be victims of poverty.  Although this is a national trend, it is especially important in Connecticut where the achievement gap between whites, mainly living in the suburbs, and their urban counterparts is the widest compared to any state in the Union. (Hartford Courant 07/16/2010)  Of course, the factors contributing to the achievement gap are many and varied, but the burden of educating students for the future still falls to school districts, administrators, and teachers.  Educators at all levels must help students develop knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to participate in the work force and society.  Unfortunately, many, like NCSS, believe that, “as currently conceptualized and organized, schools today are unable to help most low-income students and students of color attain these goals.”

Before one can discuss the goals of multicultural school reform, it is important to look at the three major factors that make multicultural education a necessity.  First, as discussed above, ethnic pluralism is a growing societal reality that influences the lives of young people.  More and more, students are interacting in microcosms of plurality such as schools, sports teams, and in multicultural communities.  Multicultural education is also a necessity because in one way or another, individuals acquire knowledge or beliefs, sometimes invalid, about ethnic or cultural groups.  A multicultural education, where classes take an unbiased approach to studying cultures in America and the world will work to fend off discrimination.  Finally, beliefs and knowledge about ethnic and cultural groups limit the perspectives of many and make a difference, often a negative difference, in the opportunities and options available to members of ethnic and cultural groups.  Overall, it is important to provide a multicultural education in a democratic society to protect and provide opportunities for ethnic and cultural diversity, while at the same time supporting the overarching values of equality, justice, and human dignity for all groups.

Although it may be obvious that there is a need for multicultural education in our society, how would one know what an effective multicultural program looks like?  The National Council for the Social Studies suggests four principles for ethnic and cultural diversity.  For many individuals, group identity can provide a foundation for self-definition.  Ethnic and cultural group membership can provide a sense of belonging, shared traditions, and interdependence of fate.  As the first principle states, ethnic and cultural diversity should be recognized and respected so individuals who define themselves ethnically can do so without shame or conflict.  Similarly, when students’ cultures are respected and students feel secure, cultural diversity provides a basis for societal enrichment, cohesiveness, and survival.  This second principle seeks not only to recognize and respect ethnic and cultural diversity but establish across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines intercultural bonds that will contribute to the strength and vitality of society.  Next, equality of opportunity must be afforded to all members of ethnic and cultural groups.  Finally, Ethnic and cultural identification should be optional in a democracy.  For instance, just because a student is Asian and they or their parents immigrated from China or India, does not necessarily mean that the student identifies with their culture of origin.

Taking these principles into serious consideration will guide educators in developing the role of the school in a multicultural setting.  Primarily, a school’s socialization practices should incorporate the ethnic diversity that is an integral part of the democratic commitment to human dignity.  This goes beyond celebrating heroes and holidays of particular cultures and demonstrates a commitment to recognizing and respecting ethnic and cultural diversity; promoting societal cohesiveness based on shared participation of ethnically and culturally diverse people; maximizing equality of opportunity for all individuals and groups; and facilitating constructive societal change that enhances human dignity and democratic ideals.  Overall, the study of ethnic heritage should not consist of a narrow promotion of ethnocentrism or nationalism.  This is both counterproductive and detrimental to creating a cohesive learning environment.

In its comprehensive report on multiculturalism in the classroom, the NCSS also points out two goals for schools incorporating multicultural educational program.  First, “schools should create total school environments that are consistent with democratic ideals and cultural diversity.”  In this instance, multiculturalism would be evident not only in curricula and materials, but in policies, hiring practices, governance procedures, and climate or the “hidden curricula.”  This is important because students often learn more about society from non-formal areas of schooling.  Education for multiculturalism requires systemwide changes that permeate all aspects of school life.

The second goal suggested by NCSS is that “schools should define and implement curricular policies that are consistent with democratic ideals and cultural diversity.”  In short, schools should not promote the ideologies and political goals of any specific group, but, rather, promote the democratic ideologies on which the United States was founded.  Students trained to examine bias, prejudice, equality, justice, and human rights through the lens of democratic ideologies will be better equipped to make connections between a multicultural curriculum and their everyday lives.  It is these connections that will effect positive change in our schools, communities, and society.

If the purpose of education is to ready students to participate in the workforce, then multiculturalism must be incorporated into the curriculum.  The United States is already diverse and will continue to become more so in the future.  Gone are the days where it is acceptable to view subjects such as History from the Eurocentric point of view.  This practice negates the debt that Western civilization owes to Africa, Asia, and indigenous America.  In reality, the world is becoming smaller and more interconnected and the students of today must be educated to succeed in the work place of tomorrow.