(My Case for) Multicultural Education

I am going to tell you a little story and hopefully that will illustrate why I am for multicultural education. Imagine an eight year old boy starting his fourth month of third grade. For those of you good with math, that makes it December, for others, like me, you can use your fingers to reach the same conclusion. Anyway, this young man is one of only two Jews in his school, the other being the boy’s sister, and it is time to start preparing for the school holiday pageant. This is before budget cuts forced a lot of elementary schools to cut music programs and the holiday pageant was a part of music class. The little boy thought it was odd that although it was called a holiday pageant, the only songs being performed were Christmas songs. The young boy asked to be excused, the music teacher refused and said the pageant was part of the class and if he did not participate he would fail. The boy, feeling like he had no choice, chose to participate. The music teacher pulled names out of a hat to see who would get to lead songs. The young boys name was pulled to lead “Joy to the World”. The young boy asked to be excused from that, the teacher denied him. The boy felt helpless and disrespected. He had asked politely to be respected because of his culture, he did not ask for the pageant to be canceled or to have any Jewish songs or other religions songs included, being eight he did not think that way. The day of the pageant came and the boy had been stewing. When it was time for him to lead “Joy to the World”, he took the microphone, closed his eyes and sang “Jeremiah was a bullfrog..” The teacher snatched the microphone out of his hands and had someone else lead the song. The boy got an “F” in music. Worse, the boy never felt a part of the school culture or even wanted to be in school for years to come after that. That boy and how he felt is why multicultural education is important to me.
So what is multicultural education? There are many experts who do not agree on a standard definition of the term, I think the best one I found came from Banks and Banks in 1995 “Multicultural education is a field of study and an emerging discipline whose major aim is to create equal educational opportunities for students from diverse racial, ethnic, social-class, and cultural groups (Multicultural Education , 1995)”. Another definition is “..a shift in curriculum, perhaps as simple as adding new and diverse materials and perspectives to be more inclusive of traditionally underrepresented groups.. (Gorski, 2010) .” My own definition is somewhat similar. I believe it is preparing every student to work in a rich, multicultural work environment, giving them the tools to be able to understand and respect the culture of others, especially when it clashes with their own. It also means that teachers are willing and able to facilitate learning for students in other cultures and make sure that their education is up to the standards of the other students, that they are not being handicapped by a cultural or language barrier. I am not saying that this easy task or that I have all the solutions and troubleshooting skills need for implementation, I am not an administrator and you could not pay me enough to become one. Whether you like your administrator or not they really do have a thankless job and adding multicultural education onto their plate is not doing them any favors. Yet, if we want our students to be successful it is precisely what we need to do. According to Valdez, multicultural education is intended to decrease race, ethnicity, class, and gender divisions by helping all students attain the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need in order to become active citizens in a democratic society and participate in social change (Valdez, 1999). Now, no matter what part of the political spectrum you belong to, how can that sound like a bad thing?
There have been strides in multicultural education but not nearly enough. Part of multicultural education has to be to teach tolerance of other cultures yet as late as 2008, when a black man was running for President of the United States, according to a New York Times/CBS poll, 70% of blacks polled stated that they had been discriminated against in some way because of their race. That number is up from 2006 (Bennett, 2011). In 1995, thirty-five percent of the students enrolled in public education were minority students. This number is expected to reach 46 to 50% by 2020 according to a study conducted by U.S. Census Bureau (The Gayle Group, 2002). Our teaching population does not reflect this; again, according to Banks and Banks, Most of our teachers are white middle class females. Specifically 87% of teachers are white and 72% are female (Banks, 2001). Other studies have shown that basic prejudices can be overcome by multicultural education. Let me say that again, basic prejudices can be overcome by multicultural education. If you ignore any of the other benefits or reasons to implement multicultural education, this one should be enough by itself.
Let’s go back to that little boy; He is not so little now but in middle school. He is very proud of his culture and heritage yet is often afraid to show it or even admit to it in school. When he tells one teacher he cannot do homework because it is Yom Kippur, she tells him that he needs to get used to living in a Christian world. In high school they found a dummy hanging from a tree with his name on it wearing a Yarmulke on the school grounds. The school dismissed it as a prank. This was not the only event like this that happened in high school to this boy. The boy dropped study halls and took classes in their place. He elected to go to summer school. He did not do this because he was an overachiever, he did this so he could graduate early and get out of school.  He would not step foot in another school for the next twelve years. Think of what a little multicultural education would have done for him and his relations at school. Would it have solved all of his problems? No. There have always been prejudiced people and there probably always will be, but with a little understanding and basic respect for his culture from other students and staff, his school experience probably would have been a lot more positive and he may have gone to college or another school a lot sooner. Again, for no other reason than it reduces prejudices. Think of the tremendous impact that would have alone.
Now, I urge everybody reading this to take immediate action and find ways to include multicultural education in your schools. It may not always be easy, and there will be resistance. We need to empower our staff and our students and prepare them for a global job market and economy. We need to forestall the spread of prejudices and racism and we can do that by multicultural education. We need our teachers, who do not represent the demographics of our students, to understand where they are coming from and how they can best learn. Studies have shown that the best way to keep students in school is for them to have a relationship with at least one caring adult. Multicultural education will help some students realize that that caring adult is in their school or in their class. Take it from me, a little boy who hated school because of how he was made to feel because he was Jewish. I went on to work in schools and have spent ten years in Special Education. I have won an award from The National Organization of Tolerance for how I incorporate multicultural education into the work I have been doing. At my father’s insistence I kept my third grade report card with the “F”. I did not understand why he wanted me to at the time. I understand now, it was to show me where I came from, what I have done and how far I have to go. I say we all have a long way to go, but I know that if we work together, which is one of the goals of multicultural education, We can get to a point where we do not have to call it multicultural education but just education.

Banks, J. &. (2001). Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives (4th ed.). New York: John
Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Bennett, C. (2011). Comprehensive Mulitcultural Education Theory and Practice. Boston:
Gorski, P. (2010, April 14). The Challenge of Defining “Multicultural Education”. Retrieved
November 6, 2010, from Edchange: http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/initial.html

Multicultural Education . (1995). Retrieved November 6, 2010, from North Central Regional
Educational Laboratory: http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/educatrs/presrvce/pe3lk1.htm

The Gayle Group. (2002). Multicultural Education. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from
Education Encyclopedia: http://www.answers.com/topic/multicultural-education-1

Valdez, A. (1999). Learning in Living Color: Using Literature to Incorporate Multicultural
Education into the Primary Curriculum. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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