Multicultural Education Research Paper

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1. The Goals And Scope Of Multicultural Education

Multicultural education is an educational reform movement whose major aim is to change schools, colleges, and universities so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, language, social class, and religious groups will experience equal educational opportunity. A major tenet of multicultural education is that students whose cultural and language characteristics are highly consistent with those of mainstream educational institutions are more likely to experience academic success than students whose cultural and language characteristics conflict with those of mainstream institutions.

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Another important goal of multicultural education is to help students from all cultural and social groups, including mainstream groups, to develop democratic racial and ethnic attitudes so that they can function effectively in culturally diverse democratic societies. Most nation-states and societies throughout the world are characterized by cultural, ethnic, and language diversity. One of the challenges to pluralistic democratic nation-states is to provide opportunities for cultural and ethnic groups to maintain components of their community cultures while at the same time constructing a nation-state in which diverse groups are structurally included and to which they feel allegiance. This challenge is becoming intensified as democratic nation-states such as the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK become more diversified, and as racial and ethnic groups within these nations become involved in cultural and ethnic revitalization movements. An important aim of multicultural education is to help future citizens develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to function effectively within their ethnic and cultural communities as well as within the nationstate. Kymlicka (1995) describes the opportunity for citizens to function both within their cultural communities and within the national civic culture as ‘multicultural citizenship.’

There is consensus among multicultural researchers and theorists about overarching goals. However, there is less agreement, in both practice and theory, about which ethnic, social, and cultural groups should be included in educational reforms related to diversity. The groups that are the focus of multicultural education vary to some extent across nations and across regions within nations. When multicultural education emerged in nations such as the USA, the UK, and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was on ethnic and language-minority groups, on immigrant groups, and on groups that had been historically victimized by institutionalized discrimination and racism. As the field of multicultural education has developed, especially within the USA, increased emphasis has been given to issues related to gender and social class. A few theorists in the USA include sexual orientation in their conceptualization of multicultural education. However, it receives little attention in most multicultural education courses, programs, and projects. In most nations, such as the USA, Canada, Germany, Australia, and the UK, multicultural education usually focuses on racial, ethnic, and language groups (Banks and Banks 1995). Gender, class, and special education are receiving increased attention in some societies.

2. The Historical Development Of Multicultural Education

Multicultural education emerged in response to the ethnic revitalization movements and immigration that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in Western democratic nations such as the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia. When these movements emerged, the Western nations were characterized by ethnic, cultural, language, and racial diversity. This diversity resulted from several historical developments. The nations in Western Europe had longstanding linguistic and cultural minorities, such as the Basques in France and Spain, the Germans in Denmark, and the Danes and Sorbes in Germany.

The newer nations such as the USA, Canada, and Australia were populated by many different racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups from Europe. The ethnic and cultural diversity within these new nations was enriched by the native peoples that the Europeans displaced, such as Indians in the USA and Canada, the Aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, and by Blacks from Africa. Large numbers of immigrants and refugees from nations throughout the world settled in these nations in search of economic opportunity as well as political and religious freedom.

Ethnic and cultural diversity increased in European nations such as the UK, France and The Netherlands after World War II as groups from their former colonies immigrated to these nations to improve their economic conditions. Significant numbers of immigrants from the West Indies, India, and Pakistan settled in the UK. Many Algerian immigrants, as well as immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, settled in France. Immigrants from Morocco and Surinam settled in The Netherlands. In the post-World War II period many migrant workers from the Mediterranean nations in Europe settled in Western European nations such as France, the UK, Germany, and Switzerland, in search of greater economic opportunities. They provided desperately needed unskilled labor that was not available in these nations.

3. The Rise Of Ethnic Revitalization Movements

The democratic ideologies institutionalized within the major democratic Western nations and the wide gap between these ideals and realities were major factors that resulted in the rise of ethnic revitalization movements in nation-states such as the USA, Canada, and the UK. These nations share a democratic ideal, a major tenet of which is that the state should protect human rights and promote equality and the structural inclusion of diverse groups into the fabric of society. These societies are also characterized by widespread inequality and by racial, ethnic, and class stratification. The discrepancy between democratic ideals and societal realities, and the rising expectations of structurally excluded racial, ethnic, and social-class groups, created protest and revival movements within the Western democratic nations during the 1960s and 1970s.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the USA was one of the most significant ethnic revitalization movements. It echoed throughout the world. Ethnic revitalization movements also occurred in Canada, Australia, and the UK. A major goal of the civil rights movement in the USA was to improve the academic achievement of African American students in US schools, colleges, and universities. Leaders of the civil rights movement demanded more African American teachers, changes in textbooks and curriculum that would incorporate more content about African American history and culture, and more African American teachers and college professors.

