A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Multicultural Education

Multiculturalism has been the subject of enormous debate in recent years (American Educator, 1991a; Ravitch, 1990). The idea of "multicultural education" has most often been associated with specific changes in curriculum. Proponents decry the Anglo-centric bias of traditional learning materials and argue for the integration of more diverse, positive images, historical role models, and, in general, a more balanced view of history that represents the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups. In 1989, a Task Force on Minorities appointed by Thomas Sobol, Commissioner of Education for the State of New York, submitted a report calling for "change toward a `curriculum of inclusion'" (Sobol, 1990, p. 28). Predictably, the report quickly created a maelstrom of controversy that has continued to the present. In July 1991, the New York Board of Regents approved revised written recommendations submitted by Commissioner Sobol (Viadero, 1991). Critics of the multiculturalism movement view the kind of curriculum program adopted in New York as potentially divisive and even "anti-American" because it encourages students to seek their primary identity in a particular ethnic group rather than in a united American culture (Schlesinger, 1991; Bennet, 1991). Another version of such criticism is found in Ravitch (1990), which distinguishes between "pluralistic" and "particularistic" multiculturalism and argues for the former on the grounds that it is most likely to result in a curriculum that reflects both multiculturalism and the common culture -- "the pluribus and the unum" (Ravitch, 1991-1992, p. 11).

While the public's attention to multiculturalism has focused on balancing curriculum content, Gottfredson, Nettles, and McHugh (1992), in the first report of their evaluation of Pittsburgh's Prospect Middle School's Multicultural Education Center, outline four additional elements of multicultural education: (1) personal development and interpersonal relations of students; (2) fair and effective approaches to individual differences in learning styles that are believed to be linked to cultural influences; (3) multicultural representation in the entire school environment, including staffing; and (4) equal opportunity to learn for all groups. Prospect Middle School has adopted a multicultural approach to restructuring that incorporates not only multicultural curriculum but cooperative learning and conflict resolution techniques, staff development, parent and community involvement, and, notably, the elimination of tracking. Though a full program evaluation is not yet available, the Prospect program shows promise in meeting the substantial challenges facing multicultural restructuring efforts.

Another aspect of multicultural education is the issue of bilingual education, which also has been embroiled in controversy and debate since the passage of the federal Bilingual Education Act in 1968. The conflict can be seen in the English-only movement versus the English-Plus coalition (McGroarty, 1992), in proposals for a bilingual immersion program in which "both language-majority and language-minority students learn each others' languages while continuing to develop their own," (Cziko, 1992) and in the alternative perspectives on how bilingual education should be offered in schools (i.e., either as a tool to help minority students assimilate into the American mainstream, or as a second-language acquisition that adds to the linguistic resources an individual already possesses) Alvarez-Pease and Kenji, 1992).

For many educators, it is common sense that students can be expected to pay closer attention to classroom learning materials that include role models from their own ethnic or cultural backgrounds or that build upon knowledge they already possess. Personal identification with classroom topics and teacher/staff role models can be important not only for generating immediate interest in the learning activities at hand but also for building self-esteem (based on recognizing that the school understands and values the student's own background, language, and experiences). Regardless of how some of the controversial issues are resolved, the multicultural and bilingual approaches will work best in schools that value and make use of the strengths and experiences of each child's background.

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