For decades, educators, community leaders, mental health professionals and others have debated the value of promoting multiculturalism in U.S. public schools. Even among proponents, there’s disagreement over the goals of multicultural education.
“Conservatives see multicultural education as a means of integrating students into a broader society,” educator Halah Ahmed Alismail writes in a 2016 analysis published in the Journal of Education and Practice. “Liberals seek to celebrate diversity, but do not challenge the underlying social order. Critical multiculturalists see education as a way of addressing social inequalities shaped by differences in race, ethnicity, and social class.”
Educators across the country have introduced multicultural education to help students understand and celebrate their differences in terms of race and ethnicity but also religion, socioeconomic status, sexual identity and other personal characteristics. It’s important to note that multicultural education differs from anti-racist education, another frequently discussed education strategy. Anti-racist education focuses on race and the consequences of racism.
“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives — from education to housing to climate change — and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures,” Christina Torres, an eighth-grade English teacher in Hawaii, explains in an essay she wrote for Learning for Justice, a project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center that offers educational resources for teachers.
The American Psychological Association has spoken out about the need for supportive school environments, the consequences of stereotyping and discrimination and the benefits of encouraging diversity and inclusion.
Still, many teachers — even those who support the ideals of multicultural education — don’t feel comfortable leading discussions about political issues such as race, religion, immigration status and sexual orientation, which are among the key topics covered within multicultural education programs. Alismail points out, according to a review of the research, that colleges and universities might not be preparing educators well for this type of instruction.
“Teachers need to understand multiculturalism in order to provide equal education for all students,” Alismail writes in the paper, “Multicultural Education: Teachers’ Perceptions and Preparation.” “The literature reviewed here suggests that many teachers feel they need more training in multicultural education because of the diversity of their classrooms. However, they seem to be uncertain about the specific values of multicultural education and are not sure how to implement the principles of multicultural education effectively.”
As public school enrollments grow increasingly diverse, journalists will need to continue examining multicultural education programs and how students, parents, teachers and local communities respond to them.
A dynamic that complicates the issue: The overwhelming majority of teachers working in U.S. elementary, middle and high schools are white and non-Hispanic — 79% in 2017-18, according to an April 2020 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. About 54% of public school students in the U.S. are racial and ethnic minorities, according to federal government projections released last year.
To help journalists think through these issues and bolster their coverage, we asked two experts — an education professor who teaches future classroom teachers and a journalism professor who teaches multicultural education as part of his journalism courses — for guidance.
Below are seven tips based on the advice offered by Sandra Guzman Foster, the Sister Theophane Power Endowed Chair in Education at the University of the Incarnate Word in Texas, and Sam Mwangi, an associate professor at Kansas State University’s A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
1. Make clear that race is only one of a range of topics within multicultural education.
Guzman Foster says critics of multicultural education wrongly assume it focuses squarely on race. But students examine a much greater array of issues related to students’ culture — language, religion, gender, sexual orientation and physical disabilities, for example.
“I’m noticing that people are being very careful in how they approach [multicultural education],” Guzman Foster says. “I think the problem is people automatically think it’s about race. That’s still taboo and scary to talk about. But race and culture are two different things.”
While there is disagreement among educators and scholars about what multicultural education is exactly, the nonprofit National Association for Multicultural Education explains there are six foundational elements. Multicultural education seeks to:
- Teach respect and appreciation for cultural diversity.
- Help students understand cultural and ethnic heritage.
- Encourage the development of lessons and activities that incorporate elements of students’ individual culture and accurately portray diverse groups.
- Help students develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge needed to function in different cultures.
- Eliminate racism and the various types of discrimination.
- Achieve equity across society, including economic and educational equity.
2. Point out that multicultural education is not a course or lesson. Rather, it’s a series of learning strategies that can be implemented across subjects and across campus.
Guzman Foster says some educators misunderstand the aim of multicultural education and view it as an extra task — an add-on to their workload. They actually should consider multicultural education as integral to children’s education with lessons and activities introduced throughout the school day, all year long, she says.
Everyone on campus plays a role — including librarians, art and music teachers, cafeteria employees and administrators. For example, school librarians could promote authors or stories representing different cultures.
“It’s not an add-on,” she says. “It’s something that is part of being who we are and should be present.”
As the University of Washington’s College of Education describes on its website, multicultural education creates “an empowering school culture and social structure” but requires the whole school be reformed, “including the attitudes, beliefs, and action of teachers and administrators, the curriculum and course of study, assessment and testing procedures, and the styles and strategies used by teachers.”