The success of the African American led civil rights movement encouraged other ethnic-minority groups in the USA and throughout the world to start similar protest movements and to make similar demands. Consequently, schools, colleges, and universities responded, with varying levels of success and effectiveness, to the demands made by Mexican Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and other ethnic minorities in the USA. In Australia, Aboriginal groups participated in social protest for equal rights. Blacks in the UK used similar strategies to focus attention on the problems of West Indian students in British schools. A report that highlighted the over-representation of Black students in schools for the ‘educationally sub-normal’ (Coard 1971) was especially important in stimulating action in some schools, colleges, and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in the UK.

4. The Development Of Paradigms And Explanations

Many of the ethnic and linguistic minority groups who are indigenous to the Western nation-states or who are immigrants experience significant academic problems in the schools of their societies. There are notable exceptions to this observation, such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Cubans in the USA, the Asian Indians in the UK, and the Chinese and Greeks in Australia. A number of explanations have been developed by scholars and researchers to explicate why ethnic-and language-minority students often fail to achieve academic and social success in schools and to guide educational reform. These explanations are considered paradigms in this research paper because they have policy, programmatic, and research implications. A paradigm consists of the laws, principles, explanations, and theories of a discipline or field of study. It guides policy and action (Banks 2001).

The discussion that follows describes four influential paradigms and explanations that have been constructed by theorists and researchers to explicate the low academic achievement of low-income and ethnic minority students since the field of multicultural education emerged in the 1970s. Another goal of these explanations is to guide school reform that will enable students from diverse groups to experience academic and social success. The explanations and paradigms that have been constructed by educators and social scientists are influenced in complex ways by their life experiences, values, and personal biographies. Consequently, the explanations that have been constructed about minority student achievement differ in important ways in part because of the social, political, and economic locations of the researchers who produced them. In other words, the explanations reflect the positionality of the researchers who constructed them.

4.1 The Cultural Deprivation Or Culture Of Poverty Explanation

Cultural deprivation and culture of poverty theorists believe that low-income students achieve poorly in school because the socialization in their families and communities does not equip them with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and cultural capital essential for academic success in mainstream society. Unlike genetic theorists such as Herrnstein and Murray (1994), who believe that low-income students and ethnicminority students do not achieve well in school because of their genes, these theorists believe that low-income students can achieve if they are provided with early childhood experiences that will compensate for their family and community socialization.

A cultural deprivation curriculum intervention prototype is the DISTAR program developed by Bereiter and Englemann (1966). It is designed to help low-income students develop reading and writing skills using behavioral modification teaching techniques. The Culturally Deprived Child by Riessman (1962) was an influential book that exemplifies the cultural deprivation explanation. The culture of poverty concept is epitomized in La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty by Lewis (1965). The cultural deprivation and culture of poverty explanation has reemerged today as ‘children at risk.’

Critics of the cultural deprivation culture of poverty explanation describe how it essentializes the characteristics of specific groups, blames the victims for their marginalized status, and does not focus on the ways in which these groups are victims of political and socioeconomic structures. It focuses on changing students rather than changing schools or the sociopolitical structure.

4.2 The Cultural Difference Explanation

These theorists challenge the genetic and cultural deprivation explanations. They argue that low-income students and ethnic-minority students have rich cultures. However, these students do not achieve well in school because of the cultural discontinuity between the school and the home. Consequently, to improve the academic and social achievement of ethnicminority and low-income students, the school should be reformed in ways that draw upon the strengths of these students. Their languages, cultural styles, and ways of communicating should be incorporated into the curriculum, into teaching, and into the school culture.

Philips (1983) found that American Indian students participated more frequently in class discussions when instruction reflected the group-oriented participation structures used in Indian communities. In her research in the Kamehameha Early Education Program in Hawaii, Au (1980) found that the reading achievement of Native Hawaiian students was significantly increased when teachers incorporated traditional Hawaiian story structures into their teaching.

Lee (1993) found that the academic achievement of African American students increased when teachers incorporated African American language components and styles into instruction. Research summarized in August and Hakuta (1998) indicates that Latino students learn English more effectively when teachers reinforce and build upon their first language rather than when they attempt to eradicate it. Geneva Smitherman, William Labov, and John Baugh, as well as other linguists, have written about the importance of teachers recognizing and understanding the form of English spoken by many African American students (called Black English or Ebonics), respecting it, and incorporating it into instruction.

Critics of the cultural difference explanation point out that it fails to explain why some immigrant groups, whose cultures differ substantially from the mainstream group, are successful in mainstream schools, such as many groups of Asian immigrants in the USA, Australia, and Canada.

4.3 The Cultural Ecology Or Caste Theory Explanation

Ogbu (1992), an anthropologist, is the major proponent of this theory. Ogbu distinguishes two kinds of minority groups within a society: voluntary and involuntary or caste-like minorities. He argues that voluntary minorities, such as Asians in the USA and in the UK, view their new nations as places of opportunities and hope. They consequently internalize the educational aspirations of the mainstream groups within their adopted societies and experience educational success.

