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One of the major goals of the American school system is to provide all children with equal educational opportunity. However, with regard to minority students, meeting this particular objective has presented a real challenge to educators as they have been confronted with the task of reshaping education in the multilingual, multicultural society that characterizes the United States.
Many significant events contributed to the need of school reform. The Civil Rights movement launched by African Americans in the 1960’s, which resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, triggered major social changes in the direction of equality and justice for all. Consequently, the US Department of Education was charged “…to conduct a survey on availability of equal educational opportunity and to provide technical and financial assistance to school boards in carrying out plans for the desegregation of public schools” (Zephir,1999:136). Changing immigration patterns also occurring since the 1960’s brought educational issues to the forefront of discussion. In 1968, the first Bilingual Education act was passed in an attempt “…to provide short-term help to school districts with high concentrations of students from low income homes who had limited English-speaking ability” (Millward,1999:47). Moreover, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Lau vs. Nichols (a class action suit brought on behalf of Chinese-speaking children in San Francisco) that English-limited children who were being taught in English “…were certain to find their classroom experiences totally incomprehensible and in no way meaningful” (Stevens,1999:108). In consequence, schools were instructed to give special help to non-English-speaking students in order to guarantee their equality under the law with students who spoke English as their first language. In short, the social movement of the 1960’s gave rise to major educational changes; and it was in that context that the concept of ‘multicultural education’ originated.
The 1980’s saw the emergence of a body of scholarship on multicultural education by progressive education activists and researchers who refused to allow schools to address their concerns by simply adding token programs and special units on famous women or famous people of color. James Banks, one of the pioneers of multicultural education, was among the first multicultural education scholars to examine schools as social systems from a multicultural context. According to Banks “In order to maintain a ‘multicultural school environment’, all aspects of the school had to be examined and transformed, including policies, teachers’ attitudes, instructional materials, assessment methods, counseling, and teaching styles” (Mitchell,1996:110).
By the middle and late 1980’s, other K-12 teachers-turned-scholars provided more scholarship in multicultural education, developing new, deeper frameworks that were grounded in the ideal of equal educational opportunity and a connection between school transformation and social change. Meanwhile, the cultural landscape of the United States continued to become less visibly white Christian and more visibly rich with cultural, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, underscoring the necessity for everyone to develop a set of skills and knowledge that the present system was failing to provide all students. These included creative and critical thinking skills, intercultural competence, and social and global awareness. The education system was not only plagued by unequal treatment of traditionally oppressed groups, but was also ill-equipped to prepare even the most highly privileged students to competently participate in an increasingly diverse society.
In the 21st century, at a time when it is reported that minority students already “outnumber white students in twenty-five of the nations twenty-six largest urban school systems” (Robson,1998:211), and when it is estimated that “minority groups, taken together, will outnumber the current white majority in the overall population by 2056” (Robson,1998:211), never has the discussion about multicultural education been more intense. At the same time, never has the necessity to address the needs of non-English speaking immigrant children been more imperative. In fact, according to Mitchell and Salsbury (1996) “the number of language-minority students in the United States was estimated at 9.9 million in 1994” (p.223-224).
Students from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be disproportionately placed in special education programs and classes. Some groups of students are under-represented in special education and over-represented in programs for gifted and talented students. Such disproportionate representation of minority groups is an ongoing national problem. Disproportionate representation is a complex problem, and fixing it calls for pervasive strategies. Reducing over-representation of minority students in special education calls for creating a successful school environment for all students and accurately distinguishing disabilities from cultural differences. It is important to understand that the risk of low academic performance and challenging behaviors does not reside solely within the child or family. Instructional, classroom and school variables can and do contribute to academic problems. Educators need to be aware of the cultural influences on behavior. They may need training to develop their knowledge of cultural beliefs, values, behaviors and expectations, as well as their own attitudes, values and perspectives toward diversity. They should know how to use cross-cultural communication skills with students, families and community members and be able to develop, evaluate, and use multicultural curricula and interventions.