3. Explain the differences between “brave spaces” and “safe spaces.”
Guzman Foster says classroom teachers should create “brave spaces” rather than “safe spaces” to encourage discussion around tough topics.
As educator John Palfrey explains in his book Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education, safe spaces are “environments in which students would find support, develop coping skills, and hone effective techniques for communicating with one another in a way that honors tolerance, avoids stereotypes, and cuts down on hate on campuses.”
Safe spaces, especially on college campuses, have become the subject of heated debates in recent years as critics argued that shielding students from offensive viewpoints is at odds with the free exchange of ideas fundamental to higher education.
Brave spaces, on the other hand, more closely resemble interactions outside school with ground rules to ensure respectful discussions among students. Brave spaces are “those learning environments in which the primary purpose of the interaction is a search for the truth, rather than support for a particular group of students, even insofar as some of the discussions will be uncomfortable for certain students,” writes Palfrey, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Guzman Foster says all classrooms can be brave spaces where kids can be vulnerable, sharing their feelings and experiences. “People see uncomfortableness as scary, but it also can be a transformative learning experience,” she says. “More people are learning we need brave spaces versus safe spaces.”
4. Include people from different backgrounds in news stories about multicultural education.
Guzman Foster and Mwangi urge journalists to interview a variety of people — not just teachers and school district officials — about multicultural education.
In terms of race and ethnicity, public school teachers and administrators are most likely to be white and non-Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students and their families often are a more diverse group. Many students also are from households with lower incomes — more than half of students nationwide qualify for free and reduced-price meals at school, federal data show.
Mwangi adds that journalists also can improve their reporting by broadening their circle of friends, acquaintances and sources to include more people from different backgrounds. This, he says, will help them uncover important stories and angles they otherwise might overlook.
“How do you get your stories?” Mwangi asks. “One way you get them is when people call you and another way is through your connections. You are missing stories from the community you are not connected to.”
5. Consider how teachers’ backgrounds might influence their feelings about multicultural education.
“I have noticed that people who promote multicultural education are the people who have a multicultural background — people like me who come from the outside, people like me who are immigrants, people like my friend who is gay,” says Mwangi, who was born and raised in Kenya. “One of the challenges is making sure multicultural education isn’t just driven by certain people, but by everybody.”
A 2019 review of research on professional development for teachers notes that teachers resist multicultural education because they see it as unnecessary, find discussions about race difficult or are simply reluctant to change. Other studies suggest college students majoring in education often are not required to complete coursework in multicultural education and that some faculty at teacher colleges do not feel qualified to teach it.
Considering Journalist’s Resource’s audience, Mwangi points out that journalism professors do not always want to take on such topics either.
“One of the challenges is that faculty feel poorly prepared to teach multicultural education,” he says. “They, themselves, perhaps do not come from a background where they were trained in this kind of approach. They think they lack the skills and knowledge to incorporate this into their classes.”
6. Familiarize yourself with organizations that help educators teach multicultural education.
Some prominent ones include:
- The National Association of Multicultural Education, an association of educators working to expand and improve multicultural education.
- Learning for Justice, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that offers a range of educational resources.
- The Leading Equity Center, which assists educators in multicultural education strategies.
- #Disrupt Texts, a self-described “crowdsourced, grassroots effort by teachers for teachers … to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.”
- The Zinn Education Project provides educational resources to help middle and high school students and teachers gain a more accurate understanding of U.S. history than traditional textbooks and lessons offer.
- Many Ways to See the World offers global maps that honor “differences and teaching people to see the world from a broader, more inclusive perspective.”
7. Investigate your own unconscious biases, which could influence your coverage of multicultural education and other issues.
Guzman Foster recommends journalists start by thinking back to what their family members taught them or what they, as children, overheard in family conversations about different groups of people. What attitudes were expressed? Were stereotypes used?
She says journalists should also consider what people at their houses of worship or other community organizations say or imply about people of different races or backgrounds.
“Although we don’t realize it, we all have implicit biases,” Guzman Foster says. “Many times, it’s not the intention, it’s just what happens. We react to what we’ve heard or learned based on those biases. It’s important that we really investigate our worldviews.”
One way to identify biases is by using an instrument such as the Implicit Association Test. Project Implicit, which offers the Implicit Association Test, is a non-profit organization founded in 1998 by scientists at the University of Washington, Harvard University and the University of Virginia.
We’ve also gathered research on multicultural education, its history, how it has been implemented and how colleges train future educators to teach it.