Caste-like minorities, such as the Aborigines in Australia, Blacks in the USA, and Indians in Canada, view their native lands as oppressive because of the institutionalized discrimination they have experienced. They develop fictive kinship and collective opposition as a survival strategy. Involuntary minorities believe that if they internalize the achievement ethos of the dominant society, they will violate fictive kinship and ‘act White.’ Their perception of the school becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They perceive structural and institutional barriers to academic achievement and success in society long after they have been eliminated.

Critics of this explanation point out that it explains the academic failure of involuntary minority groups but does not explain those who are successful. It does not explain variation across and within groups or describe the complex ways in which institutionalized racism influences student achievement. Critics also note that the cultural ecology explanation has limited implications for action and reform that will improve schools.

4.4 The Critical Theory Explanation

Post-Marxists in orientation, proponents of this explanation, such as Giroux (1992) and McLaren (1997), argue that the latent function of schools in capitalist societies is to educate different social-class and racial groups for their positions within the social, economic, and political structures. The curriculum and the school reproduce the social structure. Consequently the school is doing the job that it is designed to do: to differentiate students on the basis of race and class and to provide them with an appropriate education for their social and economic status. Theorists who write about multicultural education using a critical theory perspective often criticize other explanations and paradigms within the field. They call their work ‘critical multicultural education’ to distinguish it from other paradigms. Critical multiculturalists argue that other explanations in multicultural education ignore structural inequality and institutionalized racism. In nations such as the UK and Canada, critical approaches to multicultural education that focus on racism are called ‘antiracism education.’

In theory, antiracism education differs significantly from other paradigms in multicultural education. However, in practice it is often difficult to distinguish antiracism education from other forms of education related to diversity. Critical multicultural educators often essentialize and distort other forms of multicultural education and provide few practical guidelines for teachers and other practitioners.

5. The Need For A Comprehensive Paradigm To Guide Educational Reform

Each of the explanations discussed above can contribute to the development of educational research, policy, and reform that can help low-income and minority students to increase their academic achievement, and all students to become effective citizens of pluralistic democratic nation-states. However, neither is a sufficient explanation of the problems and opportunities that result from diversity. Each is a mid-dlerange or partial theory or explanation that can contribute to a needed comprehensive theory. A comprehensive theory must incorporate insights and research from each of the explanations discussed above. A comprehensive theory or explanation must view the school as a complex social system that has norms, values, roles, and goals like other cultural systems. It must also conceptualize the school within a social, political, and economic context that limits the role of the school in important ways. However, it must recognize that both teachers and students have agency and are not made powerless by social and economic structures. Teacher and student resistance must be an integral part of a comprehensive theory to guide educational reform.

Because schools are embedded within a social, political, and economic context, school reform requires teachers, students, and sociopolitical structures to change. Social and political structures will need to become more liberatory. Teachers and students must acquire some of each other’s views, perceptions, and ethos as they interact. Both teachers and students will be enriched by this process of acculturation and cultural exchange. The academic achievement of students from diverse groups will be enhanced because their cultures and perspectives will be enriched and legitimized in the school.


  1. Au K H 1980 Participation structures in a reading lesson with Hawaiian children. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 11: 91–115
  2. August D, Hakuta K (eds.) 1998 Educating Language-minority Children. National Academy Press, Washington, DC
  3. Banks J A 2001 Cultural Diversity and Education: Foundations, Curriculum and Teaching, 4th edn. Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA
  4. Banks J A, Banks C A M (eds.) 1995 Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. Macmillan, New York
  5. Bereiter C, Englemann S 1966 Teaching Disadvantaged Children in the Preschool. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  6. Coard B 1971 How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. New Beacon Books, London
  7. Giroux H A 1992 Post-colonial ruptures and democratic possibilities: Multiculturalism as anti-racist pedagogy. Cultural Critique 21: 5–39
  8. Herrnstein R J, Murray C 1994 The Bell Cur e: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Free Press, New York
  9. Kymlicka W 1995 Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford University Press, New York
  10. Lee C D 1993 Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation. National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, IL
  11. Lewis O 1965 La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York. Random House, New York
  12. McCarthy C 1990 Race and Curriculum. Falmer Press, London McLaren P 1997 Decentering whiteness: In search of a revolutionary multiculturalism. Multicultural Education 5: 4–11
  13. Ogbu J U 1992 Understanding cultural diversity and education. Educational Researcher 21: 5–14
  14. Philips S U 1983 The Invisible Culture: Communication in Classroom and Community on the Warm Spring Indian Reservation. Longman, New York
  15. Riessman F 1962 The Culturally Deprived Child. 1st edn. Harper, New York


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