Also, when a student’s English proficiency is limited, it may be difficult for a teacher to tell if academic problems are due to a disability or a language difference. In such cases, the teacher must informally assess the student’s English language proficiency. Enhancing traditional tests with other assessments such as classroom observations and performance measures can provide the information needed to develop appropriate lessons or identify alternative teaching strategies. For most children referred for evaluation, academic failure is related to problems in learning to read. It is crucial to emphasize reading and to have a strong array of alternate instructional strategies to address reading difficulties. Curricula should incorporate students’ cultural backgrounds, be relevant to their lives, and build on their experiences.
Multicultural Education and the Educator:
Multicultural education helps students attain the skills and perceptions needed to function effectively within their own ethnic cultures, other ethnic cultures, and the common culture. It demands that cultural pluralism become an integral part of the educational process at every level. Educators must be trained to recognize, accept, and value the cultural differences of students. They must be taught to continue to search out the historical truths. They must teach all subjects from several ethnic or cultural perspectives with the Anglo-American perspective being only one of those groups rather than the dominant, superior group.
Emphasis on intercultural acceptance among all groups is badly needed
if we expect to enable new generations to reduce ethnocentrism and
understand the world through the eyes of other people. Cognitive learning
about the contributions of each other’s culture is only the first step.
Acceptance, as a value, must pass beyond mere toleration of others and
provide for internalization of such an effective value. In this way we can
arrive at the stage of working and living together without the obstacles of
scapegoating, stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice that prevent
effective human interrelationships (Gollnick & Klassen, 1976: 84).
Multicultural teacher education not only should provide teachers with the competence to recognize, accept, and value the cultural and ethnic differences of students, but also provide an antidote to subtle racist communications and monocultural distortions of subject matter and curriculum materials.
Approaches to Multicultural Education:
Since the Civil Rights years, major controversies have ensued regarding the multicultural content of textbooks and curriculum materials. Many school districts have devised screening procedures in order to ensure that such materials are free of racist/sexist content: “Twenty-four states have a statewide process for screening textbooks, while twenty-six have a procedure for subjecting curriculum materials to screening for racist/sexist content” (Mitchell, 1996:339). Several states have taken strong stands, which require teachers to acquire high levels of understanding regarding American pluralism as a prerequisite for helping their own students develop better multicultural attitudes.
A number of special programs have been in evidence, including special tutoring and counseling, strong parent-involvement activities, and bilingual education programs for students who have a mother tongue other than English. Other features include “Writing to Read” programs, improved library services, cooperative learning efforts, multicultural education curriculum components, and committed teachers who truly care about improving the educational fortunes of poor children. Some American schools have attempted to provide basic instruction in the native language of the child in order to increase the probability that each child will experience early success in the American education enterprise. According to Mitchell (1996) “Typically, such programs attempt to provide instruction in the child’s native language when needed. At the same time, the student receives instruction in English (ESL Programs) in order to hasten the day when the person is truly bilingual, and the need for special bilingual programs disappears (p.341). The rationale is that if children are able to work in their native language first, they have a greater likelihood of achieving success.
To be compatible with and able to teach students who come from backgrounds different from your own, you need to believe that all students can learn – regardless of gender, social class, and ethnic or cultural characteristics. A list of guidelines have been established by Kellough & Roberts (1998:27-28) for teaching students of diverse backgrounds:
1. Build the learning around the students’ individual learning styles.
2. Communicate positively with every student and with the student’s parent/guardians, learning as much as you can about the student and the student’s culture, and encouraging family members to participate in the student’s learning.
3. Establish a classroom climate in which each student feels he or she can learn and wants to learn.
4. Hold and maintain high expectations for each student
5. Personalize learning for each student; much like is done in the use of the IEP with special needs learners.
6. Plan for and use all learning modalities (visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic).
7. Use cooperative learning.
In summary, multicultural education strives for equity regardless of race, gender, culture, or national origin. Both school and society shape students’ lives. So, in order to be successful, multicultural education encompasses both the effort to create more equitable schools and the involvement of teachers and students in the creation of a more equitable society.
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